Foreign Policy Blogs

The OSCE: Making Multilateralism Work

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech to the Atlantic Council to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The speech focused on the administration’s new agenda for freedom and democracy promotion, seeking a renewed US-European partnership to combat global terrorism,  human rights violations,  climate change and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.   

We owe it to ourselves and to those who yearn for the same freedoms that are enjoyed and even taken for granted in Berlin today. And we need to form an even stronger partnership to bring down the walls of the 21st century, and to confront those who hide behind them: the suicide bombers; those who murder and maim girls whose only wish is to go to school; leaders who choose their own fortunes over the fortunes of their people.

In place of these new walls, we must renew the Transatlantic Alliance as a cornerstone of a global architecture of cooperation. When we come together to uphold the common good, there is no constellation of countries on earth that has greater strength. There is no wall we cannot topple. There is no truth we can be afraid of.

She acknowledged the central role of NATO in defending western Europe throughout the Cold War and then called for tackling an agenda beyond western Europe and the US:

European countries have been leaders in addressing the economic and social development challenges of the world.  We need to continue our work on an economic recovery.  And we need to continue to promote democracy and human rights beyond freedom’s current frontiers, so that citizens everywhere are afforded the opportunity to pursue their dreams and live up to their own God-given potential.

However,  no mention was made of what is probably the best tool Europe and the US have available to carry out these plans:  the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  The OSCE was designed during the Cold War to do what NATO  could not  – and still cannot:  to serve as forum for what was then “East and West” on issues of conflict (early warning and rehabilitation), economics, the environment, elections, minority rights, media freedom, human trafficking, border management and policing (among others).  Its 56 participating States are from Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North America – covering most of the northern hemisphere.   The Arab states of North Africa and some Asian countries are OSCE “Partners for Co-Operation.”  It is 67 countries overall.  In other words, the OSCE has a reach beyond NATO or the EU and the ability to engage key actors like Russia in working level dialogues and projects that determine whether or not there will be progress in these substantive areas across an enormous swath of territory.   The US Mission to the OSCE describes it focus and territorial reach as follows:

The OSCE is a major forum for issues of peace, security and human rights in Europe and Central Asia. A legacy of the historic 1975 Helsinki accords, it is the only fully inclusive trans-Atlantic/European/Eurasian political organization. Every state from Andorra to Kyrgyzstan is represented among its 56 participating States. Over more than thirty years, commitments to democracy, rule of law, human rights, tolerance, pluralism and media freedoms were hammered out at the OSCE and its predecessor mechanisms — and agreed to by all the participating States.  The OSCE is unique among international organizations in the acceptance by the participating States of the principle that open societies built on human rights and democracy are a necessary component of true security.

NATO recently celebrated its 60th anniversary and its accomplishments as a military alliance are truly historic and it certainly has a role to play in current and future security issues facing the US and Europe, be they in Afghanistan or closer to home. However, NATO is poorly-equipped and lacks the legitimacy to address questions of governance and human rights and its history makes any moves with or toward Russia very tricky.  The OSCE, although it has sometimes been criticized as being a tool of the West, goes about its business through quiet, consistent consultation and consensus.  It cannot overcome all of the political, economic and military tensions across the region but it can play a role that other multilateral organizations cannot.  In addition, the OSCE is paying a role outside the borders of its member states, especially in Afghanistan and with the Palestinian Authority, where it worked in support of elections.  Accordingly,  the OSCE should be supported as an important part of the US foreign policy toolbox – and there are signs that the State Department is doing just that.  Late last month Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europeand said:

We look forward to Secretary Clinton’s participation in the Athens Ministerial in December, which would be the first time since 2004 that the Secretary of State has participated in such a meeting.  In Athens, we will highlight the accomplishments of the OSCE, and work to rejuvenate the OSCE itself through revitalizing its contributions in each of its three dimensions of security – the human dimension; political-military aspects of security; and economic and environmental issues.  The “Corfu Process,” inaugurated by the Greek OSCE chairmanship to take a fresh look at the OSCE itself and European security more generally, is at the center of that revitalization effort. 
The OSCE record and abilities in the areas of democracy, human rights, civil society and conflict management are of great value to US foreign policy and sustained security in the broader Trans-Atlantic region.   A good next step in signaling US support for the OSCE would be to fill the open position of Ambassador to the US Mission to the OSCE, open since January.








James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement