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Two years on: The war has left the OSCE in peril, but the institution is worthy of reinvestment

Article by Prof Stefan Wolff

February 22, 2024

Two years on: The war has left the OSCE in peril, but the institution is worthy of reinvestment

As the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine heads into its third year, the Euro-Asian and Euro-Atlantic security orders remain deeply unsettled, and there is little prospect of their imminent restabilisation. This is nowhere more obvious than in relation to the OSCE—the sole remaining, yet barely surviving collective security mechanism created at the height of the Cold War with a view to managing relations between East and West in ways that would avoid all-out military confrontation.


Last year’s Ministerial Council avoided the complete collapse of the Organisation, but only just. And it did not resolve several of the fundamental institutional impasses that have been apparent for some time. This includes a lack of a unified budget since 2021, and hence an increasing dependency on so-called extra-budgetary contributions from individual participating States. The top-four positions in the OSCE, including the Secretary General, have only been extended for nine months, rather than the customary three years, thus foreshadowing the next leadership crisis in the run-up to the expiry of this briefly extended lifeline.


All the while OSCE staff in Vienna and in the field operations from the Balkans to Moldova, and Central Asia have worked hard to keep the Organisation going and its mission—comprehensive, cooperative security—alive. Beyond the headlines of the Ukraine war, their day-to-day efforts make real contributions to security and stability across the OSCE area. In their work, they address the broader security needs of states and societies including when it comes to protracted conflicts and instability in Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe, and the South Caucasus; emerging security risks, such as the climate emergency, natural resource scarcity (particularly water), new patterns of migration, and the aggravation of food and energy security problems; and the risks that disinformation poses to social cohesion and societal stability.


The OSCE is not the mechanism to ‘fix’ any one of these problems on its own, but if its participating States would muster the requisite political will, the Organisation could certainly make a meaningful contribution to their management—because it (still) has the tools, staff, and institutional knowledge and understanding to do so. With some modest investment of political and financial resources, early-warning and early-action capabilities could be upgraded, allowing the OSCE to deploy its considerable mediation and dialogue facilitation capabilities on the ground to prevent conflict escalations.


Similarly, when it comes to emerging security risks, the OSCE has access to know-how and expertise that can be mobilised for knowledge creation and knowledge transfer to enable affected participating States to address the risks they are facing. In relation to information security, the OSCE, especially through its field operations, could contribute to ‘restoring’ the perceived value of scientific knowledge and expertise to inform public debates and decision-making by facilitating and encouraging dialogue between the academic/think tank community and civil servants, elected representatives, and media professionals.


None of this should detract from the importance of the war against Ukraine and the role that OSCE can play in supporting Ukraine in mitigating the consequences of Russia’s aggression. But it is important to remember that the Organisation’s continued relevance, and functionality, as a platform for dialogue among 57 participating States extends beyond this war.


Professor Stefan Wolff is a FPC Senior Research Fellow.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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