Yalta: the birth of its myth between lights and shadows

The 70th anniversary of Yalta Conference – Moscow, February 2015

The Yalta Treaty seen from the perspective of today’s changing world
Report by Franco Frattini

The Yalta Conference of February 1945 is a myth that resists.

It’s a myth, first of all, for the fact of having destroyed another myth: the Grand Alliance between Britain, United States and the Soviet Union. As lucidly but caustically observed by Winston Churchill, the Grand Alliance was nothing more than a “shaky expedient” held together by the common desire to defeat the Axis Powers. Not only the two Western allies were painfully aware that Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939 and had occupied the Baltic States and part of Finland before the start of the war, but the contrasts between the three powers were continuous, albeit held somehow under control.

Yalta Conference is also a myth because it constitutes the highest point of the diplomatic efforts with regard to the second goal of the Grand Alliance: the “victory of peace”, and it represents also the formalization of the results achieved by the diplomacy for peace. It was generally believed that, unlike all the wars of the past, the current one would not have ended up with a new design of the world hegemony, but with a project aiming at safeguarding the rights of all peoples, at establishing certain rules of civil coexistence and promoting the definitive victory of democracy in the world.

Unfortunately those beliefs collapsed in a short while, faced with the divergent positions of the first winners of the conflict. Yalta represents the last effort of far-reaching policy cooperation before the birth of the bipolar system and the iron curtain.

Actually, several misunderstandings converge. In fact, as Arthur Schlesinger wrote, the division of the continent was realized thanks to the presence of the armies, not to words written on paper. Yalta Conference simply acknowledged a state of fact which, if anything, derived from the previous agreement in Tehran signed in November 1943 (when it was decided that the Western allies would have abstained from operations in the Balkans: ergo, liberation or occupation of Eastern Europe was up to the Soviets). This recognition of the de facto situation was the only way to stem it politically and diplomatically. Relying on this recognition, the Soviet Union has also argued the misunderstanding of the legitimacy of its dominion over Eastern Europe; and, symmetrically, Westerners have accused Moscow of having betrayed the spirit of Yalta by violating the agreements on Poland.

Political and legal positions of the big three at Yalta

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, the three protagonists of the Conference, arrived in Yalta for the summit that can certainly be considered the first of our times, with clear political objectives.

Churchill was against the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, but he also intended to clarify the status of Germany at the end of the war. Its objectives were driven by the desire to ensure the survival of the vast British Empire, or at least to avoid the decline of Britain as a world power.

Finally, Roosevelt, while wary of the real long-term goals of Churchill and Stalin, was strongly willing to get the support of the Allies for the creation of the United Nations, and the consent of the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan once Hitler had been defeated. The U.S. President also considered that the scheme of the four guardians of the world (USA, UK, USSR and nationalist China), tested during the war, should also be applied after the war.

Basically, none of the Three Big left Yalta completely satisfied. Nothing was decided about the economic aid to the USSR, many aspects of the future of Germany were referred to other meetings and discussions. But despite everything, the Conference succeeded in laying the foundations for a new political order in the system of the international relations; it did not limited itself only to change – as it did- the hegemony existing in the world for the benefit of the winners, but it also created a new world order that the United Nations Organization was called to guarantee.

In fact, Yalta merely confirmed what the war had produced, that is the de facto division of Europe, – even more relevant – its decline and the emergence of two non-European superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union: the first one directly at the world level, the second one on the continental plan – although already animated by planetary ambitions.

Yalta, however, breaks with the past where the Big Three close the last unresolved issues regarding the creation of the United Nations and give the ‘go-ahead’ to the convening of the Conference in San Francisco, where the UN Charter will be defined and approved. Roosevelt reported to Congress that: “the era of spheres of influence and balances of power was ended”.

Yalta has played a central role in the process of the birth of the United Nations both in the context of the various negotiation stages through which the UN Charter was conceived, negotiated, drafted, signed and ratified, and in the formation of consensus on the political level.

It is difficult to identify, among the leaders of the Alliance, an inspirational father of the UN Charter or of one of its organs. It is true that Roosevelt played a special role in the creation of the UN, but he was never the carrier of specific ideas in this regard. Being a “practical idealist”, his most important role was as the political promoter of an organization aimed at peacekeeping.

As for Churchill, it is well known that in the beginning his position was far from the United States. He sympathized with Roosevelt’s idea of the Big Four, as a directory able to drive a world of nation-States and as the guarantor of their peaceful behaviour, but he wished to incardinate the peace-keeping functions in the regional organizations: a Council of Europe and a Council of Asia under the common aegis of the world Organization.

Stalin’s interest was focused instead on the preservation of the powerful position of the Soviet Union, free from restrictions on its sovereignty, protected against the intervention and supervision by an international authority, defended against a majority of the votes of the capitalist countries, and provided with a large potential for votes. To ensure the latter requirement, Stalin supported the idea that all sixteen Soviet republics were to be members of the future Organization and with the related capacity to vote.

