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Since the end of the Cold War, key regional organizations like NATO, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and lately, with the development of a security dimension, the EU, have been engaged in a race to transform and adapt to the changing security environment. These entities, however, have been transforming in competition rather than coordination with each other.

With the European Union and NATO's anticipated expansion eastward, and the seeming duplication of certain security functions among NATO, the EU and the OSCE, the future role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appears to be in doubt. Underscoring the need for coordination and a division of labor among the security organizations, the panelists emphasized the unique role that the OSCE can still play in Europe to prevent conflict and deal with post-conflict situations by focusing on the organization's particular institutional strengths and outlining key areas of reform necessary to ensure the entity's future in the region.

All three speakers stressed the OSCE's unique quality as the only pan-European security organization that spans the Euro-Atlantic region and which includes the US, Canada, Russia and all NIS states as members. Consequently, the OSCE can be used in a multilateral context which involves Russia as an active member, thereby lending real legitimacy to adopted security measures for Europe, the NIS, and Central Asia. Additionally, the institution's physical presence in the region in the form of 19 field missions and direct, long-term involvement with parties on the ground in democratization and conflict mediation efforts - spanning political, economic, military, and linguistic issues - gives the OSCE a comparative advantage over other security organizations like NATO, which are only recently getting used to "out of area" involvement. The OSCE is, therefore, best suited for peace-building in the region, exactly because all of the region's states are members and because it already has on the ground field missions in many crises areas such as Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Moldova, as well as Russia's 'near-abroad' neighbors, including Tajikistan and Georgia. Ambassador Barry and Dr. Hopmann particularly stressed the important role the OSCE has and can play in conflict prevention and resolution in Central Asia, an area NATO or the EU are not likely to become involved in for the longer term.

Though well known for preparing and monitoring elections, the OSCE performs a myriad of other important functions in the region:

  • managing post-conflict situations to help build democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law (Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Albania);
  • engaging in conflict prevention measures as was the case with Macedonia and Crimea;
  • monitoring and verification missions (Kosovo) and, somewhat less-common, cease-fire negotiation monitoring (Chechnya);
  • conflict resolution, as in Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan; and
  • mediating ethnic and linguistic disputes within and between countries through the Office of the High Commissioner for National Minorities and local field missions in the region.

As Ambassador Hill pointed out, the OSCE, while lacking its own military forces, has also contributed to Europe's military security - an important function not often associated with this institution - through the negotiation of ground-breaking agreements on arms control. The Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), for example, was negotiated and is implemented in the OSCE context. CFE and other OSCE arms agreements, including the CSBM regime, have significantly reduced the amounts of conventional arms deployed in Europe. Through an extensive regime of confidence-building, transparency and predictability measures, verification measures, and early warning intervention mechanisms, most of Europe has achieved a far greater degree of security at greatly reduced levels of arms and tensions.

In the current dramatically changed security environment, however, the OSCE, like other security organizations, has to adapt to remain relevant. One of its biggest strengths as well as weakness has been its flexible and loose bureaucratic structure. The key factor determining the OSCE's effectiveness, according to Ambassador Barry, is the strength of the Chairmanship, which rotates annually among the 55 member states. When this element is lacking, the field missions, already fairly autonomous in their decision-making and priorities, can drift. To address this gap in leadership, some suggest bolstering the small, Vienna-based OSCE Secretariat and office of the relatively weak Secretary General. Such centralization, however, has been resisted so far, being viewed by the heads of missions and certain member countries as a model which can be cumbersomely micromanaging and with an overall lack of expertise in dealing with fast moving situations in a variety of countries. Others suggest creating a permanent "undersecretary" post to assist the Chairman in office and provide continuity and regional guidance to field missions. Dr. Hopmann argues instead for the selection of a Secretary General combining political clout with diplomatic and managerial skills. Ambassador Barry and Dr. Hopmann also recommend increasing the overall professionalization of the staff, both in the Vienna central office as well as in the field missions. Currently, most staff is seconded from governments of member states.

Another major weakness connected to the OSCE's hybrid bureaucracy is the rigidity of its budget. Currently, the institution relies on the fixed contributions of member states. This can severely limit available resources and impede exactly the kinds of on-the-ground activities from which the institution derives its strength and successes. As Dr. Hopmann pointed out, strengthening the OSCE involves continuity and flexibility, namely the institution's ability to make long-term commitments and devote resources to its biggest asset - field missions.

A major area underlined by all speakers is Russia's role in the OSCE. Originally pushed by the Soviets in the 1970s as Europe's primary security institution and, later, the institution of choice for the Russian Federation in the early 1990s, the OSCE has become a less attractive instrument for today's Russia, especially given the refusal of other participating states to supply an OSCE "rubber stamp" to Russian activities in the CIS and Chechnya. Russia has, therefore, engaged frequently in obstructionist tactics to blunt OSCE initiatives it opposes in the Balkans and the Caucasus. For the OSCE to succeed, Russia needs to be more active and flexible in its involvement in the institution. It needs to be convinced, as Dr. Hopmann stated, that the OSCE can make a difference in resolving issues in Russia's 'near abroad' and in contributing to Europe's overall security.

Finally, the speakers agreed that Western states need to pay more attention to, and make better use of, the OSCE's capabilities. Ambassador Barry asserted that in East Europe and the former USSR, the OSCE should be the US' "security organization of choice." Ambassador Hill noted one major way to strengthen the OSCE is to make greater use of all its structures for taking and implementing decisions on important issues, rather than simply receiving and executing decisions taken elsewhere. All three panelists regretted the lack of knowledge and understanding in the US of the OSCE's accomplishments and capabilities - a basic impediment to better use of, and more effective American participation in, the OSCE.

The above is a report summarizing the speakers' presentations, drafted by Sabina Crisen, EES Program Associate Meeting Report #254.


Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, US-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more