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Sustainable policies must be built on inclusiveness: Reflections on the 1997 Helsinki Summit

Reflections on the 1997 Helsinki Summit
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton. Photo: Flickr / FDR Presidential Library & Museum.

Last week was the anniversary of the 1997 Summit between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton in Helsinki, Finland. The Summit agenda from 20 years ago included issues that remain high priorities today: nuclear arms reductions and European security arrangements.

Despite promises from President Yeltsin and President Clinton, neither could implement the long-term progress they envisaged in Helsinki. Important lessons about the need for inclusiveness in sustainable policymaking can be learned from their efforts.


An agreement between two presidents

The ratification process for the 1991 Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START I) was completed in 1994, and the treaty entered into force. In January 1993, the Treaty on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START II) was signed by Russia and the United States.

With START I in force and START II agreed, there was time for Russia and the USA to discuss the future of nuclear arms control beyond the next decade. In Helsinki, the two presidents agreed on the parameters for future arms reductions. A START III Treaty would further reduce aggregate stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and increase transparency over how dismantlement and deactivation of those nuclear weapons subject to reduction was carried out.

Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton also agreed that, as the numbers of strategic offensive arms were progressively reduced, the impact of technological developments in missile defence should be considered. Both saw a need for effective defence against short- and medium-range missiles while at the same time preserving the essential function of the 1972 Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty)—that is ensuring that defensive weapons could not counter strategic ballistic missiles. To do this, they needed a way to clarify how the ABM Treaty applied to ‘theatre missile defence systems’, which in turn required an understanding of the difference between theatre and strategic missiles defence systems. In September 1997, Russia and the USA agreed on how to differentiate between theatre and strategic missile defences on a technical basis, forming the 1997 ABM Treaty-related demarcation agreement.

At the same time Russia and the USA were making progress, NATO members had agreed that enlarging the organization would help to consolidate positive developments in Europe’s new democracies. By 1997, NATO members were agreed that enlarging NATO would help to consolidate positive developments in Europe’s new democracies. However, Russia was fiercely opposed to enlargement on the basis that, if NATO permanently stationed combat forces near Russia, the necessary countermeasures would introduce new dividing lines into a Europe that was supposed to be integrating more closely.

While Yeltsin and Clinton did not agree on whether enlarging NATO would enhance security, they did agree that cooperation between NATO and Russia was part of a European security system built on mutually supporting institutions. In this spirit, a new NATO–Russia agreement should provide for consultation, coordination and—to the maximum extent possible where appropriate—joint decision-making and action on security issues of common concern. To this end, in May 1997, the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation followed these guidelines.


Disagreement between Russia and the United States

While their efforts were in good faith, neither president achieved what they hoped for in Helsinki. Twenty years later, ensuring continuity in nuclear arms reductions and building a stable peace in Europe remain important goals that have not been fully realized.

In neglecting the domestic context of their foreign and security policymaking, the two presidents took risks by agreeing things with each other that were not firmly anchored at home.

President Yeltsin promised to deliver ratification of the START II Treaty by the Russian Duma, opening the way for START III talks, but ratification became inextricably linked with the issue of missile defence, and Start II never entered into force. His decision to endorse formal cooperation with NATO without a commitment to restricting its enlargement went further than important actors in Russia’s foreign and security policy circles would accept.

President Clinton faced a Congress controlled by his political opponents, who were not convinced by arguments against investing in a wider spectrum of missile defences. After 2001, the George W. Bush administration not only overturned the 1997 demarcation agreement but withdrew the USA from the ABM Treaty entirely.


Inclusiveness and the way forward

This brief overview of the 1997 Helsinki Summit suggests that the complicated tasks of promoting nuclear arms reductions and enhancing European security will not be advanced through ‘deal making’ between presidents in isolation.

The main priority in nuclear arms reductions is to promote a follow-on US–Russia agreement to build on the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), because without progress between the two countries that possess the lion’s share of nuclear weapons little else can be accomplished. If Russia and the USA agree to reduce the size of their nuclear stockpiles further, which is by no means assured, broad domestic support will be needed to sustain negotiations across changes in government, and to ratify any subsequent agreement.

NATO enlargement touches on a principle (that is contained in the Helsinki Final Act, and that has been reaffirmed multiple times in documents of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE) that every state in Europe is free to choose, or change, its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance. All of the countries that are members of the OSCE have a stake in how this principle is understood, not only Russia and the United States. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO, but far from drawing a line under enlargement, nine more countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia) have since joined NATO, and others are seeking and working towards membership.

The persistence of disagreements over NATO enlargement and the implications of missile defence for strategic nuclear-force levels are a signal that there is no longer a shared understanding of the important principles on which European security rests. One main priority is to find consensus on the substantive meaning of indivisible security—that states will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states, claim special rights in maintaining peace and stability, or regard any part of Europe as a sphere of influence.

While it is the responsibility of major powers to lead, the results of the 1997 Helsinki Summit suggest that sustainable progress will not be achieved through bilateral deals between presidents. Stable peace will require inclusiveness of two kinds: domestic constituencies will have to be brought along as part of a coherent national policy; and international partnerships will have to coalesce outside the comfortable boundaries of ‘like-minded’ groups.


Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.