By Christopher Morrow and Matthew Mitchell
Note: A published version of this op-ed appears here.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) needs to fundamentally reinvent itself or face increasing relegation to the periphery of international affairs. While 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 to assert itself in the face of the Russian threat to Ukrainian sovereignty has never been more apparent. Why has the OSCE been unable to uphold one of the primary components of its mission statement, to prevent conflict and seek immediate resolution when conflict arises? The principle reason is that the OSCE offers little in terms of benefits to Russia that it cannot accomplish unilaterally. 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 and the United States.
Beginning as the Helsinki Act in 1975, the OSCE (formerly the CSCE before 1995) facilitated the need for dialogue between East and West. As the Cold War ended, so did the need for this role, 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, calling into the question the relevance of the OSCE. The post 9/11 environment marked a 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 counter terrorism, policing capability, and politico-military issues: small arms, light weapons, and destruction of arms and ammunition. Regardless, EU and NATO expansion policies stretching over the Balkans and Commonwealth of Independent States have still undercut the OSCE’s activities and have proven 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 Ukraine is being turned into a “slave territory”—demands OSCE action. Russian expectations of the OSCE have shifted according to the divergent approaches of the cooperative Boris Yeltsin and the confrontational Vladimir Putin; whose disillusionment formed following the OSCE’s inability to act as a vehicle for preventing NATO’s eastward expansion and military involvement in Kosovo. 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. Russia 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 actions, and cooperate on important ‘low politics’ challenges.
The OSCE has diminished in influence for 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 between the OSCE, NATO, and the EU have caused the organization to marginalize while elevating the EU and NATO.
In order to reverse this diminishing status, the OSCE needs to make advances in three areas. 1) Given Putin’s meager expectations of the OSCE and US favoritism toward NATO, it is imperative that the OSCE promote its existing, but criminally underutilized cooperative security approach—to bring together military and nonmilitary bodies to advocate conflict prevention, stabilization, and reconstruction. 2) President 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, the action points to an opportunity for the organization to augment its role as a forum for dialogue between the two nations. 3) Russia still views the OSCE as a valuable information provider. 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.