By taking lessons from NATO, the OSCE could be more effective in responding to today's complex challenges.
After the Cold War, two European security institutions remained: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Both organizations—robust tankers in size and complexity—shared the goal of enhancing security on the European continent and across the transatlantic space, despite their different roles and memberships. However, after 30 years, these organizations have charted different courses when adapting to contemporary challenges. Of the two, NATO has proved more adept at reinventing itself. It may be a tanker, but it has—when necessary—maneuvered like a yacht. The OSCE, with 57 participating states, including Russia, remains a tanker: essential but cumbersome, in need of an overhaul, vulnerable in a heavy storm. For the OSCE to thrive beyond next year’s 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act which created the organization, it will need to take a page out of NATO’s book of reinvention and embark on a new chapter.
Post-Cold War’s New Security Architecture for Europe
As the Cold War came to a close, security architecture in Europe was at a crossroads. NATO lost its express purpose as an anti-Soviet defense umbrella. Its counterpart, the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact, was rapidly disintegrating. Many wondered about the necessity of NATO; leaders met in July 1990 and issued the London Declaration, a seminal moment for the Alliance that redefined its work for the years to come. NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner provided a new focus for NATO: clearing away the legacy of the Cold War and helping define a new European security architecture, ensure the membership of a reunited Germany into the Alliance, and continue to prevent war on the European continent. The transformation of NATO was profound: revised defense and force planning, moving toward a reduced forward presence, and less reliance on nuclear weapons. A new Strategic Concept (the document defining the Alliance’s mandate) was introduced at the 1990 summit and approved in 1991. It also led to a restructuring of NATO member countries’ forces. This guiding document would last until a new Strategic Concept (introduced in 1999) would further refine NATO’s post-Cold War role and demonstrate the remarkable changes underway to ensure it continued to be fit for purpose. The decision to invite the new democracies of Europe into NATO, beginning in 1999 with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, transformed the Alliance and Europe itself. Russia was seen as a partner, as outlined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
After 9/11, NATO’s key challenge changed dramatically. It shifted the Alliance focus beyond its core task of collective defense to emphasize its role in crisis management and cooperative security.
In the 1990s, the OSCE seemed like the ideal venue for strengthening ties with Russia and integrating the Russian Federation into the west. The Helsinki Principles (agreed to by the former Soviet Union after all) were the Organization’s foundation. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe, established in 1990, updated its mandate for the post-Soviet era, and the Helsinki Summit in 1992 gave the organization new capabilities, including on-the-ground missions and a human rights office, to ensure principles were implemented. The OSCE cemented the transition from an infrequent conference to an institution with staff, offices, and engagement. This was the golden era of the OSCE; while NATO focused on the macro level security matters, the OSCE focused on human rights, democracy, freedom of the press, the rights of national minorities, and arms control. Unlike NATO, the OSCE counted Russia as one of its key members and of equal standing with the United States or any other participating state. The immediacy of the OSCE’s work in Eastern Europe made this a zenith of the organization’s influence and efficacy.
Reinvention Shaped by War
The 1990s also tested NATO and OSCE with the collapse of Yugoslavia and war in the Balkans. For NATO, the debate was over whether to conduct “out of area” operations, eventually answered by actions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The OSCE, which had deployed its first-ever monitoring missions to the former Yugoslavia in September 1992 (withdrawn in July 1993), found itself in a post-war democracy-building role in Bosnia by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. In Kosovo, the OSCE’s mission (established in 1999) runs its largest field operation, focused on human rights and governance.
After 9/11, NATO’s key challenge changed dramatically. In response to the terrorist attack on the United States, NATO members invoked Article 5 for the first time, shaped by years of Allied engagement in Afghanistan. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept underscored the threat of terrorism and transnational threats. It shifted the Alliance focus beyond its core task of collective defense to emphasize its role in crisis management and cooperative security and provided the foundation for NATO’s 2011 engagement in Libya. Even with military operations ongoing, NATO continued to expand its membership (adding seven members in 2004, two in 2009, and three more from 2017-2023).
Complicating the OSCE’s tenuous relationship with Russia is its breadth, not just of membership, but also of issues. It has expanded its areas of responsibility beyond its initial three pillars.
