A decade ago President Gerald Ford had doubts about going to Helsinki in person to sign the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He did not trust the Soviets to deliver on their human rights commitments. It was also a case of bad politics on the eve of the election campaign, which promised a strong challenge from the Republican right. Unfortunately, Ford did not trust his instincts and let himself be persuaded to go. A lot of trouble followed. What's done is done. Suggestions from the conservatives to withdraw from the Helsinki process fail to address the likelihood that this kind of unilateral American action would help the Kremlin's efforts to drive a wedge between the United States and Western Europe. Nor do they take into account that nullifying Helsinki would be mistakenly giving a signal of United States hostility to Mikhail Gorbachev precisely at a time when the new team in Moscow is debating Soviet foreign policy options.
The disappointing record of Helsinki is not a sufficient reason for withdrawal. But one must benefit from the lessons of history. And the Reagan administration should avoid repeating errors of the past in preparing for the November summit.
The primary mischief of Helsinki was not that it gave away the store to the Soviet Union.
The vice of Helsinki was the creation of unrealistic expectations on both sides, building a house of cards which was bound to collapse. The West felt deceived in its hope that the Soviet Union would considerably and quickly liberalize its repressive ways. Great police empires do not develop a human face in response to foreign pressures. Conversely, the East, especially the Soviet Union, felt cheated because it was not delivered anticipated economic benefits. There was also a sense of resentment over wha t was perceived as a patronizing Western attitude and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Yet, could one seriously think that the West would be prepared to subsidize the economy of its principal adversary?
And the pluralistic American political process virtually guarantees that repression in the East will be treated with emotional indignation.
Some minor accomplishments -- like better conditions for foreign journalists in some East European countries -- may be credited to Helsinki. But those were the result of a desire for Western credits and technology and would probably have happened anyway. Basically, the Helsinki process, instead of contributing to peace and mutual understanding, provided a convenient forum for mutual recriminations. Worse, on both sides carrots were turned into sticks to beat up each other at obligatory review conference s.
The moral is that in relations with an adversary an overly ambitious design for cooperation is a prescription for friction. As the Reagan administration engages in planning for the Geneva summit it should be careful to avoid agreements for the sake of agreements. Consider, for instance, cultural exchanges. Diplomats at the State Department want to bring the Bolshoi Ballet to America and maybe -- if the agitprop allows -- to send the Beach Boys to Russia. But in the process they are running the ris k of creating a false image of fraternity in the US-Soviet relationship. The image is offensive to many in this country and protests are inevitable. So are Soviet complaints about them. Unnecessary aggravation is likely to result.
Soviet-American cultural exchanges predate any formal agreements. And they can continue to survive without them in the future, sponsored by private interests. The intensity of exchanges may be lower and arrangements may be more difficult to make without them, but the potential hazards of ill-conceived deals outweigh the possible benefits.
The same is true regarding another proposed agreement on reopening the United States consulate in Kiev and a Soviet consulate in New York. It would be nice to have a United States presence in the Ukrainian capital. But is this reason enough to bring more Soviet spies to New York? Is it not ironic that on the one hand, the administration advocates the most radical steps against Soviet espionage (some bordering on disregard of civil rights), and on the other, contemplates creating an additional base for t he Kremlin's intelligence operations?
The fundamental task of the summit is to make the US-Soviet relationship more rational and stable.
People-to-people contacts have little to do with it. The Soviet government is next to immune to public opinion. In fact, it treats it as just another instrument of the state.
In Geneva, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev will deal with the complex and contentious issues of arms control and crisis management. They will also size each other up to get a better picture of the other man in charge of a nuclear button. Despite differences in interests and values, they share an overriding common commitment to survival, a commitment that makes progress in Geneva both desirable and possible.
But we shouldn't push our luck. It is necessary to avoid signing pieces of paper that are attractive on the surface but poisonous in their long-term impact. That much the disappointment of Helsinki should teach us.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.