PARIS, NOV. 19 -- The nations of Europe, joined by their North American offspring and their Soviet neighbor, vowed today to put a millennium of war and conflict behind them and to move together into a new European future of peaceful political competition and cooperation.
It is a measure of how far Europe has come after igniting two ravaging world wars in this century and fighting hundreds of other national conflicts before then that such soaring ambitions were taken seriously by all speakers at the opening of the three-day, 34-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
While many pointed to serious problems that remain, the presidents and prime ministers gathered here also seemed to think that this time there is a chance their words might come true. No one derided the peaceful vision unveiled in the speeches, conference documents and the sweeping arms-control agreement formally signed by NATO and the Warsaw Pact in a side ceremony.
Taken in all, the pan-European summit revealed itself to be less than a peace conference, but more than an excuse for pomp and circumstance and self-congratulation by the members of the world leadership club. Europe set its goal here today as abolishing national conflicts without abolishing the existence of nations. Running through the speeches, including the one given by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, was the idea that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire have given Europe the chance to take charge of its future and to be again the subject of history rather than the object.
By setting out a schedule for regular meetings at the summit and ministerial levels, the 34 CSCE nations took on the burden of reviewing their progress toward the lofty ambitions being codified here. But unlike the Congress of Vienna of 1815, where two emperors, four kings and dozens of lesser statesmen redrew the boundaries of Europe and divided the spoils left by Napoleon's defeat, this conference has no decision-making powers. The conference host, French President Francois Mitterrand, pointedly declared the Paris conference "the anti-Congress of Vienna."
That historic gathering, dominated by Austria's Metternich and France's Talleyrand, "ignored the people and their aspirations," Mitterrand said in the day's opening speech. The purpose of the Paris conference, he added, was to underscore the spread of democracy and the rule of law throughout Europe.
Mitterrand also appeared eager to draw distinctions between this gathering, which has been styled as the formal ending of both World War II and the Cold War, and the Versailles peace conference that ended World War I. "There are no winners and no losers sitting around this table," he declared, eschewing any show of vindictiveness toward the retreating Soviet Union.
But the breaking up of the Soviet empire, which now threatens to fragment the Soviet state structure itself, and the reemergence of fragile nation-states with complex ethnic balances in Central Europe, pose many of the same problems for the continent that confronted the Congress of Vienna and the Versailles Conference after clear military victories by the dominant powers at those two meetings.
The ambitions of the Paris conference and the follow-up meeting that will be held in Helsinki in 1992 involve nothing less than breaking the chain of wars, revolutions and repressions that have exploded with regularity from Europe's cultural and political diversity. By agreeing to meet at the summit every two years and more often at lower levels, the CSCE leaders have promised to review their progress toward this goal periodically.
As Mitterrand suggested, the year-long Vienna congress allowed the monarchs of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia to reimpose their control on overseas territories and neighboring domains and to reward their allies with grants of land and foreign subjects. The result was a century of revolt, highlighted by the revolutions of 1848 and the counterrevolutions of 1849.
But World War I led to the nearly simultaneous collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and of czarist Russia. As a result of Versailles and the application of president Woodrow Wilson's stress on self-determination, nearly a score of new nations were created in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But the European states became targets for German and Soviet expansion in World War II, and their freedom was again crushed.
Soviet concern over establishing the permanence of the results of World War II and Western concern over the lack of human rights and democratic freedoms in Eastern Europe led to the convening of the first CSCE summit conference in Helsinki in 1975, which included all the nations of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada -- key members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Originally proposed two years ago by Gorbachev and agreed to by the United States on condition that the Conventional Forces in Europe arms treaty be signed here, the Paris conference deals with the consequences of World War II less directly and explicitly than had once been expected by diplomats of both East and West.
The rapid reunification of Germany, achieved Oct. 3, and the signing of the Polish-German border treaty earlier this month removed what would have been central elements of a conference meant to take up a de facto World War II settlement. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who presided over the afternoon session, offered an uncharacteristically low profile at the opening ceremonies. Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel termed the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact "an outdated organization" that he will work to transform into a disarmament agency.
Speaker after speaker underscored the contrast between the hopeful outlook for Europe in putting aside war as an instrument of national policy and the threat of conflict in the Persian Gulf. President Bush, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev and others specifically denounced Iraq's aggression, while Mitterrand offered only a general reference to "the gulf crisis."
In one of the day's most energetic interventions, Gorbachev warned that peace was not yet at hand in Europe. Proposing that new negotiations on short-range nuclear missiles begin in a month, the Soviet president said that further progress had to be made right away on arms control.
He added that only if new continental structures and institutions capable of providing help for the economic, ecological and technological problems were created would it be possible to avoid "implosions" that would destroy the progress toward democracy that has been made.