Detente from Below

The end of the Cold War promised a remapping of European security. The Warsaw Pact disbanded officially in 1991, though it had functionally ceased to exist at the end of 1989. NATO, without its longstanding opponent, no longer had a raison d’etre.

The logical structure to replace the two-bloc system was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This structure grew out of what was known as the Helsinki process: an attempt in the mid-1970s by countries in the East and the West to address security issues, human rights questions, and technical cooperation across the Cold War divide. The Helsinki process provided much of the inspiration for the dissidents raising the banner of human rights in the Communist world as well as those in the West who supported them. Governments negotiated détente from above; activists pushed for a transformation of the Cold War system from below.

The CSCE still does exist. It became an actual organization (OSCE) in 1995, with a secretariat, a parliamentary assembly, and all the trappings of a proper institution. But the dominant security organization in Europe remains NATO. It was NATO that developed new missions and a new purpose as Yugoslavia unraveled. Later, after September 11, it would go much further beyond its original mandate to become involved in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Mary Kaldor has been one of the most important thinkers and practitioners in the realm of human security, which addresses security questions from a human rights and grassroots perspective. She has written numerous books on the issue. But perhaps more importantly, she has worked to create new institutions that embody these principles. One of these was the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), which emerged in 1989 as an effort to bring civil society activists from all over Europe and the disintegrating Soviet Union into the security debate. For a few bright years, it looked as though the HCA, alongside inter-governmental bodies like the CSCE, could translate “détente from below” into “the post-Cold War from below.”

But the momentum in favor of continuing NATO was powerful, particularly with the support of the former dissidents in East-Central Europe, like Vaclav Havel. In a conversation in her office in London in January, Mary Kaldor talked about reading Havel’s memoir and coming across his take on NATO.

“One of the issues that comes up in the book is the answer to the question we asked Havel at the time—‘Why did you favor the expansion of NATO rather than Helsinki?’” Kaldor told me. “And Havel actually says, ‘I didn’t see the difference.’ That made me realize that we never really had a serious argument with Havel and others about the military issue. We supported them on human rights. But when we said things like, ‘There’s unemployment in the West,’ or ‘We’re fighting against the arms race,’ we felt rather stupid in comparison with what they were doing. So we kind of shut up about those things, and maybe we shouldn’t have shut up about this.”

Even though NATO emerged from its existential crisis of the early 1990s not only intact but enlarged, Kaldor remains optimistic about the continued influence of the Helsinki principles. “I’ve been running this study group for Javier Solana, and the third report we did, which hardly anybody has read, is called Helsinki Plus,” she told me. “It was a response to Medvedev’s call for a new European security architecture. So on one side, I’m ever hopeful. For a while I thought that even though it was very disappointing that the OSCE turned out as it did, that NATO expanded instead of dissolving, that at least the European Union could play that kind of role. Certainly if you look at the design of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), it was really around the Helsinki ideas. So in that sense, I went on being optimistic.”

That optimism, however, has been tempered by the continued war on terrorism, the growth of Euroskepticism, and the thorough cynicism among young people about politics in general. We talked about what happened to the early promise of the HCA, the double-edged role of NGOs, and the vital importance of having big arguments.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I remember the day before, actually. The day before, we went to see the East German ambassador. Here in London, we had a delegation to ask him not to crack down on the people, and I remember thinking, “It’s going to happen.” I remember that I said something to him and I’ve forgotten what it was—something about the Wall coming down. He was very aggressive towards us.

 

Aggressive in the sense of…

 

Of what were we doing, of our demanding that they not crack down. And I said something like: “The Berlin Wall is going to fall.” And so the next day, I remember thinking, “Wow! I said that.” I remember that conversation now, but I’ve forgotten the exact words.

 

Did you go back and see him afterward?

 

No, we never did. Barbara Einhorn was with me. It was a delegation from European Nuclear Disarmament (END) to ask them not to crack down. And I do remember later watching the fall of the Wall on television. I remember my son, who was 10, saying: “Oh, why can’t we have history here?”

 

At at that point, the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) was planned for Prague…?