Yalta is the only meeting from among all the meetings of the Big Three, where they discussed about the United Nations and which also addressed the issue which had not found a solution at the level of diplomatic and governmental experts: the vote in the Security Council. It was resolved by a compromise, the so-called Yalta voting formula.

That formula was the result of a long struggle between the United States and Great Britain, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other.

The Yalta formula was fully transfused in article 27 of the UN Charter even if Stalin made a last attempt to enhance its scope, by extending the veto in relation to matters falling within the exercise of the almost judicial powers of the Security Council in the pacific settlement of disputes.

The new organization, the United Nations, as a legacy of the Yalta Conference, represents an innovation – though less strong than desirable – in the history of the organizational processes of the international community. The novelty can be synthesized in the following pillars: absolute rejection of the aggressive war, monopoly of the use of force by the UN Security Council, auxiliary role of regional organizations in peacekeeping, economic development, protection of the rights of the peoples and of individual rights as well.

The primary objective of the United Nations, already defined in Yalta as a ‘sacred duty’, is the formal regulation of international security.

International relations must be animated by sincerity.

International relations must be based on justice. And justice means: mutual respect for rights which belong to all members of the international community, to their personality and their dignity.

Also, since the international life is in view of the common good of humanity, considered as its own end, laws governing it must be universal. Namely, no particular interest can dispense from their observance.

Thucydides’ ancient wisdom warned that «from among all manifestations of power, what most impresses men and Nations is the ability to dominate oneself».

Yalta world order, agreed by three countries, and the same concept of global order, is today a utopia. The global chaos of today’s world has taken the place of that order. On the occasion of the fall of the Berlin wall, Bush Sr.’s United States outlined a “new” world order, under the benevolent unipolar American hegemony.

President Bush’s son, years later, was to destroy that project: from the war against terrorism to the financial and economic crisis of 2007 that the U.S. have “exported” throughout the world. The strong reactions -of various origins- to President George W. Bush’s initiatives were behind the progressive demolition of the unipolar and interventionist vision of America seen as the “exporter” of democracy and the market.

And today the world is in chaos, with a system which is no longer “multipolar”, but rather “a-polar”

The BRICS, the big countries in Asia, the growing importance of Africa with its delicate and often tragic related issues, remind us that no one today would be able to represent the world balance in a hypothetical “new Yalta”, unless paying the price of having not three but perhaps thirty actors sitting at the table – all of them having a role in the various regions of the world and beyond, for different aspects.

The United Nations, whose conception had in Yalta its crucial stage, risk losing credibility and legitimacy today, in the face of the global crisis.

Inertia, mutual vetoes, decision-making paralysis are symptoms that turn the UN away from their role of “Director of the world order for peace”. Regional organizations are proliferating, in all continents, without really addressing with full legitimacy even regional and macro-regional crises. I think of the weakness of African or Latin America organizations faced with humanitarian crises or international drug trafficking and human trafficking.

For sure, whoever thought of a finished Russia, relegated to the role of a poor and marginal actor after the fall of the Berlin wall, was wrong. I remember Putin’s Russia that was able to take the outstretched hand of the West to open a historical phase of cooperation with NATO. After less than 13 years, those days look as remote history.

And they actually are.

Meanwhile Europe has progressively lost both capacity and political leadership: in Minsk we saw France and Germany – not the EU – while emphasizing the divisions between Europeans and those between Europeans and their American allies, for example when dealing with the very wrong US suggestion or threat to supply Kiev with weapons.

The United States, after errors and uncertainties, withdrew from the global leadership role, that they could no longer exercise as in the Nineties, and have rather focused their strategy on the revival of the national economy, with some success.

Russia, China, some great actors in the Arab world have become even more essential and indispensable, if we want to address more dramatic global challenges such as terrorism, stability in the Middle East and Africa, poverty or climate change.

Then the error of those who summon penalties instead of strategic cooperation between Russia and the West looks more serious; the weakness of the uncoordinated international reaction towards Daesh-ISIS – at least until the day of the Jordanian, Emirates and Egypt’s decision to actively engage, but always without the engagement I believe necessary of key regional players such as Turkey and Iran – is also evident.

Obviously a weak and politically divided Europe does not contribute to global stability, while the deep divisions in the Arab and Muslim world let the seed of hatred and fundamentalism develop, wrecking pillars of a religion that, as such, can only consider the human person sacred.

We cannot afford confrontation and division among actors who have, or may have, a role in sharing strategies and addressing common challenges.

Yalta world order is history.

But from that piece of history we should learn that only strong political leadership can contribute to momentous turning points. Yalta’s political choices were strong, like those of the founding fathers of Europe in 1957.

The choices that led to crises in many regions of the world are weak or contradictory policy choices, which often look to national electoral results rather than to the fate of future generations. As history still teaches, in the presence of weakness and crisis of representation, those who would destroy the models of civil society in the name of new dictatorships – although falsely based on religious principles – meet greater success in propaganda, proselytism, and action.

© All rights reserved. Powered by Franco Frattini

Back to Top