Helsinki pact: a three-way battle in Madrid

Just what the world needs now -- another arena for conflict. Madrid is the spot as delegates from 35 nations arrive in sunny Spain today (Sept. 9) to plan for the review of the Helsinki accords. But the real battles open on Nov. 11 and will be three -- dimensional -- between East and West, between the US and its allied, and among the US participants. How ever bitter the clashes become, the final outcome may well be salutary.

First the East-West dimension. When the accords were signed in 1975, the Soviets instantly pocketed their prize -- moving to legitimize the postwar frontiers. But the West has had to keep collecting on its rewards -- furthering human rights within signatory countries and human contact between them. Since then, however, the collecting has become tougher with increasing repression in the East and the squalid Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

This year the US and West prepare for Madrid while their leaders are running for reelection againts hard-line opponents. Propelled by such domestic politics as well as by the international climate, by President Carter's personal commitment to human rights, and by congressional pressure, the American delegation is certain to talk tough. Note the splendid appointments of ex-Attorney General Griffin Bell and Max Kampelman, a leading light of the committee on the Present Danger, to head up the US team.

The Soviets are clearly worried, as there is much that is tough to talk about , including the imprisonment or exile of at least 43 Soviet monitors of the Helsinki accords. And the beat goes on: 75-year-old Oksama Meshko, mother of a political prisoner and survivor of Stalin's gulag, was recently shoved into a psychiatric ward. The Soviets tremble over many such tales getting out of Madrid into the USSR via foreign braodcasts. As the Marquis de custine remarked 150 years ago after visiting there, "One word of truth hurled into Russia is like a spark landing in a keg of powder."

Afghanistan looms as a large topic in Madrid. The Soviet invasion violates at least half of the 10 principles in the Helsinki Final Act. Sensing vulnerability, the soviets stive to divert attention towards a spanking new "Conference on Military Detente" in which to regurgitate a dollop of tired old proposals.

Western Europeans also wish to tilt from human rights perorations to security talk preparations. This is the second skirmish: between the US and its allies, who share Le Monde's concern (Aug. 1) that "Washington intends to turn the Madrid conference into a trial," Their diplomats spurn even naming countries which violate human rights while American delegates plan also to name specific persons whose rights have been so violated.

The third clash is among the Americans. Henry Kissinger called for boycotting this gathering as the US did the Olympics, and Ronald Reagan expressed his own "uneasy feeling." He said, "If the athletes can't go, why should the diplomats go?"

Unlike the Olympics, though, this get--together cannot glorify the Russians either as hosts or as winners. This is a field open to clear Western victory. And what better arena than Spain where democracy flourishes, as in Portugal and Greece, after years of dictatorship? The reversibility of authoritarianism, so fresh in the air of Spain, is inconceivable in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia since 1968, Hungary since 1956, etc.

Other Americans wish to go, but to go gingerly. Alas, this is the quintessential approach of the State Department, which clings to the remanants, nay to the memory, of detente. Its European bureau, honchoing the Madrid meeting, reeks of clientism; it parrots the Europeans on major points. Besides, diplomats seek concrete accomplishments -- lengthy communiques, detailed agreements, commitments for more and more meetings -- as their profession's prime product. These accrue from quiet, classical diplomacy.

But a conference need not produce tangibles to be successful, as the superb congressional Helsinki commission well realizes. Madrid should serve the West firstly as a ritual, a reminder of individual rights and of the shared values that bind a citizen to a country and to a larger community of free peoples. Anthropologists know the value of rituals; diplomats should learn.

Second, by striking the contrast between free and totalitarian societies, Madrid can bolster public awareness of the treasures at home and the threats at hand. This is particularly criticial in Western Europe, whose press covers the Helsinki process in greater depth and whose citizens are more reluctant to augment defense than those in the US.

Third, the Madrid meeting helps those shorn of freedom. From banishment in Gorky, Nobel laureate Sakharov on Aug. 11 smuggled another message past the KGB to urge that the West go to Madrid and fight vigorously. Helsinki is the repository of dissidents' hopes and has spawned private human rights groups -- the Charter '77 group in Czechoslovakia, the now-prominent Workers Defense Committee in Poland, and the Helsinki watch committees in the Soviet Union. They work more courageously, more continually, and perhaps over time more effectively than anything Westerness can muster.

Lastly, Madrid can have an exhilarating impact for Americans. With the Vietnam war behind us and Iran and Afghanistan upon us, there burns a fiery pro-Americanism that cries out for manifestation. As the first postdetente conference of consequence, Madrid can nudge the emerging consensus -- in tone if not in policy -- that Americans face the Soviet challenge without illusions, all the while exuding pride rather than shame and extolling our virtues rather than fuzzing them.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.