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OSCE Debates Future of European Security

By Alex Tiersky,
Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor

Can an organization of 57 participating States which includes both the United States and Russia come to agreement on the causes of instability in European security today, let alone re-commit to the basic rules of the road governing states’ behavior?  And are all participating States – especially Russia – still able and willing to participate in good faith in a positive-sum, cooperative approach to building security, rather than a competitive, beggar-thy-neighbor approach?

These were the questions that underpinned the OSCE Security Days conference of non-governmental experts and governmental representatives on “Countering fragmentation and polarization: Re-creating a climate for stability in Europe,” held on May 18-19, 2017 in Prague. 

While the Czech hosts were proud to inform attendees that the meeting was held in the very hall in which the July 1, 1991 protocol dissolving the Warsaw Pact was signed, it seemed unlikely that this historical spirit would deliver positive breakthroughs in the current challenges facing the post-Cold War order in Europe, which was declared dead by more than one speaker.

The great majority of interventions focused on the deliberate undermining of other countries’ security and independence by Russia. Additional challenges raised by speakers included increasing polarization within and among states, the rise of populist movements, a post-truth environment that feeds instability and mistrust, and the emergence of the cyber domain and its use in interstate competition.

Russian revisionist perspectives on the European security order, declared on such occasions as President Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, underline the extent to which Russian leaders see the post- cold war order as detrimental to Russia’s interests and therefore obsolete, according to several speakers.

Conference participants from Russia, for their part, painted an entirely different reality than that described by most other participants. In the former’s telling, the west took advantage of Russia in the post-cold war period despite positive actions by Russia, ranging from the withdrawal of troops and armaments previously stationed across Europe, to more recent collaboration in fighting against piracy or eliminating Syrian chemical weapons. Stressing the concept of indivisibility of security, Russian speakers underlined that Russia would make no more of what they called unilateral concessions, and called for a new European Security Treaty.  NATO’s concept of deterring Russia is not compatible with OSCE commitments, they asserted.

Seeking to address these widely differing perspectives among its membership, the German Chairmanship in 2016 and the Austrian Chairmanship in 2017 have launched an informal working group on “structured dialogue” to discuss participating States’ differing views on security threats and possible ways forward.  Conference participants were of mixed views on the prospects for the structured dialogue effort, with skeptics citing what they saw as similar past processes such as the Corfu Process or Helsinki +40, which failed to show concrete results.  Many participants were keen to underline the need for the structured dialogue to avoid calling existing institutions or principles into question.  The challenges facing European security were not institutional in nature, these voices argued, but rather the result of one OSCE participating State – Russia – failing to uphold its commitments or respect the sovereignty and independence of other participating States.

Conference participants offered a number of policy recommendations for strengthening the OSCE (such as providing a small crisis response fund under the Secretary General’s authority; providing additional tangible assets like unmanned aerial vehicles; supporting historical research to better understand the sources of divergent perspectives; or modernizing arms control and confidence building measures).  The OSCE should pay more attention to the increasing instability in the Western Balkans, it was suggested, and ongoing work on cyber norms had real potential utility. Individual participating States were urged to combat disinformation campaigns by investing in tools to rapidly rebut false claims, educate publics, and discredit outlets that serve as propaganda, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms. 

Despite these and other positively-inclined recommendations, however, the general mood at the conference was one of urgency, not optimism. If one point of general consensus emerged among the widely differing perspectives, it was that in the face of increasingly complex and urgent challenges (many of them caused by or closely linked to Russia’s geopolitical stance, according to the great majority of conference attendees) the absence of shared views and approaches was unlikely to resolve itself in the near term. This dynamic was likely to contribute to a worsening of existing and emerging security crises – and ultimately the further loss of lives.

Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a representative of the U.S Helsinki Commission.

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