Webcast Recap

On May 6, 2008 the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project hosted a discussion on the latest edition of the Foreign Relations of the United States series – Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976: European Security. The discussion included the volume's editor, Douglas Selvage, Foreign Relations of the United States series editor Edward C. Keefer, and Svetlana Savranskaya, a research fellow at George Washington University's National Security Archive.

Dr. Edward C. Keefer explained that because this volume of FRUS deals with a topic – European security – which merited a great deal of attention from the highest levels of the U.S. government, it contains a particularly high percentage of memoranda of conversations involving top-level U.S. decision-makers, including President Nixon, President Ford, and National Security Advisor/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in addition to transcripts of conversations captured by Nixon and Ford's White House recording systems.

Much of this volume of FRUS concerns the negotiations surrounding the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions. Dr. Douglas Selvage's research as the volume's main editor reveals that there was a great divide between the United States, its European allies, and the Soviet Union about dealing with European security issues. According to Selvage, European policymakers saw the CSCE negotiations as an opportunity to force the Soviet Union to guarantee its citizens basic human rights publicly, while the Soviets hoped to use the CSCE talks to achieve de jure recognition of the post-WWII settlement, specifically, Western acknowledgment that its post-war frontiers were inviolable, and to facilitate economic cooperation and technology transfers with the West.

By contrast, Selvage argued, Kissinger believed that any agreement with the USSR on human rights would be meaningless and unenforceable. According to Selvage, Kissinger viewed the Soviet push for CSCE as a part of a sinister plan to undermine NATO's role in Europe. As a result of what he perceived as European naiveté and Soviet hostility, the United States was initially interested in slowing down the ‘bureaucratic steamroller' that the CSCE was becoming.

Over time, and thanks in part to Western European persistence in forging ahead with CSCE, Kissinger began to see that the negotiations could serve as a useful incentive for keeping the Soviets pacified and engaged in Détente. He therefore initiated a series of bilateral negotiations on CSCE with the Western European allies. According to Selvage, however, in his concurrent negotiations with the Soviet leadership, Kissinger downplayed the human rights component of the CSCE negotiations (even referring to it as the ‘Dutch cabaret' section in his conversations with Brezhnev) and assured the Soviets that the U.S. would not hold the Soviet Union to account on Basket III issues. The result of these U.S.–Soviet negotiations was a watered-down version of the human rights provisions which was introduced in the negotiations with Finland's help. Ironically, Selvage maintained, Kissinger's willingness to compromise on what he considered to be a less important section of the CSCE agreement—Basket III—helped to ensure its inclusion in the Helsinki Final Act. The human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords in turn became a reference point for dissidents throughout the Soviet Bloc.

Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya discussed Soviet perceptions of the European security situation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was explicit about his goals for CSCE in his talks with both the U.S. and Western European governments. Savranskaya explained that the motivation underlying these goals was his interest in portraying himself as a peacemaker in Europe, and as the facilitator of Détente with the West.

Savranskaya pointed out that the documents collected in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976: European Security suggest remarkable similarities between Nixon and Kissinger and Brezhnev and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, particularly with respect to their penchant for secrecy and their mistrust of their respective foreign policy apparatuses. Despite this strong rapport with their partners in Détente, the Soviet leadership was continually frustrated by its inability to make progress on its own foreign policy priorities, including an agreement banning first-use of nuclear weapons, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

Christian Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program,
Drafted by Tim McDonnell