Mid-Life Crisis?

Mid-Life Crisis?

Mini Teaser: The OSCE is not a relic of the Cold War. Instead, it may be the only body that can tackle problems across Eurasia.

by Author(s): Marc Perrin de Brichambaut

DOES THE OSCE still matter for United States? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), like its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), has never gone down that well with the American public and opinion-makers. Before President Gerald Ford traveled in 1975 to sign the Helsinki Final Act, William Safire wrote an article for The New York Times headlined "Jerry, Don't Go." And Safire was not alone in criticizing the administration for its seeming acceptance of the Soviet Union's desire to obtain recognition of the status quo that emerged in Europe after the Second World War. Many observers in the United States thought that the Final Act would not serve American interests; few believed that its decalogue of principles, including those on human rights, would be respected by the Soviet Union.

In the end, the CSCE outlasted its skeptics and outperformed its critics. Although the conference and its review meetings did not catalyze reform in the Soviet Union or bring down the Berlin Wall, it was an important part of the story of the Cold War's end. The conference quickly took a special place in the long-standing U.S foreign policy objective of locking Moscow into a process of engaging on issues related to fundamental freedoms with the long-term aim of eventually building a "Europe whole and free and at peace."

The CSCE mattered, and the OSCE still matters for U.S. interests. In the 1990s, the OSCE was a key instrument for supporting the transition to democracy underway in the former Soviet bloc countries. Now we are witnessing a slowdown of this process in the OSCE area and the rise of differences between states on the direction of the organization. The OSCE must adapt once again to new realities.

LET US determine first what the OSCE is not. The OSCE is not a non-governmental organization dedicated solely to building democratic institutions. Nor is it a United Nations Development Program-like framework for undertaking multifarious projects. The OSCE is neither a military alliance nor an economic union. It is an association of states and their peoples, united around the aim of building a democratic and integrated continent that is free of war and conflict, where all communities and individuals live in freedom, prosperity and security.

The strength of the OSCE today lies in three interwoven features. First, the OSCE is the most inclusive forum spanning the transatlantic and Eurasian areas, bringing together a collection of states that stretches across the three continents of the northern hemisphere. Every Thursday morning in the Hofburg (the imperial palace which was the setting for the Congress of Vienna), 56 ambassadors meet to discuss long-standing issues and debate new questions. The enlargement of NATO and the EU has made the OSCE all the more important as the only organization that bridges what appear to some as new dividing lines.

Second, the OSCE has developed a solid set of institutions that play a daily role in managing tensions and creating trust among participating states-through the Secretariat in Vienna, the quiet diplomacy of the High Commissioner for National Minorities or the multiple activities of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and of the Representative on the Freedom of the Media. Nineteen field activities, which absorb around two-thirds of the OSCE budget (a proportion far higher than in other international organizations), are deployed in 17 countries. The field operations have become important vehicles for assisting states in capacity-building for the rule of law as well as in conflict prevention and post-conflict rehabilitation. With 15 years of operational experience, the OSCE has developed real capabilities to help consolidate societies in transition. In essence, the organization seeks to help participating states help themselves.

Finally, the OSCE has become active in addressing new challenges and threats to our societies in creative ways. Since 2003, the OSCE has moved quickly to develop instruments to tackle contemporary challenges. It has assembled expertise in counter-terrorism, anti-trafficking, policing, the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, and border management. The organization is also developing expertise in the disposal of surplus ammunition and expanding its activities in the economic and environmental dimensions.

Of course, there are real difficulties facing the OSCE. The organization is a fragile marriage between two ideas. It is a values-based organization, built on agreed standards and commitments that cover a uniquely ambitious range, from human rights to military activities. At the same time, the OSCE was founded on the idea of inclusion; that is, one of its strengths lies in that states of different cultures, with different historical experiences and, indeed, different interests, agree to work together as equals.

This means, of course, that decision-making is based on consensus-and decisions are politically rather than legally binding on members. This feature has disadvantages, but it has enhanced the willingness of states to expand the topics on their common agenda, to broaden the scope of their commitments and to augment OSCE capacities for implementation and monitoring. And while the OSCE imposes no legal obligations, a process of peer review has fostered an impressive record of implementation.

Given its make-up, the OSCE presents a mirror to the tensions that exist today across wider Europe. Mirrors are fragile instruments, especially if the events they reflect are as dynamic and uncertain as they are today. Past experience shows that working through the OSCE requires patience and compromise.

AMERICAN POLITICIANS often demand "action now", and so the OSCE seems to be nothing more than a slow-talking shop, not an organization that really matters for U.S. interests. This is an unfortunate perception. The OSCE matters for the United States for reasons connected to wider trends in Europe and for pursuing specific U.S. foreign policy goals.

Europe remains unfinished business. The break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union has not yet run its course, and the status of Kosovo will be the question of 2007.

The OSCE has long been engaged in conflict mediation in the former Soviet Union, and it is currently a major pillar of international efforts in Georgia. The OSCE also remains engaged in seeking to settle the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and to assuage the difficulties that stand between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Beyond conflict resolution, the OSCE now remains the only forum for sustained and comprehensive engagement with transitioning countries, especially since further eastward enlargement of the European Union seems highly unlikely anytime in the near future. The organization is deeply involved in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, acting through its field operations to support civil societies, to strengthen state institutions based on the rule of law and respect for basic freedoms, and to assist economic good governance.

The organization is instrumental in three key agendas of U.S. foreign policy. The first agenda concerns the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Currently, the OSCE is a key forum for engaging with countries with democratic deficits. The organization provides the United States and other interested states with a legitimate mechanism to scrutinize developments inside other countries and to raise awareness about issues of concern. This is a tremendous resource because it allows Washington to frame such scrutiny within an OSCE consensus-oriented framework. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) has observed that the organization

has multiplied the avenues through which we [the United States] can promote the rule of law and human rights. It pioneered the broad definition of security that recognizes that true stability does not depend on stockpiles of arms or standing armies but on democratic principles, respect for fundamental human rights and good neighbourly conduct. It legitimized the idea that a nation's domestic policies are the rightful concern of other OSCE states.

Furthermore, the OSCE is important for what might be called the "Europe whole and free" agenda. The organization is a forum for coordination between the United States and its European partners, especially the EU, to adopt joint approaches towards issues of importance. For instance, the United States and the EU have coordinated policies towards Belarus through the OSCE framework. The OSCE is also the mechanism of choice for common American and European approaches to settling the unresolved conflicts in the former Soviet Union. For example, as former Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones stated in a congressional hearing in September 2003, "the problems facing Central Asia will not be solved overnight and-in some cases-not even soon." The OSCE is perfect for such long-term undertakings.

The organization also matters for what may be called the "new threats agenda." As Chair of the Forum for Security Cooperation in 2003, the United States helped to bolster the OSCE role in the struggle against international terrorism. Stemming from OSCE decisions, states have taken measures to improve the security of travel documents, to combat terrorist financing and to establish controls on man-portable air defense systems. The OSCE fills important gaps in the struggle against international terrorism.

In all, the OSCE is a sound investment for the United States. Compared to other international organizations, the OSCE is flexible and thin on bureaucracy, with the lion's share of its budget dedicated to field activities and projects. As Assistant Secretary Jones testified again in September 2004: "The OSCE is a relative bargain for the United States. We pay about 10 percent, just over 10 percent of the costs. And we reap tremendous benefits, possibly up to 100 percent." The question is how long any country can expect such a bargain without having to accept some compromises.

Essay Types: Essay