A New Helsinki Process: Restoring Pragmatic Order in Europe


Tatsushi Arai - TRANSCEND Media Service

The Cold War experience of broad-based security dialogues suggests how to restore pragmatic European order.

14 Jun 2022 – In the wake of the heightened public debates over the Finnish and Swedish applications for NATO membership, Finland’s undersecretary of state for foreign and security policy Kai Sauer remarked, “Our foreign policy and security challenge is to have functional coexistence with Russia, and we have seriously tried to find a way to cooperate and coexist.”

In a recent research article, I drew on my long-term experience as an international mediator and defined functional coexistence as an enduring state of non-fighting in which conflict parties with reciprocal perceptions of existential threat choose to stay constructively engaged in a seemingly intolerable dilemma of nonresolution. As neighbors sharing a 1,340 km border as well as the history of the Winter War in 1939-1940, Finland and Russia will soon be confronted by the need to rediscover a mutually acceptable way of functional coexistence regardless of how the war in Ukraine eventually comes to an end.

Finland’s proposed accession to NATO, like that of Sweden, would, however, deepen Moscow’s humiliation and insecurity, which would in turn increase Russian motivations for future aggression. This vicious cycle of increased military deterrence, perceptions of greater insecurity, and more drives for aggression repeats itself. Recognizing this security dilemma, Europe would benefit from more balanced and measured Finnish and Swedish approaches to defense and diplomacy.

While the two countries’ legitimate security needs must be met through the means of their choosing, their new security arrangements should not deprive them of their much-needed diplomatic capacities to tackle the underlying security dilemma. Finland in particular has a distinct legacy of diplomatic leadership under President Urho Kekkonen in 1972-1975, when it convened the Helsinki process, a series of European confidence-building dialogues on three baskets of issues – security, economy, and human rights – among thirty-five states from the Soviet Union to the United States and Canada. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which resulted from these dialogues, continuously serves as a foundational document for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an institutionalized outcome of the process.

While NATO’s expansion with Finnish and Swedish accession would make Russia insecure and vulnerable, it would also undermine the two countries’ diplomatic capacities to build bridges between Russia and the NATO member states. The public debates over NATO’s expansion, in the meantime, have sidelined equally important discussions on the underutilized role of OSCE, another institutional legacy of Cold War Europe. Importantly, OSCE’s increased convening capacity, unlike NATO’s expansion, would not threaten Russia.

Nor would it threaten Ukraine, the United States, or any of OSCE’s fifty-seven member states. While OSCE as a voluntary, inclusive mechanism of dialogues and consensus-based decision making has no self-standing capacity to resolve the conflicts between its member states, it can play a catalytic role in securing space for candid discussions. Despite the deepening distrust, the parties and stakeholders in the war in Ukraine will soon come to terms with an inescapable reality of needing to identify a mutually acceptable process of diplomatic interactions where they meet face to face and confront each other.

They will also find themselves in a serious dilemma of needing to search for post-war European order of functional coexistence. Unlike the historical Helsinki process, a new OSCE-sponsored process can build on a combined diplomatic capacity and credential of not only Finland but also other conveners such as Sweden and Switzerland. A new Helsinki process must prioritize the task of finding mutually comprehensible terms of problem definitions – a prerequisite to problem solving – on the compounding threat of cyber, nuclear, and conventional warfare, the mutuality of credible security assurances, the return and resettlement of the displaced population, the political status of disputed territories, energy security and transition, and other regional issues of mutual concern.

It should build on and complement both new and existing processes of bilateral and multilateral nature including the Turkish efforts to support Russian-Ukrainian negotiations. As Finland will chair OSCE in 2025, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1975 Final Act, Helsinki will have a historic opportunity to build on its legacy as the convener of European and trans-Atlantic confidence building.

The future of European and trans-Atlantic security depends on a successful mobilization of the political will to convene such a sustained, robust, and broad-based dialogue process. Preparation for the process must start now.


Tatsushi Arai is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kent State University, USA. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment with extensive practitioner experience. Inquiries on this article are welcome at tats0919@gmail.com.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jun 2022.

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