The OSCE’s Moment

by James E. Goodby and Ken Weisbrode

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is not the loudest player in the standoff between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, but it is quietly moving out of the shadows of NATO and the EU, and finally receiving the respect and backing it deserves.

As evidence of new-found US interest in OSCE, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has strongly and repeatedly supported a new Polish initiative to renew the European security dialogue within the OSCE. This decision finally happened on February 8 when the OSCE’s chairperson in office, Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau, officially launched a renewed European security dialogue at the OSCE. This effort appears to be at the center of the multilateral diplomacy that is required to deal with Vladimir Putin’s grievances.

Unlike the US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue or the NATO-Russia Council – the two other bodies that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has named along with the OSCE as his preferred “multiple channels” for diplomacy with Russia – the OSCE is the only one of which all parties are active members. The OSCE with its monitoring mission in Ukraine is the most engaged multilateral group on the ground. It is also a key sponsor of the Minsk agreements, which have the potential to stabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine, in spite of serious differences.

The OSCE has even greater potential. It allows us to think beyond questions of compulsion and capitulation, and to think instead of the kind of relationships we would like to see within a collective, regional system of nations, and then design an instrument or management tool that would help us create and maintain those kinds of relationships. It offers us a way out of a bilateral or bipolar understanding of Euro-Atlantic security, which is bound to disappoint people on both sides. Not to mention those in countries like Ukraine that are torn between them.

The belated emergence of the OSCE suggests that today’s standoff should not adhere to the usual list of historical analogies of confrontation – Munich 1938, Berlin 1961, Cuba 1962 – but instead to another: Helsinki 1975. That was the moment that every nation of Europe (minus Albania) and North America joined together to sign the Helsinki Final Act, an important agreement that helped to bring a largely peaceful end to the Cold War and has underwritten the security of Europe ever since.

The Final Act did not emerge from nowhere. Back in 1968 Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague Spring. That event put East-West relations in a deep freeze. The following year, in one of the Soviet Union’s periodic efforts to prompt a thaw, the Warsaw Pact issued the Budapest Declaration, calling for a European security conference, with language resembling some of Putin’s today.

NATO governments had usually responded to Soviet peace initiatives, as they were known, with a lukewarm or even a cold shoulder. That is because they were premised on granting formal recognition to the post-World War II borders that the Soviets had dominated by force in their part of Europe. However, this time NATO responded to the Budapest Appeal with an offer of its own. Yes, it said, we agree to meet to discuss borders if you agree to discuss “freer movement” and other questions of human rights. Hence the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group that produced the Helsinki Final Act and which survives today as the OSCE.

Why has the OSCE received less respect than other major institutions? No doubt this is because it has been seen as powerless because it lacks the wealth that is behind the EU and the military might that backs NATO. It helps to manage the diplomatic affairs of 57 nations from Vancouver to Vladivostok. But it is recognized as a major player only when the system of nations within which it quietly works is going through a crisis, as it is now. This pattern of neglect may also be traced to the unfortunate fact that the nations involved are comfortable with a divided Europe. Putin’s actions will accentuate that mind-set. So the cold reality is that OSCE will most likely recede into the background once the current crisis is past.

Or possibly the current crisis will shake things up so much that OSCE could exercise its natural role of knitting together the Euro-Atlantic world. That certainly was not Putin’s objective in starting this crisis. But it has to be said that it was not Leonid Brezhnev’s goal to unleash a disruptive movement in Europe that led to the end of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe when he signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975.

The good news is that for the moment the United States is paying a lot of attention to the OSCE. Perhaps this is the time for Washington and other capitals to review their funding levels for the OSCE and to mandate more military-to-military activities. The Partnership for Peace is a good model for what could be done within the OSCE framework, in cooperation with NATO. Thus, rather than facing one another across a table (or a battlefield), Russia and NATO should recall the simple, wise instruction from the statesman Jean Monnet: move over to the same side, and face the problem together. It is fortunate that the OSCE is ready for that purpose. 

It has overseen a progression of such rules and understandings, starting with the Helsinki Final Act, which became a blueprint for the international order in post-Cold War Europe. After that, new rules and norms took shape at Review Conferences conducted to monitor the performance of signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and at specialized conferences designed to create new agreements, for example, the Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe, which produced an elaborate set of transparency and restraint measures for military activities from the Atlantic to the Urals in the Stockholm Document of 1986. These measures were extended and strengthened in subsequent Review Conferences. On their own, none of these measures can prevent a war that a nation is determined to launch, but they can prevent a war that no nation really wants and they can make a dent in the carapace of mistrust and hostility that war requires.

Today, all the confidence-and security-building measures in Europe that emerged from the Helsinki process are on hold despite, or perhaps because of their obvious relevance to the massing of troops to threaten or to prepare to attack a neighbor. Reviving these measures, in fact, recommitting more generally to the Helsinki Final Act could lead the nations out of the current impasse that has developed in Central and Eastern Europe. US policy-makers appear to recognize that as an inclusive Euro-Atlantic organization the OSCE offers a model for a Euro-Atlantic security community throughout Europe and North America.

That would mean much more than implementing the Minsk agreements, important though that would be. There should be a full summit meeting of the OSCE in order to reaffirm its status as the primary setting for the discussion and settlement of problems in the area of Euro-Atlantic security. It is the only organization, apart from the United Nations, that has this capacity. But unlike the UN, all the states in the OSCE share similar regional interests. Chief among those interests is ensuring that Europe is peaceful and undivided in the way that was envisioned by so many people in both the East and the West when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. 

Three decades earlier during one of the bleaker moments of the Cold War, just after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled down the streets of Prague to suppress modest liberalizing policies, 35 nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain summoned the will to begin the process of creating a different set of relationships in the Euro-Atlantic region. Their objectives were not identical by any means but those people that had confidence in the triumph of a more humane and democratic regime in the Euro-Atlantic world carried the day.

The OSCE is the living, institutional embodiment of that process, whose “comprehensive approach to security and the fundamental wisdom and integrity of the Helsinki Principles” – again quoting Secretary Blinken – “are as relevant now as they were when enshrined more than 40 years ago.” It is time to make full use of this valuable organization by following its lead in defusing this crisis and opening an opportunity for broader, constructive diplomacy ahead.

Helsinki 1975: A Study in the Alignment of Diplomacy and Strategy. photo credit: Ivanov/RAI Novosti/East News