 

We had it a year later. I don’t think it ever occurred to us that we would be able to hold it. The HCA at that point was just a twinkle in the eye, as it were. The conversations got going in 1988. We were all arrested in Prague in 1988, and the Czechs were sent to one prison, and we foreigners were sent to another. We’d first met in Martin Palous’s flat, where Jiri Hajek made a speech. Then the secret police arrived and threw us out. They said if we met again we’d be arrested. So then we went to Jan Urban’s flat, and we were all arrested. The topic of discussion then was creating the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, so the conversation had definitely began.

 

But there had not been a plan to meet again in one year’s time?

 

No. At that time, we had three meetings. One was in Poland in November 1987, and the second was in Hungary. The only one that happened without a problem was the one in Hungary. In Poland, a lot of people came, but none of us in the West got visas to go, except maybe Lynne Jones. In the case of Hungary, it was the first public meeting that they’d had. They kept the venue secret, and Viktor Orban made a speech. Our idea was that we’d hold more and more of these public meetings, but I don’t think anyone thought we could possibly hold an assembly at that stage.

 

And what was your thinking in those days, leading up to the Berlin Wall falling and then immediately after? What was your conception of the evolution of Eastern Europe and East-West relations?

 

I was writing at that time about what I called the “new detente,” which really surprised people. I was completely sure that Hungary would switch to a multi-party democracy and that Solidarity would be legalized in Poland. So I knew change was coming in Hungary and Poland. I remember thinking, “I have no idea what’s going to happen in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Are they going to have a period of terrible oppression, or are they going to open up?” I thought it all depended on basically what happened at the top. When Gorbachev was not willing to back the leadership in those countries, it was the beginning of the end.

But I do think that’s one of those moments in history that could’ve gone in different directions. In 1999, I did a series of lectures on the decade and I gave one called, “the ideas of 1989,” which was then published as a chapter in my Global Civil Society book. In that, I quote Edward Thompson from 1982 from his book Beyond the Cold War. He said: “If the Cold War ends, it won’t be slowly as the glaciers slowly melt. It will all happen very quickly. And nations will become unglued from each other. We’ll roll up the map of Europe and travel without maps for a while.” It was just an incredible prediction.

 

You also were imagining a new European architecture.

 

Completely.

 

And when the Berlin Wall fell, how did that event shape your understanding of the possibilities of this restructuring?

 

We thought it was the end of the Cold War. We wanted the Helsinki process to become a common security institution for Europe. We wanted the dissolution of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, so it was an incredibly exciting moment.

 

At what point did the possibility of a new European architecture disappear for you in some sense?

 

I’m not even really sure if it has disappeared completely, even now. I’ve been running this study group for Javier Solana, and the third report we did, which hardly anybody has read  is called Helsinki Plus. It was a response to Medvedev’s call for a new European security architecture. So on one side, I’m ever hopeful. For a while I thought that even though it was very disappointing that the OSCE turned out as it did, that NATO expanded instead of dissolving, that at least the European Union could play that kind of role. Certainly if you look at the design of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), it was really around the Helsinki ideas. So in that sense, I went on being optimistic.

But I do think that 9/11 knocked everything off course, and we’ve moved into a much nastier world. So even though all these bad things happened, I went on feeling optimistic during the 1980s. Of course Bosnia happened, and when the wars in Yugoslavia broke out, we all started thinking in a different way. But we were still thinking, “How do you deal with Bosnia within the framework of Helsinki Principles? What’s a human rights approach to Bosnia?” That was tremendously influential in European thinking, and very much shaped the way ESDP was being designed, even though now it’s very weak and ineffective.

 

The Helsinki Citizens Assembly in 1990 in Prague was of course very exciting, and we all went off to our national committees and sketched out the work that needed to be done. I asked Sonja Licht when she felt that HCA became less than the sum of its parts, when the center no longer held even though there was so much vibrant activity going on in various places. She dated it specifically to a discussion she was moderating at the Assembly in Ankara, where there was an activist from the Greens in Germany who just did not get what was going on in the discussion about Kurds in Turkey. Was there a similar point for you?

