Shakespeare was wrong. What is done can be undone. That was the essence of the meeting of the leaders of Russia and the United States in Finland.
Helsinki was a natural place for the Trump-Putin summit. The Russians think of Finland as a Russia that works. Some Americans still remember Finland as the only country that paid off its war debts to the United States following the First World War. Yet, the meaning of the summit had nothing to do with Finland as a country. It was about what happened in its capital in the middle of the Cold War.
On 1 July 1975, the leaders of East and West Germany, the United States, Canada and the Soviet Union joined thirty other states to sign the Helsinki Accords. It was a momentous occasion. The signatories pledged to respect human rights, not to intervene in internal affairs of other states and not to change borders by use of force. It was a victory of principles over brute power, co-operation over confrontation. It was a manual for managing the bipolar world.
The Soviet Union is long gone. Bipolarity is a thing of distant past. Why should we care about the Helsinki Final Act? Because its principles remain valid. It is not nice to interfere in another country’s elections. It is not right to use force to change borders. It is important to respect human rights even if it is not popular.
Yet these ideas are no longer the guiding principles of international affairs. Instead we have a world where might is right. The EU can dictate the terms of the Brexit settlement because it represents 500 million people and the UK represents only 60 million. The United States can demand a renegotiation of NAFTA because it is more powerful than its neighbours. Russia can use military force outside its borders because it has the balls to do so.
The Trump-Putin summit was about undoing the legacy of Helsinki 1975.
The two leaders do not hide their role in wrecking the old order. In fact, they are proud of it. They merely disagree about who started it. Putin believes the West fired the opening salvo with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 (and the subsequent recognition of Kosovo as an independent state). In Washington’s books, it was Russia’s attack against Georgia in 2008 (and its annexation of the Crimea in 2014) that got the Great Dismantling going.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, another British poet, said it better than Shakespeare: “the old order changeth yielding place to new”. This time, however, the new order will not be completely new. If Trump and Putin have their say, our future is a Concert of Great Powers, a system of governance where great leaders of great countries decide on the great issues of our time.
Such a system of governance was in place in the 19th century Europe. And, mind you, it was not all bad. Thanks to the Concert, Europe enjoyed a long period of peace and stability. The technological revolution took great strides forward. The middle classes expanded. Many threats to peace and prosperity were avoided through joint action by great powers.
Could such a leaders’ driven system have a role in today’s world? Perhaps. One of the inspirations for the founding of the G7 – which incidentally happened at a luncheon at the British embassy during the 1975 Helsinki conference – was the Concert of Europe. Perhaps President Trump’s suggestion that Russia should be readmitted to the group was not such an off-the-cuff remark after all.
If a Concert of Great Powers is our future, we must hope that Putin and Trump get along well – but not too well. For small states, such as Finland and the Baltic states, there is only one thing as bad as great powers fighting each other. It is great powers making deals over the heads of small countries. So, let us wish the two leaders have a successful relationship. But not too successful.