Walking the streets of Helsinki, Finland yesterday, history washed over me. Not far from the northern European or Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, Finland borders Russia. Finland’s history reinforces a reality: America’s defense of liberty is not momentary, not just a beacon. It is vital, timeless, and urgent.
Finland is a complicated place – with a complicated history. Once part of Sweden, then Russia, independent after Russia’ revolution of 1917, it lost land to the Soviets in 1940, allied with Germany, got bombed by the Soviets, protected Jews.
Most famously, it hosted the 1975 summit between Soviet-dominated and Western nations, Warsaw Pact and NATO. That summit produced “The Helsinki Accords.”
These recognized the universal importance of “human rights” – but immediately became controversial. Like so much of diplomacy, they were too ambiguous.
The West wanted to use them as a hammer – pounding Soviet violations of human rights across Eastern Europe. The Soviets wanted them to legitimize domination.
US President Gerald Ford, facing reelection, blundered. Trying to be all things to all, he signed the document. He was pounded from left and right, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both making clear that Eastern Europe was not free.
Ford, the ultimate “moderate,” never nimble on feet or with words, tried to clarify – only to dig deeper. During debates he tried to justify signing the accords.
In time, the document would be used by conservatives and Soviet dissidents to make Ford’s exact point, systematic Soviet violation of every human right. But in 1976, Ford made a dog’s breakfast of it all.
Ford implied Eastern Europe was not already stripped of freedoms and human rights by the Soviets. It was a blunder from which he would not recover. Communism has no defense – not when it crushed Russia and Eastern Europe, not today as it crushes freedom and human rights in Communist China.
Carter won in 1976, only to up the ante, out-blundering Ford in foreign policy, economics, and energy policy, just the way bulls wreck China shops. Only Joe Biden’s emergence has restored to Carter some dignity – by making deeper mistakes in Afghanistan, handling China, Russia, economics, and energy.
But Helsinki, Finland is today again important – for another reason. Helsinki reminds us of timeless truths.
At a time when autocratic Russia, run by a former Soviet operative, continues to kill civilians and rewrite history, we remember Communism leaves a dark mark. Even when freedom drives the communist devil out, society’s fabric is stained.
Another truth: Democracy is delicate, always vulnerable internally and externally to forces that would replace individual liberty and self-rule with centralized power – using a convenient ideology, maybe fascism, communism, socialism, or political violence whipped by hysteria over something like class, race, money, climate.
Representative democracy – which depends on moral behavior, more listening, thinking, reasoning, and reckoning than violence – is not sexy. It is not about starting a revolution, but fidelity to ideas, prosperity built on good laws, evolution.
Democracy is not about finding things to hate but finding reasons to relate. It is not about fanning differences into angry flame but celebrating how we are the same. It is not about inflicting uncommon indignities but creating uncommon opportunities.
There is one last thing – what democracies need, these special countries that celebrate individual liberty, giving everyone a shot at prosperity, chance to walk free streets. Democracies need each other – and the resolve to defend each other. Together, they are the bulwark against what defies freedom and defiles humanity.
In short, history is made – and will be made again – by people of real courage saying inhumanity and suppression of rights is not the future. It was not in 1975, when Communists crushed human rights, triggering the Helsinki Accords. It is not today, as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea crush those same rights. The streets of Helsinki echo with that message. Standing for freedom, standing together for it, defending it – matters. Defense of liberty is vital, timeless, urgent.
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