What Shall We Do With the OSCE?

Fresh-faced: European foreign ministers at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki in 1973. Image: Pentti Koskinen / Wikimedia Commons

Fifty years on from its inception, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is in trouble. Russia’s war on Ukraine has betrayed the OSCE’s principles, designed to regulate behaviour between states and by states towards their citizens, and challenged the organisation’s role and operational effectiveness. The OSCE continues to do valuable work, but quickly needs to find new relevance, purpose and focus.

It is 50 years since, in July 1973, negotiations opened at the then Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), forerunner of today’s OSCE. Two years later, in the summer of 1975, 35 original participating states adopted the landmark Helsinki Final Act. This deserves greater recognition, establishing in tense Cold War times 10 principles to govern the behaviour of participating states towards each other and their own citizens, and setting out specific politico-military, economic, environmental and human rights commitments.

At its best, the CSCE/OSCE proved a flexible forum in which Eastern, Western, neutral and non-aligned countries across the Euro-Atlantic area and Central Asia (‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’) could discuss collective security issues, even during periods of tension and conflict. It provided the framework for groundbreaking commitments, including the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, the Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBM) of the Vienna Document, and the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe.

The OSCE’s membership grew in subsequent years to its current 57 countries. It deployed valuable field operations to parts of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the 2014–15 Minsk Agreements were negotiated in an OSCE context and envisaged an OSCE role in future monitoring and verification of a peace deal. It remains the only cooperative security organisation that brings together all NATO Allies, Ukraine, Russia, Central Asian states and others, with a diverse agenda from arms control to youth engagement.

Whither the OSCE?

Yet the OSCE now faces a serious test of purpose and direction. Russia’s renewed assault on Ukraine since 2022 has shattered cooperative security. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine closed in March 2022 and its staff members were detained. At OSCE HQ in Vienna, Russia has exploited the consensus requirement to impede decision-making, including blocking a regular annual budget and obliging other participating states to make voluntary financial contributions.

Russia’s actions have shown contempt for OSCE values, set out in the Helsinki Final Act principles of sovereign equality, refraining from the threat or use of force, the inviolability of frontiers, respecting states’ territorial integrity and non-interference in others’ internal affairs. Setting aside their obligations under international law and the UN Charter, all OSCE participating states, including Russia, have a direct national interest in these principles being restored.

The OSCE was never a club of the like-minded. That was its point. But it was founded on a common understanding that all stood to benefit from cooperative security arrangements. That should still be the case.

An Old Agenda – and a New One

The Helsinki principles are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1973. The only question 50 years on ought to be whether any new principles are necessary for 21st-century needs. These could, for example, include a commitment to protect civilian populations from the effects of war; recognition of the need to regulate the impact of new technologies; and a pledge to address the consequences of climate change and promote climate security.

The OSCE should beware of becoming a second-order talking shop when the real international discussions are taking place elsewhere

There is much in the OSCE’s existing body of work that is relevant to current challenges. Take the military transparency and other CSBMs of the Vienna Document. On a practical level, with a much-expanded land border with NATO following Finland’s accession, Russia should have at least as much interest as the Allies in a functioning CSBM and risk reduction regime, updated as necessary.

The OSCE could do more on new issues of concern to all, including climate security, building on the recent, well-attended, High-Level Conference on Climate Change. As early as Helsinki, environmental issues were identified as an area of potential cooperation. The OSCE should beware of becoming a second-order talking shop when the real international discussions are taking place elsewhere. Yet the war in Ukraine has underlined the interplay between environmental and traditional security agendas, including when critical national infrastructure is damaged.

The OSCE could also play a role in applying a security lens to another contemporary challenge: tackling human trafficking and the organised international crime networks that exploit vulnerable migrants. Here, too, there is existing activity to build on.

All that said, the OSCE’s future relevance stands or falls on whether it will find a role as part of a peace solution and future security arrangements for and around Ukraine. The earlier Minsk Agreements gave it a role – an ambitious one – in monitoring and verifying an eventual ceasefire and border zones. It is hard yet to forecast which OSCE tools might be needed when the guns fall silent, but there is a broad set of expertise and resources to draw on, from national minority rights to border monitoring and management.

Organisational Rivals

One virtue of the OSCE is that it involves the US in European and Central Asian security affairs beyond the NATO area. There is no ready substitute for this.

Like Russia, the US is not a member of the fledgling European Political Community (EPC), which held its second summit meeting in Moldova in June. The EPC aims to foster political dialogue and cooperation between its 45 members and to ‘strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of the European continent’. This mission makes it a potential competitor to the OSCE, with the advantage – from the point of view of decision-making, if not of impact – of currently excluding Russia and Belarus.

Despite meetings in its summit margins with Azerbaijan and Armenia, however, the EPC has yet to have much impact on current challenges. The next two summits, hosted by Spain and the UK, will provide a test of whether it can develop momentum and substance.

The shocking return to Europe of major state-on-state war should be a call to renew and reinvigorate cooperative security arrangements, and the role the OSCE can play in them

An interesting aspect of NATO’s recent Vilnius Summit was the 12 July Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine by G7 heads of government. Through this, the G7 leaders addressed security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic area, pledging to work with Ukraine on ‘specific, bilateral, long-term’ security commitments, and inviting other countries to join. The Joint Declaration referred to Ukraine’s rights to self-defence under the UN Charter and to the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty. But it did not mention the OSCE.

Japan’s involvement in this initiative, alongside China’s pronouncements on Ukraine, underline that contemporary Euro–Atlantic security questions, like those in Central Asia, are likely to engage Asian partners too.

Such developments add to a sense that smaller, more agile diplomatic constructs might be better suited to 21st-century security needs than OSCE-wide ones. If ‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’ no longer delivers, perhaps ‘Toronto to Tokyo’ might. This is an incentive for the OSCE to up its game.

Happy 50th Anniversary?

As we move from the 50th anniversary of the start of the Helsinki process to the 50th birthday of the Helsinki Final Act itself, we need an honest reappraisal of the OSCE’s relevance and future. There is both need and opportunity for a reset and fresh thinking.

The shocking return to Europe of major state-on-state war should be a call to renew and reinvigorate cooperative security arrangements, and the role the OSCE can play in them. If we fail to do so, the organisation risks drifting into increasing irrelevance, and other bilateral and multilateral security arrangements will fill the space. We either use the OSCE or we lose it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Peter Jones CMG

Distinguished Fellow; Former COO and Director-General, FCDO

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