They are called the Helsinki accords on security and cooperation in Europe, and, in the three weeks since the military crackdown in Poland, the Reagan administration has seized on them as the stick with which it seeks to administer a moral beating to the Polish authorities and the Soviet Union.
In his nationally televised Christmas address, President Reagan charged that the Polish government "has trampled underfoot solemn commitments to the Helsinki accords."
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has gone even further. In recent interviews and speeches Haig has described the principles of the 1975 accords, signed by 35 nations, as "the factors which underline a prospect for detente and improving East-West relations."
He has questioned whether the Soviet Union signed them as "a charade or subterfuge for more insidious objectives," and has argued that the agreement forbids Soviet treatment of Poland as a vassal state.
The administration has focused on provisions calling for the signatory nations "to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms." Conveniently overlooked is the fact that the accords are only a part of the vast and amorphous "detente" mosaic built up during the 1970s.
They are an important part in Europe, where the accords have been regarded as the symbolic blueprint of how the two halves of the continent can co-exist without the tensions that could lead to a nuclear war.
But in this country the document was criticized harshly at its signing as a "sellout" of western interests. The critics then included some who now are among the most vocal in insisting that the Soviet and Polish authorities adhere to its provisions.
The accords were worked out during almost three years of diplomatic negotiation known as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Its so-called Final Act was signed by then-President Ford, Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev and the leaders of 33 other countries in Helsinki on Aug. 1, 1975.
The signatories included all the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact military alliance, as well as those European countries that have steered a neutral course in the Cold War.
In broad outline, the document is a non-binding statement of principles covering a wide range of political, economic, social and cultural questions.
Although admittedly imperfect, the Helsinki accords have been regarded in both eastern and western Europe as perhaps the most useful rationale for the diplomatic, trade and other exchanges that have become the tangible signs of detente.
But the events in Poland have raised questions that go beyond even the question of whether human rights are being violated in Poland. At stake is whether the Helsinki accords, couched in the ambiguous language of compromise and grounded in the assumption that change within Europe would be gradual rather than abrupt, can continue to provide a modus vivendi for East and West.
Of most immediate concern is the danger that the Polish crisis will engulf detente in a new wave of Cold War confrontation between the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs.
But, as is clear from the suppression of Poland's reform movement, there also are serious questions about whether the spirit of Helsinki applies to the evolving relations between the Soviet Union and its East European neighbors.
And the West's inability to work out a concerted response to the crisis raises big questions about relations between the United States and its European allies, given the different stakes that individual western countries have in detente.
The Helsinki agreement was drafted in a way that offered something for everyone, carefully allowing East and West to preserve their interpretations of "detente." Even the Polish and Soviet authorities can find in its myriad and often contradictory provisions language that would seem to justify their actions.
For instance, while the United States can call up the Helsinki language on respecting "freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief" and "the right to self-determination," the Polish and Soviet leaders can counter with language from the same agreement barring assistance to "subversive or other activities directed toward the violent overthrow of the regime of another participating state."
Despite Haig's current argument to the contrary, the Soviet Union never made any secret of its view that the agreement represented tacit international recognition of its hegemony over Eastern Europe. The Soviet's view was perfectly clear to the western signatories, including the United States.
Specifically, they accepted Moscow's main goal--a provision pledging the signatory nations to respect the "inviolability" of all borders in Europe and to oppose changing those borders except through peaceful and mutual agreement.
In practical terms, that meant freezing the status quo in Eastern Europe, whose countries are all governed by communist regimes. Those nations have been put on notice by the Polish crackdown that Moscow will not allow any drastic changes in their political makeup.
Although Haig now contends that Helsinki put an end to "the post-Yalta concept" of a Soviet sphere of influence, it was clear during the long negotiations leading up to the Helsinki agreement that the West accepted Moscow's position in Eastern Europe and, in fact, had acknowledged it through such means as West Germany's treaties with the Soviet Union and other communist-bloc states.
In exchange for that tacit recognition, the West sought Soviet concessions in other areas, such as easing the tensions over West Berlin.
What no one seems to have envisioned at the time was that the "something for everyone" provisions of the agreement would prove unsatisfactory to popular elements in Eastern Europe, that the status quo would be challenged by a phenomenon like the reform movement that broke out in Poland 16 months ago, and that the Soviet Union, using the Polish military as its instrument, would be willing to risk the advancement of detente to protect the dominance of its system in that part of the continent.
The question now is where the Polish crisis leaves the Helsinki accord. The dangers are that it could degenerate into a propaganda weapon used by each side to charge the other with bad faith and interference in internal affairs.
Or its human rights provisions could be ignored in hopes that the situation will quiet down after a decent interval and everyone can go back to business as usual. The Soviets obviously would like that, and some Western European governments seem inclined to choose that alternative if given the chance.
Haig touched on these problems in San Francisco last Tuesday, when he said, "Some claim Poland is an aberration. They say we should leave it alone. It's in the sphere of post-Yalta agreements. We will forget it as quickly as Hungary and Czechoslovakia were forgotten.
"How comforting such justifications must be to some," he continued. "But it cannot be a comfort to Americans to forget the principles of detente and the Helsinki accords. If that concept was a sham, we in the West have bought a very sour bill of goods."
Perhaps the one time that the larger significance of Helsinki came to the fore in the United States was during the 1976 presidential contest. Jimmy Carter argued throughout the campaign that Ford, by putting his signature to the Final Act, had consigned the countries of Eastern Europe to the status of permanent Soviet satellites.
That led Ford, in one of their debates, to make his startling assertion--grimly ironic in the light of current events--that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Ford singled out Poland as a country that was free.
The complex web of tradeoffs of which Helsinki was a part also included many Soviet concessions, including the treaties that ended the Cold War tension between West Germany and the East bloc, an agreement on West Berlin that defused its potential as a flashpoint for open warfare, and the start of talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact on conventional force reductions in Central Europe.
And, although the situation in Poland has underscored the limitations of the Helsinki accords, they did open, for Eastern Europeans, a few small windows on the West.
Some of these achievements never fulfilled the high hopes that were held out for them in the mid-1970s. But, as Max Kampelman, the chief U.S. delegate to the Madrid follow-up conference on the Helsinki accords, warned Congress last week, the accords still occupy an important place in Western Europe's aspirations for peace.
The allies, he said, are unlikely to be supportive of talk in Washington that the United States should renounce the accords in retaliation for Poland.
Kampelman agreed that the United States cannot go back to the Madrid talks, which are in recess until February, on a "business-as-usual basis." Implicit in his remarks, however, was the contention that Washington should not abandon the accords or use them merely as a vehicle for moral indignation, but should instead seek an overhaul of an imperfect instrument to keep detente on track without producing the kind of desperation in Eastern Europe that led to Poland.