Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Track Record Bodes Ill For Helsinki

Three times this century, the great powers have gathered in an attempt to achieve a lasting settlement for the future of the European continent. And as U.S. President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin prepare to meet in Helsinki for another stab at the recurrent challenge, the prospects are not promising because the track record of statecraft is not good.

The first great attempt, and the first time the new trans-Atlantic power of the United States was intimately involved in Europe, was the disaster of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. However, in leaving a disgruntled Germany and a European order in the hands of an enfeebled France and Britain and a detached Bolshevik Russia, in effect the treaty drew up the battle lines for the next war to break out within 20 years.

The second effort, the peace settlements devised at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, secured peace in Europe for 45 years. But it did so at a dreadful cost: Europe and a Germany were divided, and the guarantor powers of Russia and America were locked into an expensive and hair-trigger hostility.

The third effort, the Treaty of Paris in 1990, looked rather promising while it lasted. Hailed as the peace that formally ended the Cold War, it was little more than the signing of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. This reduced the overall level of conventional armaments in Europe to a level that precluded serious offensive hostilities, assuming the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliance structures still contained some meaning. This was correct for NATO, but not for the Warsaw Pact.

The Treaty of Paris also established the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a rather vague effort at a regional version of the League of Nations that lacked enforcement powers. It limitations were cruelly exposed by the crisis in Yugoslavia.

Less than seven years later, we are embarking on the fourth restructuring of 20th-century Europe. The interesting feature of this week's Helsinki summit is how it resembles another historic moment.

In the summer of 1807, after a bloody winter's draw at the battle of Eylau and then a victory over the Russian armies of Tsar Alexander I at Friedland, Napoleon summoned the tsar to a peace conference on a raft in the middle of the Niemen River at Tilsit. The Treaty of Tilsit, at which Napoleon exercised his charm on the young tsar, brought Poland under French sway and established a new boundary line, keeping Russia behind the Niemen.

In Helsinki this week, the charming Clinton will exercise his wiles on the new Tsar Yeltsin to bring Poland under NATO's sway and establish a new frontier that will again keep Russia behind the Niemen River. The town of Tilsit, once known as Sovetsk, is now part of that enclave of Russian territory, tucked between Poland and Lithuania, known as Kaliningrad.

It is entirely possible that just as Napoleon persuaded Tsar Alexander to join his continental system, Bill will persuade Tsar Boris to join the United State's own version of the continental system and swallow an enlarged NATO.

But historians will recall that within five years of that conference of the two men on a raft at Tilsit, Napoleon's Grande Arm?e was marching on Moscow. All precedents suggest European peace settlements are hard to achieve, and it is harder still to make them last.