 

In a way the problem with HCA was that we were a social movement in an era of NGOs, and we had great difficulty transforming ourselves into an NGO. We didn’t really know how to do it. We’d all come out of the peace movement and the human rights movement. I think we were always seen as a bit leftist, and so it was really difficult to establish an NGO in Prague. It was really difficult bringing people from abroad to live in Prague. Just the administrative side was terribly difficult. But also, HCA was established after its job had been done, which was to end the Cold War. Then there was the momentum of the campaigns around Bosnia, all around former Yugoslavia, which were really social movement campaigns—particularly in France. Everywhere you found little groups organizing, and that’s what made HCA exciting. It was bringing together movements from all over Europe. And from about the mid-1990s, those movements disappeared. And the new movements that emerged were around the Social Forum, which was a very different set of issues.

 

The World Social Forum?

 

And the European Social Forum, which has been really important. Some HCA groups were very very active, like the French and the Italians. And the Italians just moved all their energies into the European Social Forum.

This also relates to Eastern Europe, because I think there was always a tension between east and west. You know, we were on the left. We in the West were concerned about peace and social justice, and they in the East were concerned about human rights. Some of them were on the left: Jaroslav Sabata, Jiri Diensbier, Ferenc Miszlivetz. But some of them were not. And the War on Terror pulled us apart again. That was crucial. Miklos Haraszti, Martin Palous, Adam Michnik, Gyorgy Konrad: they all favored the war in Iraq, and they didn’t understand our position.

I realized this reading Havel’s autobiography, which is a very wonderful book. I did a review of it for The Telegraph. One of the issues that comes up in the book is the answer to the question we asked Havel at the time—”Why did you favor the expansion of NATO rather than Helsinki?” And Havel actually says, “I didn’t see the difference.” That made me realize that we never really had a serious argument with Havel and others about the military issue. We supported them on human rights. But when we said things like, “There’s unemployment in the West,” or “We’re fighting against the arms race,” we felt rather stupid in comparison with what they were doing. So we kind of shut up about those things, and maybe we shouldn’t have shut up about this.

 

So if we had had that argument, it might have challenged the structure of HCA. But if HCA had survived that argument, it would have been stronger.

 

That’s true. One person I did have the argument with over and over again was Michnik, but actually I never convinced him. But I think I might have convinced people like Palous.

 

It was difficult, especially with Michnik and Poles in general. They always had one eye on Russia.

 

Exactly.

 

Look at the most involved discussion in Poland today. It’s Smolensk – the airplane crash in Smolensk. That continues to be the most controversial discussion. It dominates the mainstream discussion, as well as the conspiracy theorists on the Right. It’s something that no one outside of Poland cares about, and yet their relationship with Russia deeply influences their understanding of European security and general, because that’s fundamental.

 

Michnik actually speaks wonderful Russian, but at the same time they are completely illogical about things like nuclear weapons and militarism.

 

Was there a moment for you when, in the evolution of HCA, when you thought, “We’ve invested a lot of time in this, and I’m not sure it’s actually going to survive in the form that we envisioned it”?

 

We definitely had that moment. At the end of the 1990s, Mient Jan Faber wanted us to move the headquarters to The Hague, and Martin Palous and I were very resistant to that. Mient Jan thought that if HCA were brought together with the Dutch Interchurch Peace Council (IKV), they could keep it going and run it. Who knows whether that would have been any better. First of all, he refused to allow the IKV to oppose the Iraq War. He says he wasn’t for the war, but he refused to allow himself to be publicly against it, because the Kurds he’d met said, “How could you go to demonstrations when you know how horrible Saddam Hussein is?” As a result he lost his position as secretary general of the IKV. And now the IKV’s merged with Pax Christi, so whether that would have been a solution, I don’t know.

For something like the HCA to survive, it either has to have a massive mobilization and a massive social basis, or it has to have continuous funding. Where we failed was with the funding. When we started out, every American foundation wanted to support us. And then we had European money, and Swedish money. We never actually had money from the Open Society, and George Soros used to joke that networking is not working. I think he was wrong about that actually, and he probably thinks that himself now. But we could have sustained that funding if we’d been more organized and more efficient, and that’s what some of the local groups have done. We’re doing a joint project with the Turkish HCA on civil society in the Balkans. To everybody’s complete amazement, the Turkish HCA just got 800,000 euros from the European Union for this project. They’re the most successful branch. They also have an office on the Syrian border, and we work with them on that.  But also the branches in the Caucasus go on and on and on. Tuzla’s still going on. And there is still a Slovak HCA. I think Jaroslav Sabata continues to have a little HCA in Brno, and they meet weekly. They’re all about 90. And the Scottish HCA  still exists.

