The Final Act by Michael Cotey Morgan


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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This book addresses three main questions: Why was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) created in the first place? Why did the Final Act take the shape that it did? How did it influence the Cold War? Reports are that the conference was a huge undertaking that involved thirty-five participants promoting arguments from the Soviets to the West, and the West proposing counter-arguments. It was the usual argy-bargy except that “the arguments within each bloc could be as consequential as those between them, to say nothing of the arguments within each government. Besides thirteen of the delegations belonged to neither alliance (5).

Recognising that at least some of his readers would be interested in what the main aims of the participants were, who they were, who they represented, and how serious each of the parties took their task, Morgan provides an introduction to the book that addresses all of these things and many more. The introduction projects an image of PhD thesis, but while the aroma is academia, the report has much more to offer its audience. Far from being narrow, the introduction adopts a broad but accurate set of statements that, after a short burst of detailed and boring paragraphs, the writer finds his voice and the book becomes an interesting read. That the overt goal of the conference was to discuss European affairs in a spirit of cooperation, a mantra that was on everyone’s lips, the real state of play was one of competing ideologies and tactics. The impermeability of the Soviet bloc stood in stark opposition to the openness and cooperativeness of the West. It is not surprising that the non-aligned states found the Western model more appealing and voted accordingly.

When reviewing I am occasionally sucked in by the sheer interest of the subject matter. This is one of those occasions when I must force myself to stay within the reviewer’s task. Leonid Brezhnev, Gerald Ford, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle – all strutting the stage and all of fascinated interest to me. The Soviet leader’s push to participate in a Conference in order to legitimise the Eastern bloc’s agenda is something novel, but the West’s reluctance to become involved reflects a situation of American lack of interest in Europe or a blindness through self-aggrandisement. Specialist knowledge is require to sort that out and Morgan does an excellent job of it. That the outcome of the Conference was no treaty, merely an agreement on a non-binding declaration, is a travesty of the high hopes with which leaders of especially the non-aligned nations attended the gathering. “Compared to the 1950s, superpower tensions had fallen and the risk of war had diminished, but geopolitical problems had not become any more tractable. They merely changed shape.” (49).

It is unfortunate in my view that the book is presented with the stark unattractiveness of a Cold War publication. Little attempt has been made to make it more interesting or intriguing than any of its fellows. Within the covers is a fine story of intrigue and manipulation worthy of the best writers, but probably unknown to them.

While the introduction gives the reader with a general interest in the topic the outcomes of the Conference the chapters which follow provide much more specific data. Chapter 2 heralds a shift from treating proponents of an opposing creed as implacable adversaries to finding ways to live alongside people whose systems are incompatible with one’s own. There was no suggestion of a ‘love-in’ here, merely competing strategies of détente. Chapters 3 and 4 explain the different expectations that leaders of rival groups brought to the Conference. The next chapter of significance is Chapter 6, in particular this explanation for the Soviet bloc’s crumbling under pressure to wrap up the negotiations (188). I found this explanation an uneasy ground on which to reach a settlement. “In agreeing to sign the Final Act at the highest level, each of the thirty-five participating governments took a calculated risk. Each wagered that the agreement would serve its interests and that its own interpretation of the text would prevail” (202). The chapter concludes with a well-written description of Brezhnev’s hopes for the future. Chapter 7 describes the acceptance or otherwise of the Conference’s outcomes for the future, and leads into an epilogue containing among other gems the arrival of Gorbachev.

This volume is a fine interpretation of the significance of a conference of factional leaders that only professional historians remember in any detail. This is not to say that events such as the one describe here should be ignored or forgotten. When I take notice of all the brain power that was focused on reaching an agreement only to fail, I become increasingly despondent when I realise that almost forty-five years later, our leaders have advanced not one jot from the debacle of the late 1970s.

A great book with the scholar’s eye in the telling. An authoritative book that should be widely read.

The Final Act


By Michael Cotey Morgan

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-17606-2

$US35.00; 424pp

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