What the Helsinki-Middle East Analogy Should Say to U.S. Policymakers

The general notion of "a Helsinki model for the Middle East" has become a new catch phrase, easily cast out in any debate over U.


The general notion of "a Helsinki model for the Middle East" has become a new catch phrase, easily cast out in any debate over U.S. intentions in the region.   As it has come to be associated with discussion of the  Administration's interest in launching a Greater Middle East Initiative  (GMEI) as part of its 2004 summit schedule, the ebb and flow of "Helsinki's" invocation suggests its own cautionary lessons for the states and societies of the Middle East.  But these would be insights for a far longer-term and sustained diplomatic effort than American political calendars usually allow for - a broad strategy not just for the next few months but the coming decade and beyond.

The basic idea is not a new one: to seek to apply among the countries of the Middle East positive examples drawn from the political process launched in Europe by the Helsinki Final Act and eventually resulting in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Signed largely as a détente set piece in 1975, the Final Act came to serve as a statement of basic principles for Europe as a whole.  These were to govern not only how  the states of a then still-divided Europe ought to deal with each other - respecting existing borders and foreswearing the threat or use of force, but no less importantly, how their governments should treat their respective citizens on the basis of fundamental freedoms and human rights.

It has been the policy emphasis on democratic and economic reform throughout the region, signaled by the President's address to the National Endowment for Democracy in November of last year and reiterated as a "Forward Strategy for Freedom" in the latest State of the Union address, which has given the latest special impetus to the Helsinki-Mideast analogy. The Helsinki reference appeared in initial backgrounding on the Administration's GMEI, itself built upon the previous year's Middle East Partnership Initiative  (MEPI).  It was readily picked up as a convenient descriptive tag line among journalists.   Despite the subsequent effort of American spokesmen to avoid such labels and to suggest a more nuanced picture, the notion of a Helsinki model is now well-established in public commentary, both here and abroad.

The Helsinki process succeeded because its agenda of "regional security and cooperation" was deliberately cast in terms broad enough to reflect issues seen as important in various ways for almost all of its participants, both in East and West.  Helsinki proved to be flexible enough to evolve dramatically in both its rationale and its structure as political circumstances and expectations changed with time.  It succeeded because, although the U.S. came to be one of its strongest supporters and to exercise great influence in all of the OSCE's activities, the process has not borne the exclusive fingerprints of any one country.  Throughout the years, Helsinki has been able to convey credibly the sense of a much wider community of stakeholders to be found throughout its area of coverage.

Today, there are an increasing number of voices throughout the Middle East which, in varying ways, speak of political, economic and social reform as both necessary and urgent.  But in marked contrast with the Helsinki experience, development of any comparable regional community of supporters of American objectives in this direction will be complicated by a perceived lack of American credibility - even legitimacy - on these very issues. This may represent the most critical challenge for any long-term American strategy on behalf of reform in the region, let alone any new high-profile initiatives.

American diplomatic efforts to promote reform from within the Middle East will not be judged solely on their own merits.   Frustration over a lack of progress towards a meaningful resolution of the Iraeli-Palestinian conflict and a viable Palestinian state, and a widespread perception throughout the region of a persistent U.S. policy imbalance in favor of Israel, will inevitably color any local debate over U.S. motives in pressing reform.

Nor will any such efforts be seen in isolation from the effectiveness of continued American engagement in Iraq.   At its potential worst - increasing violence, political conflict and a stalemated transitional authority - the Iraqi situation would provide other regimes with yet further reason to resist the uncertainties which greater liberalization might engender.  Even a far more optimistic prospect - a more secure and prospering Iraq able to demonstrate a new definition of political legitimacy and pluralism to the region - might have unexpected implications for its neighbors, especially given longstanding sensitivities between Sunni and Shiite within these societies.

The very complexity and unpredictability of such outcomes will pose new challenges for American policymakers.  In considering how to stabilize and strengthen a rapidly changing strategic environment, even as the U.S. moves to a new force posture within the region and wrestles with the task of deterring and dissuading Iranian nuclear ambitions, they may well need to think beyond traditional solutions.