The post-’89 period was a period of demobilization. And it was a mixture of us not being able to be a movement, not being able to sustain ourselves as a movement, and not being able to convert ourselves into being an NGO. If we’d had better staff…You know, young people now, I’m always amazed about how much they know about writing proposals and writing reports. We didn’t really know anything like that. Or maybe I knew a bit, but I was sitting in England being an academic.

 

One of the challenges, it seemed to me at that time, was that there was a desire to construct a parallel set of institutions that could be mirror institutions to European governmental institutions. But at the same time, many of the participants themselves were entering government. So there was some confusion as to what the specific role could or should be both for the chapters but also for the individuals who were moving from social movements into politics and vice versa. It was a time of great flux, and HCA had difficulty identifying where precisely it was going to be in that flux.

 

I agree with you. Maybe that’s why the Turkish HCA has been so incredibly strong, because it has been very clear. Elsewhere, what did we have? Jan Kavan became foreign minister, Martin Palous became ambassador, and of course George Papandreou became prime minster of Greece.

 

And the war in Yugoslavia divided people so tremendously — before the war even broke out. I remember the discussion in 1990 where there were, shall we say, intemperate remarks made between different delegations coming from different parts of Yugoslavia at the time. That must have been heartbreaking on a variety of different levels.

 

Actually, no. For me, this was true in the 1980s and it was true in the 1990s: I think activism is about big arguments. And new ideas develop out of big arguments. In the 1980s, it was a constant fight within the peace movement: were we for the dissidents, or did we think we had to engage with the official peace committees? And among the dissidents, did they think NATO should be strong, or did we agree we had a common issue? We fought about this nonstop throughout the 1980s, and that’s what enabled us to come up with the Helsinki idea.

And similarly with Bosnia and the whole issue of former Yugoslavia. There were three positions on Bosnia: were you were in favor of bombing, or lifting the arms embargo, or against the use of force? Then there emerged a middle position, which was mine and Mient Jan’s, and which has really developed into new thinking about humanitarian intervention and human security. And it never would have emerged without the big arguments and fights we had. These big arguments and fights is what keeps movements going, what makes you think, “I’ve got to go to the next meeting to put in my position.” For me, activism is an education. It’s a way you change the discourse. And you can only change the discourse by having big fights.

 

My next question was going to be about human security. In your book with Shannon Beebe, you have a number of chapters about your experiences in Yugoslavia and Iraq, and the conception of human security and humanitarian intervention coming out of that experience. I was particularly interested in how your thinking changed going from Bosnia to Iraq, whether there was any significant shift when you talked to people on the ground in Iraq and saw the reactions people had to military intervention, and how it might have been different in Iraq.

 

I always argued from Kosovo onwards that humanitarian intervention is different from military intervention. Kosovo was very troubling for me, because on the one hand, I was in favor of intervention, but on the other hand I was against bombing. My argument was that for something to be humanitarian intervention—I have a course on human security, so I’m discussing this day after day after day—it has to be about directly protecting people. You have very tight rules of engagement. You don’t try to defeat enemies. So I was very much against the Iraq War. I went on all the marches, wrote articles, made speeches. But once the war began, I felt we needed to do something to protect people. I wasn’t in favor of what the Americans were doing, but I do think that what Petraeus did in Baghdad had some similarities to human security approach.

 

But two pages later you say, “Even though Petraeus equals human security, there are some significant differences between the two.”

 

I agree. And funny enough, when we started writing the book, it was at the height of the counter-insurgency debate, and the editor said to me: “How is your position different from Petraeus’?” And I thought, “I’ll wait and see what Shannon says.” And Shannon was really strong on the difference. Probably stronger than me, actually.

 

Under counter-insurgency you still have the same objectives, which are those U.S. military objectives.

 

The huge mistake that Petraeus made was his idea of hitting hard what he called the irreconcilables.

 

Have you consciously seen this emerging position as a reconciliation between these two positions — the peace movement perspective and the emphasis on human rights — that existed with HCA East and West from the very beginning?