As NATO adapted itself to new security challenges, the OSCE found its tools were becoming dated, although its ability to put missions in the field remained useful: in Moldova, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia (until December 2008), and in Ukraine (from 2014 until 2022), among others. The OSCE’s Minsk Group, under joint leadership of France, Russia, and the US, engaged in years of negotiations with Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. But funding these missions and renewing their mandates became increasingly difficult as Russian opposition mounted. The OSCE’s security role also diminished. A focus on confidence building measures promoting verification and transparency has languished as major arms control agreements ended. Russia suspended and eventually withdrew from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE); the United States and Russia have withdrawn from the Treaty on Open Skies. The valuable safety rails the OSCE worked hard to install are slowly being dismantled and new measures are not being introduced.
OSCE and NATO in the Wake of Renewed Russia Aggression
Today, NATO remains a defensive alliance and is more relevant than ever. Bolstered by two new applicants, Finland and Sweden, NATO also boasts a new Strategic Concept unveiled in 2022. This renewed force posture makes the Alliance better able to respond to threats. With an announced increase in military spending across Europe bolstering NATO’s capabilities, it is clear that NATO’s role will endure through 2030 and beyond. The reinvention and reinvigoration of NATO was externally motivated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but the Alliance seized on the opportunity and ran with it. Although the Alliance is inherently a coalition of like-minded countries (while the OSCE has been described as a coalition of non-like-minded countries), it still faced considerable internal and political hurdles to seize on this opportunity.
NATO stepped up to meet the strategic threat posed by Russia. It’s there in the 2022 Strategic Concept, and even clearer in the restructuring of its operational goals after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The OSCE, with Russia as a member, has found its capacity for action increasingly restricted. It is perhaps the most difficult chapter of the OSCE’s history, with everything coming to a head in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Due to the consensus-based nature of the OSCE, Russia has blocked the formal adoption of a budget, forcing the organization to pursue extraordinary funding from individual members. Ahead of the 2023 ministerial in Skopje, Russia made it exceptionally difficult to choose a new country to chair and steer the work of the OSCE in 2024 (Malta took on the challenge).
Complicating the OSCE’s tenuous relationship with Russia is its breadth, not just of membership, but also of issues. It has expanded its areas of responsibility beyond its initial three pillars (politico-military, economic and environmental, and human) to now cover at least 24 sub-themes and focus areas. Although this is a reflection of the increasingly complex nature of current challenges that fall under the security umbrella, paring down its activities to be more targeted can only strengthen the organization.
The OSCE of Tomorrow
How can the OSCE reinvent itself and remain relevant in this increasingly complex and geopolitical world? Some have called for this tanker to return to its original conference format, harkening back to its early pre-institutional days. But doing so would lose expertise and capabilities, built up over many decades, including in the OSCE’s field missions monitoring not-so-frozen conflicts. As the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act looms large, can the OSCE tanker be retrofitted for the future? NATO has shown that a tanker can act like a yacht, given the right occasion and political will. The OSCE has a continued purpose, and with continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and consequential elections around the world, it is arguably more needed in 2024 than at any other point in the 21st century. But it needs to learn from NATO’s example if it is to endure effectively beyond 2025.
Robin S. Quinville is the director of the Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program. She spent more than 30 years as a US diplomat, having served primarily in Europe including postings to both NATO and the OSCE.
Ambassador Philip T. Reeker (Ret.) is the chair of the Wilson Center's Global Europe Program and partner and lead of the Europe & Eurasia practice at Albright Stonebridge Group. Before joining the Wilson Center, Ambassador Reeker served as Chargé d'Affaires at the US Embassy in the United Kingdom (2021-22) and was Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia (2019-21).
Jason C. Moyer is a program associate for the Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program. Previously, he worked at Johns Hopkin SAIS in the Foreign Policy Institute, the Dean's research institute, and for the Center for Transatlantic Relations, a transatlantic think tank within the university. He is also a Fellow for the Transatlantic Leadership Network. His current research focuses on the European Union, NATO, transatlantic security, the Arctic, the Nordic countries, and great power competition.
Cover photo: General view of the NATO Vilnius Summit, July, 11-12, 2023, Lithuania. Photo courtesy of NATO.