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Obama needs to realize the OSCE’s diplomatic potential

When I became the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I was often told by my State Department colleagues that if the U.S. and Russia worked well together in OSCE, the organization would also work well. The United States and Russia, indeed, worked well together in my initial years ...

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

When I became the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I was often told by my State Department colleagues that if the U.S. and Russia worked well together in OSCE, the organization would also work well.

The United States and Russia, indeed, worked well together in my initial years at OSCE and my Russian counterparts and I were able to achieve a few things. That has not been the case in recent years. The United States and Russia, in effect, gave up on the organization. Its budget shrank. Russia and others became disillusioned with western standards on human rights. Security took a back seat when then-President Vladimir Putin suspended Russia's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) in 2007. In 2008, speaking in the Bundestag, President Dmitry Medvedev presented a plan for a new security architecture for Europe that did not seem to build on OSCE.

President Obama proposed to change the relationship when he called on both the United States and Russia to hit the "re-set" button. Suddenly, things began to happen. New incentives ranging from arms control to overflights to Afghanistan were agreed to. But nothing of consequence was happening at OSCE, one of the world's few organizations where both the United States and Russia are full-fledged, voting members. There was lots of attention given to NATO; little, if any, to OSCE, notwithstanding Secretary Clinton's Paris speech as recently as this past January, where she called for more responsibilities for OSCE. 

When I became the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I was often told by my State Department colleagues that if the U.S. and Russia worked well together in OSCE, the organization would also work well.

The United States and Russia, indeed, worked well together in my initial years at OSCE and my Russian counterparts and I were able to achieve a few things. That has not been the case in recent years. The United States and Russia, in effect, gave up on the organization. Its budget shrank. Russia and others became disillusioned with western standards on human rights. Security took a back seat when then-President Vladimir Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) in 2007. In 2008, speaking in the Bundestag, President Dmitry Medvedev presented a plan for a new security architecture for Europe that did not seem to build on OSCE.

President Obama proposed to change the relationship when he called on both the United States and Russia to hit the "re-set" button. Suddenly, things began to happen. New incentives ranging from arms control to overflights to Afghanistan were agreed to. But nothing of consequence was happening at OSCE, one of the world’s few organizations where both the United States and Russia are full-fledged, voting members. There was lots of attention given to NATO; little, if any, to OSCE, notwithstanding Secretary Clinton’s Paris speech as recently as this past January, where she called for more responsibilities for OSCE. 

There are many reasons for this inattention, especially from the United States. One is the absence of an OSCE summit since 1999, when President Clinton went to Istanbul with other national leaders. That was 11 years ago. According to an agreement at the Helsinki Summit in 1992, the OSCE was to have a summit every two years. That has not happened.

When Kazakhstan took over the OSCE chairmanship on January 1 of this year, as is done by a different member-country every year, it made an OSCE summit at the heads of government or state level its highest priority. Russia has indicated its support, as have a number of other states.  Many more members are looking to the U.S. for its leadership on this issue. The United States has been tepid in its response. President Nazerbayev’s visit to Washington, where he met with President Obama as part of the Nuclear Security Summit, was a missed opportunity for definitive U.S. agreement to an OSCE summit and for setting a time and place. The other OSCE members will follow if the U.S. and Russia agree.

Why is a summit important? Because the world has changed. At the time of OSCE’s inception in 1975, the world was bi-polar. Today, it is multi-polar. Russia has become a balance-shifter, not an opponent. The U.S. must nurture this change. When Russia and the United States are on the same side, all kinds of breakthroughs are possible. In a bi-polar world, it was "us" against "them." Now, it is "western" against "other" values. The United States and Russia should be in agreement on as many of those values as possible. When we disagree, we should be having civil discussions. But disagreements should be narrow, especially on terrorism and especially in light of the recent Moscow subway bombings. We also need more multilateralism. A well-functioning OSCE is one significant way of achieving that goal. 

What should be U.S.-Russian and OSCE’s goals? It will take a summit to identify them and have member states buy-in. No more "contracts of adhesion" as was the case when states comprising the former Soviet Union signed on to OSCE after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The key issues facing the world today are trans-regional and global. Counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, energy security, trade, climate change and human security require multi-lateral approaches and solutions to which countries agree. That is successful multilateralism in a nutshell. The cooperation of fifty-six participating states, comprising three continents that span the globe and include over a billion people — which defines OSCE — are not a bad start on any issue. Furthermore, an OSCE summit needs to reach out to the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in which Kazakhstan and Russia but not the United States are members, and get their members to cooperate, where possible, in common cause. Kazakhstan as OSCE chair for 2010, and as a member of the Central Asian Economic Forum, the Single Economic Space Agreement and the Eurasian Economic Council, needs to be held responsible for accessing these organizations. They need to be allies, not unknown competitors. An OSCE summit is required to achieve that goal.

Throughout the past decade, OSCE has hobbled along with minimal effectiveness. It has some respect and authority, but not nearly enough. A summit, particularly under the Kazakh chairmanship, will provide the organization with the momentum and direction to once again be an important tool in the United States and Russian diplomatic arsenals.  It could even bring about today’s equivalent of the great things, like a Europe "whole and free", that followed the signing of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.

Stephan M. Minikes was U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE from June 2001 to 2005.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated.

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