THE Malta summit has brought into prominence once more the role of the Helsinki process in the evolution of events in Europe. In the joint press conference in Malta, Mikhail Gorbachev said, ``With the president, we said that the Helsinki process should be developed, in keeping with the new demands dictated by the times....'' President George Bush, referring to the Helsinki process by its formal name in the opening statement of his Brussels press conference, stated, ``Many of the values that should guide Europe's future are described in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
``These values encompass the freedom of people to choose their destiny under a rule of law with rulers who are democratically accountable. I think we can look to the CSCE to play a greater role in the future of Europe.''
The CSCE Final Act was signed in the Finnish capital in 1975 by the member countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact and by 12 European neutrals. The nations agreed, after lengthy negotiations, on three sets of principles called ``baskets'' to deal with the reconciliation of the divisions in Europe. Basket I related to security; Basket II to economics, science and technology, and the environment, and Basket III to human rights and cultural and information exchange.
Prof. William E. Griffith, in a foreword to a book by John Maresca on the Helsinki process, described it thus: ``The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is an important, extremely complex, institutionalized, continuing, intermittent, and in the United States too little known group of meetings. It has certainly not `solved' any of the major problems of Europe or the world. But it is as close as we have come, or are likely to soon, to a peace treaty in Europe after World War II.''
When the act was signed, the United States was skeptical about its benefits. Washington traditionally preferred to negotiate security problems bilaterally with Moscow.
Cooperation under the Helsinki Act meant coordinating actions with 33 European governments that often had different views from those of the US on East-West issues. Moreover, the act stemmed from a Soviet initiative. It appeared to accept permanently the current borders and, implicitly, the East-West division of Europe. Over the years, however, the process has proved of value in the achievement of US diplomatic objectives.
First, the Final Act accepted the United States and Canada as formal participants in deliberations relating to the future of Europe.
Second, the review sessions held in Belgrade (1977-78), Madrid (1980-83), and Vienna (1986-87) provided an opportunity to press the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries on issues of human rights and free travel. Although they strongly opposed what they considered to be interference in their internal affairs, the communist countries were reluctant to deny totally their interest in human rights.
The review conferences in Belgrade and Madrid were largely polemical exchanges. In the last conference, in Vienna, however, a revised agreement was reached on a document more precisely outlining human rights.
The signing of such a document by all participants (except Romania) did not automatically establish new freedoms. But it provided an agreed East-West basis for raising human rights issues bilaterally with foreign governments.
Citizens in Eastern Europe, aware that their governments had signed the document, used it to challenge human rights violations. As one observer said, ``It lit the fires of freedom that are raging in Europe today.'' The focus on human rights will continue in a conference on Basket III slated for Moscow in 1991.
Third, the Stockholm Conference on Disarmament in Europe in 1986 provided the ground work for two significant subsequent conferences now under way in Vienna - Conventional Stability Talks (CST), dealing with confidence-building measures, and the Conference on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), the principal forum addressing the reduction of NATO and Warsaw Pact nonnuclear military deployments.
Finally, today, in the face of the lightning changes in Eastern Europe, the Helsinki Final Act provides a framework within which these changes can, theoretically, be managed. The act embraces questions of the permanence of borders, the necessity for arms control, the significance of the environment, and a recognition of the dignity of the human being vital to a politically and economically reconstituted Europe.
Clearly both President Gorbachev and President Bush hope to find within that framework a means of advancing and reconciling their respective interests in the years ahead.