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Europe’s Forgotten Security Organization

By Christopher J. Morrow and Matthew Mitchell

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) needs to fundamentally reinvent itself or face increasing relegation to the margins of international affairs. While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin continues his Ukrainian tour, the OSCE wilts under the pressure of its own ineptitude. As the largest regional security organization in the world, the need for the OSCE to assert itself in the face of the Russian threat to Ukrainian sovereignty has never been more apparent. This is especially true given the EU and NATO’s inability to mitigate the conflict. Why has the OSCE been unable to uphold one of the primary components of its stated mission, to prevent regional conflict and seek immediate resolution when it arises?

The principle reason is that the OSCE has had difficulty carving out a unique role in European security in the post-Cold War era due to the growth of the EU and NATO. Overlapping membership and competition  among these three organizations, as well as Russian obstructionist policies within the OSCE have constrained the ability of the OSCE to carry out its mission. In order to rectify this predicament, the organization needs to promote the advantages of its cooperative security approach, information sharing capabilities, and ability to act as a forum for dialogue between Russia, the United States, and Western Europe.

Historically, the OSCE has had several identity crises. With its beginnings in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the OSCE (formerly the CSCE before 1995) facilitated the much-needed dialogue between the East and West. As the Cold War ended, so did the demand for this communication channel, thus ushering in the next era for the organization. This next phase set in motion field operation initiatives designed to monitor and promote democratic institutions in the newly formed countries of Eastern Europe.

The major drawback to specializing in the democratization of Eastern Europe was that by the close of the 1990s these countries had almost completely assimilated with the EU and NATO, again calling into the question the relevance of the OSCE. The post-9/11 environment marked an organizational transition to meet the new needs of global security and counter the obstacles posed by EU and NATO enlargement. The OSCE shifted their focus away from EU accession countries and toward establishing a connection with Central Asia, attempting to carve a niche in counterterrorism, policing capability, and politico-military issues: small arms, light weapons, and destruction of arms and ammunition. 

Similar shifts were subsequently made by the EU and NATO, which by comparison have been more effective, often rendering OSCE efforts in the same area obsolete. EU and NATO expansion policies stretching over the Balkans and Commonwealth of Independent States have, while making significant progress in international relations, undercut the OSCE’s activities and prove detrimental to its overall effectiveness. The membership overlap between these organizations can often lead to contradictory obligations among member states.

Recent Russian aggression toward Ukraine—the annexation of Crimea, protests engulfing the eastern portions of the country, and accusations that Ukraine is being turned into a “slave territory”—demands OSCE action. In terms of balancing a relationship between Russia and the West, the OSCE has a distinct advantage over NATO and the EU because of their historical ability to create dialogue between the two sides. Their role in the Cold War has fostered Russian trust, which is absent from Russia's relations with NATO and the EU. Russia’s historical mistrust of NATO and the EU makes the OSCE a viable option to bridge the estranged relationship created by the crisis.

Unfortunately, existing issues have overshadowed the OSCE’s benefits. Recent ineffectiveness of the OSCE’s security goals and Putin’s skepticism of Western influence in the organization has threatened the potential distinct advantages of the OSCE. Russian expectations of the OSCE have shifted according to the divergent approaches of the cooperative Boris Yeltsin and the confrontational Vladimir Putin. Putin’s disillusionment with the organization stems primarily from the OSCE’s inability to prevent NATO military involvement in Kosovo and NATO’s continued eastward expansion. At the Vienna Ministerial Meeting, the first major OSCE meeting since the departure of Yeltsin, Putin lambasted the OSCE by criticizing their direction and relevance due to institutional dysfunction.

The Kremlin has been severely critical of EU members’ focus on democracy within the OSCE and views their intentions with suspicion, calling the EU’s democracy promotion efforts ‘beyond what participating states are paying for.’ Consequently, Russia no longer views the OSCE as a counter to NATO, but utilizes it in an instrumental, selective, and limited manner, primarily to legitimize viewpoints, exchange security information, draw attention to concerns, block unfavorable decisions, constrain member states’ actions, and cooperate on important ‘low politics’ challenges.

Simply put, the OSCE’s influence has diminished because of three key reasons. First, Russia’s contentious and often obstructionist relationship with the organization. Second, the redefining of security in the post-9/11 era has allowed NATO to expand its definition of security and encroach on traditional OSCE territory. Third, the overlapping and often contradictory commitments of member states in the OSCE, NATO, and the EU have caused the OSCE to weaken while elevating the EU and NATO.

In order to reverse its depreciating status, the OSCE needs to make advances in three areas: (1) Given Putin’s meager expectations of the OSCE and U.S. favoritism toward NATO, it is imperative that the OSCE promote its existing, but underutilized cooperative security approach—to bring together military and nonmilitary bodies to advocate conflict prevention, stabilization, and reconstruction—to the U.S., Russia, and Western Europe; (2) President Barack Obama was hoping to use the OSCE as a channel to prevent the Russian acquisition of Crimea in the early stages, but ultimately failed. Despite this failure, Obama’s intention points to a glimmer of opportunity for the organization to augment its role as a forum for dialogue between the two nations; and (3) Despite its recent bellicose demeanor, Russia still views the OSCE as a valuable information provider. The OSCE must highlight this role to Putin to demonstrate the value of the organization.

The uncertainty surrounding the crisis in Ukraine parallels the identity predicament the OSCE faced in the post-9/11 period. Unless it decides to reinvent itself once again, the OSCE risks a continued descent toward obsolescence.



Christopher J. Morrow is a master's candidate in diplomacy and international relations and a master's candidate in business administration of finance at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University.

Matthew Mitchell is a master's candidate in diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations.


[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia and Wikimedia]

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