It is of more than passing interest that 10 years after East-West d'etente reached its high-water mark at Helsinki the same countries were back there again this week and were again groping for stability and mutual security. The optimists at Helsinki in 1975 thought, or at least hoped, that they had worked out a formula that would provide those two much-desired conditions in East-West relations: stability and mutual security.
The Final Act signed at Helsinki on Aug. 1, 1975, was made up of two parts. The West agreed that there should be no attempt by force to alter the frontiers of Europe which had emerged from World War II. The Soviets, in return, agreed to recognize those human rights which, if observed, could have made life tolerable for the peoples of Eastern Europe.
It was a trade-off. Russia's imperial frontiers would be recognized if those living behind those frontiers were to be allowed to travel freely, think freely, and speak and write freely.
It was a framework within which East-West relations could have become easier. The conscience of the West would be soothed. The Western governments would no longer have to feel guilty over allowing the continued imprisonment of the Eastern European peoples in the Soviet empire.
But all that depended on the terms of the Helsinki accords being honored by the Soviet Union. And the sad thing is that any chance for the accords to work had been undermined even before President Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the papers at Helsinki 10 years ago this week.
Far more important to stability and mutual security in Europe were the trade arrangements President Nixon and Mr. Brezhnev had sketched out three years earlier in Moscow. Those agreements, paralleling the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, had collapsed six months earlier.
On Dec. 30, 1974, Congress passed a foreign-trade bill which specifically and overtly tied United States trade with Russia to Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. The Soviets were to get easier access to US technology and easy and long-term credit for their American purchases in return for more exit visas for Jews.
The Soviets repeatedly warned in advance of the vote in Congress that they would not accept such overt and formalized interference (as they saw it) in their internal affairs. They had been granting a steadily rising number of exit visas to Jews. The number had risen from fewer than 5,000 in 1967 to 32,500 in 1973. But the Soviets refused to accept any public document telling them how many should be granted in any one year.
On Jan. 10, 1975, Moscow formally canceled the trade agreements with the US. It had already cut well down on Jewish exit visas. The number has been low ever since, down to 896 in 1984.
And, some time during 1975, Moscow deployed the first of its super SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying eight warheads and with an accuracy rating (circular-error probable) of 450 meters.
So Helsinki was the high-water mark, but the ebb tide had already set in. There was to be no deal in which the Soviet Union would allow outsiders to determine either its policy on Jewish emigration or its treatment of people in satellite countries. The human-rights terms of Helsinki were soon eroded by the proconsuls of the subordinate provinces of the Soviet empire.
This week we are back to a point where the allies (and prisoners) of the two superpowers are pushing their principals toward another attempt at finding that elusive stability and mutual security that was the aim of Helsinki. And the superpowers themselves are responding at least to the point of meeting this week at Helsinki at the ministerial level. It could pave the way for something more substantial at Geneva in November.
Meanwhile, the news of the week provides more of the same evidence the original Helsinki provided, evidence that influencing the internal affairs of other countries, even of clients, allies, and friends, can be extremely difficult.
South Africa recalled for consultations its ambassador-designate to Washington after the Reagan administration scolded South African President Pieter W. Botha for refusing to receive Bishop Desmond Tutu. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra denounced US interference in his country's internal affairs more stridently than ever. President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines allowed hints to be dropped that US military bases may cost more in the future if Washington continues to nag him about civil a nd human rights.
South Africa assumes that its treatment of its own blacks is not the business of the United States. Nicaragua contends that it is entitled to treat its own people as it pleases. President Marcos feels the same. And so do the Soviets.
It is merely a fact that Richard Nixon's d'etente with the Soviet Union took a downward turn from the day the US Congress tried to tell Moscow how many exit visas it should grant to Jews each year. There were other reasons, including the Soviet arms buildup. But the stumbling block that soured d'etente was Soviet treatment of its Jews.