 

Absolutely. For me it comes out of all those arguments that we had. And what I feel about the War on Terror is that it’s destroyed that position. The human rights enforcement position has been pulled apart. People have become either totally against all forms of intervention, like David Rieff, or they became liberal interventionists, like the late Christopher Hitchens. My position is almost nowhere. Over Christmas, I was reading all the critiques of human security. It’s quite depressing to see the Left using Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt to show that human security is really about increasing global power.

 

I’m afraid that the American Left in particular was so soured by its experience of eight years of George W. Bush that the nuance has been squeezed out of most of the arguments.

 

I agree, but I think it’s true here too actually. Syria is a really depressing example. It’s not only that the only alternatives posed are military intervention or top-down negotiations, but that there’s no discussion about what might be a human security approach in Syria. It’s just so sad. I feel, looking back now, that the 1990s was this liberal interlude after the wars, when a new world order got established, and then we became marginalized as the soppy utopians who think some alternative is possible.

 

When we look at Eastern Europe today and where Fidesz has gone, for instance, or the populist movements that have emerged in Bulgaria, or Romania, or Serbia, was that something you would have imagined 10-15 years ago?

 

Absolutely. I’m afraid so. In fact, I remember giving a presentation on Eastern Europe before 1989, and I said how neoliberalism would lead to both nationalism and criminalization. And somebody said to me, “Oh, you’re very optimistic about Eastern Europe,” because I thought Hungary and Poland would change. This was before 1989, and I thought I was being very pessimistic. So yes, I did think that was going to happen, and I was against this neoliberalism, which all my friends supported, except possibly Jan Kavan, no, even Jan Kavan. We could hardly even use the word “social.” It’s true that the West demanded shock therapy. But if they’d all said, “No, we’re not going to do it,” as they did in Slovenia, which has done much better than anybody else, then it might have gone differently.

 

Slovenia has done much better up until recently.

 

Yes, up until recently.

 

But the Poles could’ve said, “We’re not going to pay the debt.” They just didn’t think in those terms.

 

For the folks at Open Society, it was if they were blindsided. They saw the incremental growth of an open society, ever increasing government transparency, ever increasing protection of civil rights, an increasingly fair economy, and then for this to happen, it has been a shock.

 

What went wrong is that those of us who in the post-’68 generation took social justice and the welfare state for granted. The 1990s saw both the triumph of humanitarianism and the triumph of neoliberalism. And in a way humanitarianism became the safety net for neoliberalism.

 

That has been the critique of NGOs, that NGOs help fill the gap when governments have been downsized.

 

Especially where governments created the NGOs. There are moments in history when social movements succeed, and at that moment they get transformed into something different. That was the case for the labor movement in 1945 when it turned itself into political parties and trades unions. Similarly, 1989 was that moment for the post-’68 movement, and they turned themselves into NGOs. For me, NGOs are tamed social movements. Which has both plus sides and negative sides.

 

These days, the very word “NGO” has a very diminished status in Eastern Europe.

 

Absolutely. You know Mahmood Mamdani’s famous phrase, “NGOs are killing civil society.”

 

I think that’s how people feel. NGOs have become just another bureaucratized element of neoliberalism. And in terms of European integration, only the large NGOs are able to apply for funding from European sources, because the paperwork is exhausting.

 

That’s exactly what HCA failed to do. We just didn’t have the capacity: not only to apply, since we did on a couple of occasions get funds, but we didn’t have the capacity to implement either.

 

In terms of reactions to neoliberalism, what do you see as the more hopeful challenges? Is it just throwing sand into the gears, like the financial transactions tax?

 

We’ve just done this study for the Open Society on subterranean politics in Europe. Our findings were, first of all, that the new wave of activism isn’t really about neoliberalism. It’s about politics. It’s about a real disillusionment with the current political elites. And it’s about democracy more than it is about austerity.

Second, this is a new generation, and it’s not pan-European. For them, Europe’s invisible. All the things that we thought were so important are unimportant to them. By and large, they see the EU as just another neoliberal institution like the IMF. This generation is so disillusioned with national politics that they don’t even make demands. They simply say that they’re going to practice democracy and transparency in their own lives.

 

It’s cultivating their own gardens, so to speak.

 

Exactly. What I’m really worried about is that if all of this goes on longer with this division between debtors and creditors, Euroskepticism is going to increase like mad. I can see even a Yugoslav scenario. So I don’t feel at all hopeful, actually.

 

London, January 23, 2013

 

 


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