Making History in Brussels

Making History in Brussels

The OSCE next week will grapple in Brussels with so-called frozen conflicts, balance of power grievances and other potentially inflammatory issues.

With a number of intra-European disputes still alive, the transatlantic relationship evolving with ever-greater complexity and Russian-European relations at play, the debate at next week's annual ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe could resonate globally. Some might be tempted to consign the organization and its meeting in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday to bureaucratic irrelevance, given the absence today of preponderant adversarial relations to raise the stakes of negotiations. But this temptation is misleading. The stakes are high for the Brussels meeting, and they are high for the United States.

One can indeed be forgiven for asking if the OSCE still matters to U.S.foreign policy. The OSCE and the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe from which the organization originated have not gone down well with the American public. Before President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, which concluded the conference and secured a peace-albeit a cold one-William Safire wrote an essay headlined "Jerry, Don't Go." Safire was not alone in criticizing the administration for its seeming acceptance of the Soviet Union's wish for recognition of status quo borders in Europe. So the CSCE's start was not auspicious. And yet the CSCE outlasted its skeptics and outperformed its critics.

The OSCE matters for the United States, first, because Europe remains unfinished business. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States  has dedicated time and energy to building a Europe whole and free, and at peace, and the OSCE has played a key role in this. We are not there yet.

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union has not run its course. The status of Kosovo will be the question of 2007. There is little doubt about the contents of the recommendations that Maarti Ahtisaari, the UN-appointed mediator for the Kosovo talks, will make in February, but differences of principle and process could tear apart the delicate fabric of our international undertaking here and across the region.

And the decision is not isolated. Other difficult conflicts inside Moldova and Georgia are again coming to the forefront. The self-declared ‘states' of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia follow every step the international community takes on Kosovo with great interest. We must do everything possible to contain the ramifications of decisions on Kosovo. The OSCE is central to these questions. As the forum where the United States and all major players are represented, it has long led mediation efforts in the settling conflicts in the former Soviet Union, and it is a pillar of international efforts in the Kosovo region.

The scale of change across Europe since 1990 is historic. A wave of successful transitions opened the way to EU and NATO enlargements. The question now is whether such success will be replicated in remaining parts of Europe at a time when further EU and NATO enlargement remains uncertain. The OSCE is deeply involved with this question, acting through its 19 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 has registered success but it is clear that transitions in parts of Central Asia, the Caucasus and some corners of Eastern Europe will be long processes requiring deep international support. The OSCE is a key tool for comprehensive assistance to these countries. It needs sustained U.S.engagement to do its job.

The nature of the OSCE is unique. Relative to other organizations, the OSCE is light, flexible and decentralized. The lion's share of its relatively modest budget is dedicated to field activities. The OSCE has a mandate of unparalleled scope, covering political-military, social and economic and environmental dimensions, giving it the ability to scrutinize the domestic affairs of other states.

The organization is also tackling the new threats agenda. As chair of the Forum for Security Co-operation in 2003, the United States helped bolster the OSCE role in assisting member states in implementing UN anti-terrorism conventions. The OSCE has also started to coordinate the efforts of 56 countries to counter human trafficking.

The question now is: where might the United States lead the OSCE in the run-up to and after the Brussels Ministerial Council?

First, we should not forget that the OSCE is fragile-that fragility is built into the organization. Different understandings of security have resided at the heart of this project since 1975. The organization was created as a forum to air differences and to find common ground, a process that can be both dynamic and rocky and which has left the OSCE in a constant state of tension.

Second, the OSCE needs U.S. leadership on reform. The 2005 Ministerial Council launched discussions on reforming the organization, which will come to fruition on the 4th and 5th of  December. The impetus for these discussions lay with the claims made by Russia and some other members of the CIS that the OSCE was biased and unbalanced in focus. The challenge next week is to engage in a meaningful process of reform-one that would address the concerns of some states while safeguarding the organization's strengths.

Here, the challenge is to balance the inclusive nature of the organization-with its 56 very different states-with the need to hold the states to implementing the commitments they entered into. While some OSCE states have achieved progress, others have called into question parts of the OSCE body of standards, particularly in regard to fundamental freedoms. While the organization must remain inclusive and foster a sense of broad ownership among all member states, backsliding from the values and commitments to which states have agreed would be unacceptable. Reconciling these points is a balancing act, requiring patience from all sides.

The bid by Kazakhstan for the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009 illustrates the problem. And the Brussels meeting is crunch time for a decision. While a number of states, including from the European Union, have rallied to the Kazakh proposal-viewing it as an opportunity to lock in democratization in Kazakhstan and to raise the profile of the organization in Central Asia-others, including most prominently the United States, would prefer that Kazakhstan delay its bid to allow more time for serious efforts to apply full OSCE standards.

The debate raises vital stakes. Outright rejection of the Kazakh bid could reinforce the perception of the organization being divided between mentors and pupils. The results could be serious, with the OSCE model of standards losing traction in Central Asia. The viability of the organization could fall under question. At the Brussels meeting, the Kazakh bid must be resolved with great care, since the implications will ripple well beyond Astana.

Given the enduring uncertainty of change across the OSCE area, the United States is well aware that the success of the 1990s will not be replicated everywhere in the same way and at the same pace. Leadership requires finding a balance between radical change, which would undermine the OSCE, and no change, which might do the same. Reforming the OSCE should be a process of adapting an organization designed for different times to new circumstances. The United States should lead that process, guided by the bywords of U.S. policy of the past: patience and expectations tempered by realism.

Marc Perrin de Brichambaut is the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Co-operation inEurope.