Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Time to Revive the Helsinki Spirit

The 50th anniversary of the landmark Cold War conference is inspiring a renewal for today’s world.

By , the president of the Republic of Finland.
The opening of the Helsinki Summit on July 31, 1975.
The opening of the Helsinki Summit on July 31, 1975. STF/AFP via Getty Images

In 2025, 50 years will have passed since the Helsinki Summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). In 1975, during a few hot summer days in the midst of the Cold War, 35 heads of state and government came together in the Finnish capital and signed the Helsinki Final Act. The document outlined an important set of principles and confidence-building measures to improve security and covered a broad list of areas for cooperation, from the economy to science and technology and from the environment to human contacts.

The Helsinki Summit’s CSCE was a turning point in East-West détente. At the time, some criticized the conference for confirming Europe’s post-war division. Yet the Helsinki Final Act turned out to be anything but a final act. A little more than a decade later, the process that started in Helsinki, its letter as well as its spirit, was a crucial factor in overcoming that very division. Rather than solidifying the status quo, it spurred a dynamic change for the better.

On its own terms, therefore, 1975 is a remarkable historical milestone worth remembering. Finland is committed to taking the lead in marking the anniversary. But I believe we should not be satisfied with only reminiscing past achievements. Instead, we should be far more ambitious and focus on what is needed for the future. We should revive the Helsinki legacy, both its letter and its spirit, to address the challenges of the next half century together.

In 2025, 50 years will have passed since the Helsinki Summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). In 1975, during a few hot summer days in the midst of the Cold War, 35 heads of state and government came together in the Finnish capital and signed the Helsinki Final Act. The document outlined an important set of principles and confidence-building measures to improve security and covered a broad list of areas for cooperation, from the economy to science and technology and from the environment to human contacts.

The Helsinki Summit’s CSCE was a turning point in East-West détente. At the time, some criticized the conference for confirming Europe’s post-war division. Yet the Helsinki Final Act turned out to be anything but a final act. A little more than a decade later, the process that started in Helsinki, its letter as well as its spirit, was a crucial factor in overcoming that very division. Rather than solidifying the status quo, it spurred a dynamic change for the better.

On its own terms, therefore, 1975 is a remarkable historical milestone worth remembering. Finland is committed to taking the lead in marking the anniversary. But I believe we should not be satisfied with only reminiscing past achievements. Instead, we should be far more ambitious and focus on what is needed for the future. We should revive the Helsinki legacy, both its letter and its spirit, to address the challenges of the next half century together.

First, more narrowly, on the letter. Over time, in the early 1990s, what started as a conference became an organization. From the 35 original conference participants, the organization has expanded to include 57 states. As the CSCE morphed into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the acronym changed, but the wording of the Helsinki Final Act remains intact to this day. The 10 principles guiding relations among states continue to be an essential foundation of the European security order.

Today, many elements of the international rules-based order are under severe pressure. This applies to the OSCE as well—geopolitical tensions and contested norms make it increasingly difficult to arrive at a consensus. However, let me be clear: The problem is the violation of the Helsinki principles, not the principles themselves. The Helsinki Final Act is a tried and tested blueprint for comprehensive security, and it must not be opened up for revision. If anything, its content needs to be upheld and vigorously defended. The joint commitments, all of them, must be honored and implemented, not watered down.

If the upcoming anniversary provides an opportunity to improve the capacity of the OSCE to serve its purpose, that opportunity must be seized. All participants reconfirmed their Helsinki commitments in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Perhaps 2025 could be a good moment to repeat that effort. This would, of course, be exclusively an internal matter for the OSCE family.

But beyond merely reviving the letter of the original Helsinki Summit, my actual proposal aims to revive the spirit of Helsinki more widely. Whereas the Helsinki Final Act itself applies to security and cooperation in Europe, the spirit that arose from Helsinki can serve the future of our planet as a whole. With one expression: It can help us shoulder our human responsibilities.

The core components of the original Helsinki spirit are equally topical today as they were in 1975: a willingness of adversaries and competitors to engage in dialogue despite their differences; a broad and cooperative concept of security, one that includes the human dimension and the interests of the individual; an agreement on the importance of individual freedoms and rights, democracy, and the rule of law; and a commitment to arms control, transparency, and confidence-building. All of these elements are in great demand in the present.

At the same time, there are a number of additional global developments—from climate change to biodiversity loss, from pandemics to disruptive technologies—that have made it evident that we need to further improve our ability to cooperate and to carry our common human responsibilities.

This is why I am proposing to focus our attention in 2025 on the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki spirit rather than limiting the view on the OSCE only. This concept will enable us to include actors from outside the OSCE area without compromising the specific mandate and present composition of that particular organization. Already in the past, the CSCE example, the “Helsinki model” for cooperative regional security has often drawn different continents’ attention. Under the umbrella of the Helsinki spirit, we can convene all interested actors willing to participate in a process that would recreate an atmosphere of cooperation and trust.

What would rekindling the Helsinki spirit in 2025 mean in concrete terms, then? Rebuilding trust where it has been lost is a prerequisite for our ability to address common challenges, to assume our human responsibilities, together. Hence, this initiative does not aim at a gathering of like-minded countries alone. On the contrary, we need dialogue most with those we agree the least with.

As far as the format goes, in the most ambitious scenario, this route could ultimately lead to another Helsinki Summit in 2025. With partly different participants, given the global approach. With partly different issues but fully respecting the original spirit created 50 years earlier. With leaders, despite their unresolved disagreements, jointly agreeing to a set of shared principles, striving for common solutions to shared problems, and mitigating conflicts through dialogue.

The process can be at least as important as the final result. Before committing to a specific objective in 2025—a particular kind of meeting, its precise agenda, and concrete deliverables—we should take the time to sound out what is feasible. Such an open-ended approach turned out to be successful 50 years ago too. Engaging in an open conversation with prospective participants, carefully listening to what their expectations and limitations would be—already these tentative discussions in themselves open up pathways to strengthen the Helsinki spirit.

During the past few months, I have started to test the waters on this initiative in conversations with several of my foreign colleagues. The positive response from all of them has been very encouraging. I intend to continue this dialogue in the months ahead. Further down the road, Finland will proceed with more substantive proposals on the way forward.

We must be humble. We are still in the very early stages of this possible four-year journey. But I am convinced of one thing. The more we speak about the Helsinki spirit, the more we end up practicing what we preach: dialogue and trust. The world will be better for it.

Sauli Niinistö is the president of the Republic of Finland.

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