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Reforming the OSCE: Between Continuity and Change

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Analysis16 October 2018

During the détente years of the Cold War, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) emerged as the only platform for dialogue between the Warsaw Pact countries and the West. When the Cold War came to an end, the CSCE was transformed into an Organization with permanent structures and renamed the OSCE in 1995. Although, over the past 25 years, it has transformed from a Conference to an Organization, the OSCE is still considered an inter-state process rather than a full-fledged international organization. Critics argue that this leaves the Organization unfocused, ineffective and often paralyzed. Supporters say that this is the best way to keep the OSCE a flexible tool, firmly in the hands of participating States. In the course of the last 13 years or so, numerous attempts have been made to reform the OSCE in a way that would retain the inter-state nature of the Organization, while making it more effective and responsive to the actual security needs in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian area. The recent reform proposals by the OSCE Secretary General (SG) Thomas Greminger, included in his non-paper entitled “Making the OSCE Fit for Purpose”, is the latest such attempt.

Strategic political direction needed

Whatever the preferred reform formula, the truth is that participating States have to ask themselves one key question: What is the role of the OSCE in the current security environment? Once there is a better sense of direction and a common idea of the role of the OSCE, this could also help move forward lengthy discussions about institutional reform. After all, as the old saying goes, form follows function. OSCE states today have very different priorities about what the OSCE should be doing and which direction it should be headed. This is made worse by the fact that the OSCE does not have a ‘Mission Statement’ to which all states subscribe to in an equal way. Instead, the Organization’s work is based on its founding document, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, as well as on the political commitments contained in numerous other key documents such as the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, the 1992 Helsinki Document, or the 1999 Istanbul Summit Document. All of them reflect the security challenges at the time, and provide some form of strategic political direction.

The last time that such a key document was adopted was at the 2010 OSCE Astana Summit. At the time, participating States recommitted themselves to “the vision of a free, democratic, common and indivisible Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok, rooted in agreed principles, shared commitments and common goals”.[1]The political goal of undivided security has long been a guiding star for OSCE states, first mentioned in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and then repeated in all key documents. However, the question that needs to be asked is whether this “vision” of undivided security, based on shared values and common principles, is still shared by all participating States. Also, the OSCE area has undergone dramatic change since the last OSCE Astana Summit in 2010. The conflict in and around Ukraine, which erupted in 2014, exposed the ongoing tensions and disagreements between Russia and the West in a dramatic way. Ever since, communication channels between Russia and the West have run dry, rhetoric has become confrontational, and military tensions have increased. The combination of these factors is dangerous, given the potential for misinterpretation and accidental war. At the same time, on the global level, the international order has undergone radical change. The United States (U.S.), a key player in the OSCE, has become more unpredictable and seems to retreat from the international stage, questioning the values of multilateralism and international cooperation. Added to this is the unprecedented rise of China to which Europe and the U.S. still have to find an answer. Also, the European Union is experiencing upheaval with Brexit and internal disagreements on how to best deal with the migration challenge.

The need for a new OSCE Summit

This new security environment demands fresh thinking about the strategic direction and role of the OSCE. One of the main goals of all OSCE participating States should therefore be convening an OSCE Summit to provide this strategic political guidance, to give a sense of direction, and to reaffirm that all states still subscribe to the same rules. This would be particularly important, given the fact that many of the key commitments have been violated in the past years. Such a Summit could aim at addressing the key questions that have been dividing OSCE states since the very beginning: How should the future security architecture of the Euro-Atlantic area look like? How can the vision of undivided, pan-European security be translated into practice? Is this vision still shared by all states? The divergent answers to these questions lie at the core of the current East-West divide. They are a root cause of all the protracted conflicts and the increasing tensions between Russia and the West. The report by the November 2015 Panel of Eminent Persons, which was established “to reflect on how Europe could reconsolidate its security as a common project”, illustrated this in very clear terms when pointing out the “diametrically opposed narratives” of the past that have led to the current crisis situation.[2]While finding consensus on a new OSCE Summit is surely a daunting task, it is worth it because a broader political vision on the OSCE could also help move forward lengthy discussions about institutional reform.

