Washington, 9 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Having achieved what it was set up to do but having fallen short in its more recent undertakings, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) remains very much an organization in search of a mission.
That conclusion clearly emerged at the group's summit meeting in Lisbon last week, despite the upbeat speeches there and the rosy language of the session's final declaration. Indeed, as has been the case increasingly in recent years, the very optimism of the communique seemed clearly intended to cover the pessimism of the members.
Created as the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe as part of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the OSCE during its first 15 years of existence achieved far more than any of its organizers had thought possible.
By committing all its member states to the principles of stability of borders and the universality of human rights, the CSCE as it was known until 1994 did three important things.
First, it opened the way for dialogue across the Iron Curtain at a time when such conversations were extremely difficult.
Second, it offered both ideas and support for groups in communist countries who were seeking greater freedom and democracy for their societies. Indeed, the Helsinki Groups in these states played a key if unexpected role in overcoming communist authoritarianism.
And third, the OSCE helped to reinforce the concept of a broader Europe, one extending from the Atlantic to the Urals or even beyond and not limited to the states in the European Union.
But these successes have left the organization without a clearly defined mission for the post-Cold War environment and without an institutional structure capable of responding to the very different challenges that Europe as a whole now faces.
OSCE efforts at peacemaking in Bosnia and elsewhere have seldom lived up to expectations. Even when these have provided a forum for talks -- a not unimportant contribution -- many in Europe have viewed them as a stopgap measure taken in the absence of political will on the part of more powerful instiutions such as NATO.
OSCE efforts at promoting democracy through its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw similarly have been seen as duplicating rather than extending the work of others.
And OSCE efforts through the High Commissioner on National Minorities intended to promote ethnic peace in Estonia and Latvia have also drawn mixed reviews. On the one hand, Moscow has seen these missions as necessary because of what it claims are the discriminatory policies of these two states against ethnic Russians on their territories.
On the other, the existence of this institution has angered many in the Baltic countries who resent being singled out for criticism especially since all international bodies -- including the OSCE itself -- have found them to be acting in accordance with the norms of international law.
And it has disturbed many other countries because, by creating an office that ethnic communities can appeal to but no one else, the OSCE has unwittingly further ethnicized politics in former communist countries and thus made them less rather than more stable.
Organizationally, the OSCE has been challenged and found wanting as well. Because it operates by consensus rather than majority vote -- any one state can block action -- and because the number of member states dramatically expanded following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the organization has found it hard to take action quickly or consistently.
And the OSCE as an institution lacks the resources to engage even in all the activities that the member states do agree on. Its annual budget is approximately $50 million and its permanent staff consists of fewer than 200 people.
As a result, several countries have proposed that the organization be transformed to meet the new realities. The most radical of these has come from the Russian government.
Over the last several years, Moscow has repeatedly suggested that the OSCE supplant NATO as the primary security organization in Europe, that it create a United Nations-style Security Council made up of the most powerful states, and that it establish some kind of military arrangements with member states to implement any decisions taken.
But despite its current difficulties, the OSCE seems unlikely to agree. On the one hand, many of the smaller states see this proposal as a threat to their existing prerogatives. And on the other, many of the larger states remain convinced that NATO and not the OSCE should be the basis for European security.
For all these reasons, the OSCE's search for a mission seems likely to continue well into the future.