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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 109-111

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Daniel C. Thomas, The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 308 pp. $49.50.

Why did the Cold War end? From the triumphalist spin of Western leaders who claim to have won the Cold War, to the more thoughtful analyses of Soviet overreach and decline, there is no shortage of explanations and actors who take credit. Several scholars have used the period since 1989 to write interesting and provocative books about the role of activists, nongovernmental organizations, and ideas in the demise of the Cold War. It is now possible with these books—for example Jeffrey Checkel, Ideas and International Political Change: Soviet/Russian Behavior at the End of the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); Jeffrey W. Knopf, Domestic Society and International Cooperation: The Impact of Protest on US Arms Control Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Sarah Mendelson, Changing Course: Ideas, Politics, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998)—to offer an entire seminar devoted to the contributions of transnational peace activists, "ideas," institutional reforms, and domestic social movements to the end of the Cold War. Daniel Thomas's [End Page 109] book The Helsinki Effect is thus in good company and deserves a prominent place in courses on the end of the Cold War.

Thomas's piece of the puzzle is human rights. In a recent book, The Mobilization of Shame: A World View of Human Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), former U.S. Congressman Robert Drinan argued that "support for human rights in the Helsinki Accords made the collapse of the Communist system inevitable" (p.74). That is essentially Thomas's view as well. In The Helsinki Effect Thomas argues that when the advocates of human rights norms succeeded in putting their concerns into the Helsinki Accords they started a process that eventually undermined Communist rule in Eastern Europe by giving support to human rights activists in East and West, and by empowering reformers in the East European bureaucracies. When Soviet and East European leaders agreed to incorporate human rights norms in the Helsinki Final Act, they assumed they were making a concession they could control by referring to other Helsinki provisions on nonintervention and sovereignty. They were wrong—activists exploited the opening—and this surprised both the Communist leadership and even the advocates of human rights in the West.

This is an ambitious claim, and Thomas is not the first to make it. For example, Vojtech Mastny's several books on the Helsinki process, John Maresca's account in To Helsinki—The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1973-1975 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), and a book by William Korey, The Promises We Keep: Human Rights, the Helsinki Process, and American Foreign Policy (New York: St.Martin's Press, 1993), cover much of the same ground. What Thomas adds to the existing corpus is a comparison of the alternative theoretical frameworks—realism, liberalism, and constructivism—that could account for the sources and consequences of the normative beliefs articulated in the Helsinki Final Act and institutionalized by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He also adds an emphasis on framing information from interviews he conducted with approximately 100 participants in the diplomatic processes and social movements he describes.

After an introductory chapter that lays out the main arguments and the competing theoretical accounts, Thomas divides the book into three sections. In the first part, on the evolution of norms, he traces how Moscow's interest in security led it to want a conference on security and how the Europeans used the opportunity to promote a human rights agenda that fit with their own conception of their European identity. He then summarizes the hundreds of negotiating sessions and the politics that culminated in the Helsinki Final Act. According...