The OSCE and Conventional Arms Control in Europe: Towards a Double Relaunch

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OSCE Ministerial Council meeting opening in Vilnius, 2011












Much has been written about the OSCE’s crisis. Much of it is true. Still, the future of this organization may be less grim than many predict. Current developments in Europe suggest that the role and relevance of the OSCE may actually grow in the years ahead.

For one thing, following the ambivalent outcome of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a conspicuous intervention fatigue among European publics. The ‘crisis’ of military crisis management is bound to exacerbate as the European debt crisis translates into shrinking defense budgets. There will likely be a shift towards more subtle, civilian, long-term approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding – the type of measures the OSCE has focused on.

Looking at the EU and NATO, there is also growing enlargement fatigue. This points to obvious limits to how far stability in Europe can be accomplished by expanding the Euro-Atlantic security community. By implication, the pan-European OSCE, with twice as many member states as the EU and NATO, is bound to gain traction again.

Back to cooperative security

For the OSCE to re-establish itself as a credible actor in European security, the organization will first have to adjust its level of ambition to what a club of 56 member states can realistically accomplish. Establishing a pan-European security community – the OSCE’s flagship project since its Astana summit in 2010 –  is a noble but unrealistic goal. There is too much diversity in the OSCE for this to happen anytime soon. Instead, the OSCE should focus on managing this diversity in ways that enhances security in Europe. In other words, it should concentrate on promoting cooperative security again – the core business of the former CSCE. Rather than coming up with new lofty ideas and grand designs for institutional adaptation, the way forward ought to be to make the old concept work.

Cooperative security stands for a lower level of ambition than security models exemplified by the EU, NATO, or the UN, which are based on features such as the transfer of sovereignty, collective defense, or sanctions. It aims at building inclusive regional security arrangements by taking into account divergent security needs of countries that may have little in common. It strives to achieve common objectives despite fundamental differences. Based on the premise of the indivisibility of security, the concept assumes that cooperation can bring benefits to all participating states, whereas one state’s insecurity can negatively affect the well-being of all. Cooperative security is about reassurance rather than deterrence, engagement rather than containment, consultation rather than confrontation, and socialization rather than conditionality. Unlike the ‘security community’ concept, it does not claim to be able to eliminate the risk of war. But it does strive to significantly lower that risk by building security through a culture of dialogue, cooperation, and transparency.

The need for a new arms control regime

The trouble for the OSCE is that even this kind of security cooperation no longer works properly across Europe today. Just look at the state of the conventional arms control regime in Europe, which is just as badly in need of a relaunch as the OSCE itself. While long a cornerstone of cooperative security, conventional arms control has all but crumbled over the past decade. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) of 1990 – a legally binding European arms control regime that provides for a system of limitations, transparency, and verification – has been suspended by Russia in 2007. Numerous other states have since suspended implementation of the treaty vis-à-vis Russia. The Adapted Treaty of 1999, which transformed the bloc-to-bloc system of limitations to a post-Cold War system of national and territorial ceilings, has never entered into force for lack of ratification.

Three factors account for the crisis of conventional arms control. For one thing, the political climate has deteriorated significantly over the past decade. Some emphasize the role that NATO enlargement played in this, arguing that the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic security community undermined pan-European cooperative security. Others point out that Russia has become more assertive again. There have also been major changes in the threat picture. Many states have shifted attention to extra-European threats. New systems like missile defense are being installed to provide protection against such threats, even if this may weaken pan-European security. At the same time, sub-regional threats have come to the fore in Europe, raising additional challenges for European arms control. The linkage approach of tying the arms control regime to developments relating to some of the sub-regional protracted conflicts has turned out to be counterproductive, resulting in the weakening of strategic arms control at large. Arms control is unsuited as a vehicle to accomplish other political objectives.

Can cooperative security be restored in the field of conventional arms control? There are those who make the case for adapting the Adapted Treaty of 1999, urging both NATO members and Russia to move away from their maximalist positions. However, judging by the experience of recent years, it is hard to see how any modified CFE treaty would get ratified by all parties concerned. Therefore, the only way forward could well be to work for a new regime that may be politically rather than legally binding, or perhaps a mixture of both.

New multilateral negotiations would no doubt be extremely difficult. Numerous questions need to be resolved. Should the whole OSCE area be part of such a regime? What exactly should be limited, given the far-reaching changes in military affairs in past decades? Could limitations be defined on levels low enough to be meaningful in the current European security context? Can a regime be established that is status-neutral as far as protracted conflicts are concerned?

A status-neutral approach?

This last point is key. Any relaunch of conventional arms control in Europe will require new thinking of how to delink arms control from the sub-regional conflicts. In this regard, Switzerland’s successful mediation between Russia and Georgia on a status-neutral solution allowing Russia’s admission to the WTO may point to new avenues for arms control too. In the case of the WTO issue, the trick was to define trade corridors between Russia and Georgia by their geographic coordinates in order to avoid reference to controversial entities like Abkhazia or South Ossetia. While things will obviously be much more complex and sensitive when it comes to military matters, such status-neutral types of approaches may be worth studying in the field of European arms control too.

Given that no new arms control regime will emerge overnight, the OSCE should work hard to at least strengthen its Confidence and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs) in the near future. To be sure, such measures cannot replace an effective arms limitation regime. But they are an important complement that is worth expanding. The Vienna Document, which is about information-sharing, inspections, and evaluations in the military realm, is a major element of European security. However, many of its provisions are still shaped by Cold War strategic thinking. The document is in need of an update well beyond the changes made in 2011. Adaptations are required concerning both lowering thresholds for notifying military activities and increasing inspection quotas. Discussions in the past years have indicated that progress in this field will not be easy to accomplish either. But it is certainly worth trying. Going for a long haul has traditionally been a hallmark of the CSCE/OSCE.

The main problem is that some states quite obviously have lost interest in conventional arms control in Europe. They no longer see a need for such measures. They are wrong. Stability in Europe should not be taken for granted. It has to be jointly established. It is not just that sub-regional conflicts pose a continuous challenge. Even strategic stability on the pan-European level may be less consolidated than we long thought. Against the background of the debt and euro crisis, scenarios leading to large-scale economic havoc, political fragmentation, massive social unrest, and the rise of populism in Europe look far less far-fetched than a few years ago. In such an environment, the perseverance of the Euro-Atlantic security community could well be put to a serious test.

Accordingly, features such as military restraint, predictability, and mutual trust remain of great importance for the security of Europe. The OSCE has an important role to play here. Fostering trust is of course also in its own interest, as much of its organizational effectiveness depends on member states’ support. The return of trust into the OSCE is tied to the same precondition as a successful relaunch of arms control: the organization will have to find means of handling the protracted conflicts in ways that do not paralyze its work.

Daniel Möckli is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) and head of its Strategic Trends Analysis Team.

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications:

Prosecuting Illicit Arms Brokers: Improving the European Record

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

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