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Historical Narratives and Lessons for the OSCE Today

Christian Nünlist
Analysis21 December 2017

One of 16 side-events held at the 24th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Vienna on 7-8 December 2017 was a presentation of a project run within the framework of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions in 2017. The OSCE Network project “The Road to the Charter of Paris” investigated the historical root causes for the current tensions between Russia and the West, and the return of divided (in)security in Europe. A 30-page report focuses on the “unfinished post-Cold War settlement” of 1990.

Encouraged by the OSCE Panel of Eminent Persons’ report of 2015, the OSCE Network project reconstructed the debates during the formative period for today’s European security architecture, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to the signing of the CSCE Charter of Paris in November 1990. It examined the divergent national narratives about what occurred during this critical period, and its final report points to missed opportunities for a more inclusive pan-European security order with Russia.

Adding Nuances and Shades of Gray

The main aim of the report “The Road to the Charter of Paris” is to add the views of contemporary historians to a plurality of interpretations of what allegedly happened and why in 1989 and 1990. The three authors contrast popular myths and politicized memory with recently declassified archival sources and a growing scholarly literature about the events in 1989 and 1990, and inject much-needed nuances and shades of gray into mostly black-and-white stories of success and failure in establishing Europe’s post-Cold War strategic architecture. The report illuminates the extent to which frequently heard individual narratives actually draw on history.

By focusing on visions of pan-European security and taking a CSCE/OSCE perspective, the report closes a scholarly gap, as historical analyses on the very end of the Cold War have so far focused on German unification, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the controversial question of NATO enlargement. The OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, an autonomous OSCE-related track-II initiative bringing together 74 institutions from 40 countries, was ideally suited to discuss various national narratives and interpretations.

The Elusive Vision of Pan-European Security

The new OSCE Network report demonstrates that in 1989-1990 a future pan-European security architecture based on the CSCE and including the Soviet Union was supported by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (his “Common European Home” vision), but also by French President François Mitterrand (“Confederation of Europe”), Hans-Dietrich Genscher (“Tutzing formula”), Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki as well as several neutral countries in Europe. Western leaders frequently made promises to build a new, inclusive pan-European order with the Soviet Union in public speeches and during meetings dealing with German unification in late 1989 and throughout 1990. Contemporary historians thus increasingly speak of a “broken spirit of cooperative security” in 1990. Rather than focusing on the controversy about an alleged “broken promise” of a non-NATO expansion pledge (which is not clearly supported in archival sources)[1], historians now agree that the West promised the Soviet Union an inclusive and cooperative future European security architecture in 1990, while in internal discussions the West centered post-Cold War European security on the exclusive NATO and EU (without Russian membership).

“We prevailed and they didn’t” – The Emerging “Bush Victory School”

Already during a meeting in Camp David with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on 24 February 1990, US President George H.W. Bush emphasized that the CSCE summit in Paris should not “be centered on Germany” or be used to “undermine Germany’s full membership in NATO”. For Bush, “the CSCE cannot replace NATO as the core of the West’s deterrence strategy in Europe and as the fundamental justification for US troops in Europe”, concluding that “if that happens, we will have a real problem.”[2] US Secretary of State James Baker bluntly warned Bush in a memorandum in early July 1990 that “the real risk to NATO is the CSCE”. The Bush administration knew that a reunified Germany within NATO was “the Soviet Union’s worst nightmare” and a situation that would “rip the heart out of the Soviet security system” (Condoleezza Rice, 20 November 1989).

Still, Bush did not treat Gorbachev as a (future) partner, but as a (defeated) enemy. In the same meeting with Kohl on 24 February 1990, he said, referring to the Soviet opposition against Germany in NATO: “To hell with that. We prevailed and they didn’t. We cannot let the Soviet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat”. US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft soberly stated that a German unification now “wholly on Western terms” would place the US “on a probable collision course with the Soviets” (14 February 1990).

Narratives as Obstacles; Narratives as Resources

The report argues that while the existing “clash of narratives” currently poisons today’s political atmosphere and negatively affects Russian-Western relations, including within the OSCE, these divergent narratives need to be tackled and actively used to deal with the past and to overcome misperceptions largely drawn from myths and politicized history rather than historical facts and well-grounded interpretations. Seen in this way, historical narratives are not an obstacle to moving ahead but rather a crucial resource to engage in dialogue about the recent past. In our view, the discussion of historical root causes is already, in itself, a trust-building measure.

Increasing Historical Empathy

Our new perspective on Paris 1990, based on archival research and dialogue with high-level eyewitnesses (former CSCE ambassadors, which negotiated the 1990 Paris Charter) and contemporary historians from East and West, aims at increasing mutual historical empathy – Western empathy for the Russian view of a broken spirit of cooperation after 1990 and of the lack of a voice (and a veto) for Russia in European security as a consequence of NATO/EU enlargement; but also Russian empathy for the Western view that the West in 1990 and beyond was mainly interested in stability and peace in Central and Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1991.

No Winners and Losers?

On 4 May 1990, Baker reassured Shevardnadze that the ongoing talks about a post-Cold War settlement would “not yield winners and losers” but rather “produce a new legitimate European structure – one that would be inclusive, not exclusive”.[3] Gorbachev was reassured on 18 May 1990 that Western policies were “not aimed at separating Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union. We had that policy before. But today we are interested in building a stable Europe, and doing it together with you.”[4] In retrospect, this spirit of cooperation was later broken (if it was ever meant sincerely). The CSCE/OSCE never became the umbrella for an inclusive and more integrated European security architecture, taking into account Soviet/Russian security interests – even if the CSCE was strengthened with new institutions in the Charter of Paris in November 1990.


Christian Nünlist (principal author), Juhana Aunesluoma, and Benno Zogg: The Road to the Charter of Paris: Historical Narratives and Lessons for the OSCE Today (Vienna: OSCE Network, 2017).


Dr. Christian Nünlist is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zürich and leads the CSS Think Tank team “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security”. Since 2016, he is also a member of the steering committee of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions. He is the author of Reviving Dialogue and Trust in the OSCE in 2018 (2017); Contested History: Rebuilding Trust in European Security (2017), The OSCE and the Future of European Security (2017).


[1] For an alternative view, according to which the West promised to Gorbachev „a cascade of assurances about Soviet security“, including rejecting Central and Eastern Euroepan membership in NATO „as of early 1990“, see Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, „NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard“, in: National Security Archive Briefing Book no. 613, 12 December 2017.

[2] For references of all quotes in this and the following paragraph, see Nünlist/Aunesluoma/Zogg, Road to the Charter or Paris, pp. 18ff.

[3] Memorandum from Baker to Bush, „My meeting with Shevardnadze“, 4 May 1990, George H.W. Bush Library, Digital National Security Archive,

[4] Record of conversation between Gorbachev and Baker, Moscow, 18 May 1990, Gorbachev Foundation Archive, Digital National Security Archive,


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