Lengthy discussions on institutional reform

The start of the debate about how best to reform the OSCE can be traced back to the 2005 Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons, entitled “Common Purpose”.[3]Since then, the debate revolves around roughly the same five topics: the roles and mandates of the SG and the Chairmanship-in-Office (CiO); the discussion on the legal status of the OSCE; the reform of field operations; the OSCE’s work in the three security dimensions; and the general role of the OSCE in the current security environment. In the 2005 report, numerous institutional recommendations were made. As a result, the OSCE decision-making process was made more transparent with the introduction of a committee structure, the OSCE Rules of Procedure were codified, and the roles of the SG and CiO were further clarified, but the respective mandates remained unchanged.

Suggestions by former Secretary Generals

As early as 2005, former OSCE SG Jan Kubis wrote an article in the Helsinki Monitoraddressing the complicated division of duties between the SG and the CiO. Already at that time, he argued that this “double-headed leadership – a strange legacy of the ‘conference’ past of the OSCE – while it works, is far from optimal”.[4]Kubis suggests that the SG should become the “one face” of the OSCE in order to create a stronger profile. He also recommends that the SG should have a stronger role in crisis situations, and a more central role in the planning process of the Organization. Similarly, former SG Lamberto Zannier argued repeatedly in favour of introducing a system whereby Chairmanship countries rotate in alphabetical order. He believed that “once such a system is adopted, it will be less expensive for individual countries to hold the Chairmanship, and the role of the OSCE institutional structures, such as the role of the SG, will be strengthened automatically”.[5]However, most OSCE participating States are sceptical when it comes to providing the SG with a stronger mandate and a more powerful role. They want to retain control. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find countries who are willing and interested in chairing the Organization. A decision on which country will chair the OSCE in 2020 is still pending. This dichotomy does not make sense. If participating States do not show leadership and interest in chairing the Organization, why aren’t they ready to entrust the SG with more powers? Or maybe they are happy with a weak Organisation?

Reforming and formalizing the selection process for Chairmanship countries

At the very least, strategic planning could be improved if OSCE participating States could pull off a reform to formalize the selection process for countries holding the Chairmanship. When it comes to the decision on which countries should hold the OSCE Chairmanship, it has become common practice to decide this three years in advance. This is, however, neither a formal nor an established rule. This is a problem because if – for whatever reason – there is no consensus on who will hold the Chairmanship, or the country in question loses interest in the Chairmanship, then the decision is postponed to a later stage. This happened last year when Norway, which had originally launched an official bid for the Chairmanship, withdrew its interest at the last minute after a change in government. As a result, it remains undecided who will chair the OSCE in 2020. This makes advance planning and strategic preparation impossible. OSCE participating States should therefore consider formalizing the selection process for OSCE Chairmanships, which today is very political. The introduction of system whereby Chairmanship countries rotate in alphabetical order, as suggested by former SG Lamberto Zannier, could be one way of doing this.

Multi-annual objectives and budget

Currently, there is also a strong impression that the OSCE works on a whole array of different, unrelated topics, from military security, to combating radicalization and terrorism, managing migration and improving economic connectivity. This is due to the fact that the countries holding the OSCE Chairmanship have the right to choose their own thematic priorities that they will work on during their one-year tenure at the helm of the OSCE. This yearly changing, state-driven agenda gives the impression of an unfocused OSCE agenda. To mitigate this, the SG could be given the opportunity to introduce strategic, multi-year objectives as part of a multi-annual budget process. Currently, the OSCE core budget is adopted on an annual basis, which not only leads to lengthy and cumbersome negotiations every year, but also does not provide for strategic, long-term planning of substantive issues. This is one of the main suggestions put forward by the current SG Thomas Greminger in his non-paper “making the OSCE fit for purpose”. It makes perfect sense and deserves support from participating States.


In this way, strategic planning could be improved, the profile of the OSCE could be raised and a better communication policy could be developed to sell the work of the OSCE to the outside world. As Jan Kubis argued in 2005 “I cannot speak for participating States, but I was struck by how countries that have chaired the organization are the most sympathetic to a stronger role for the SG after their term is over. They know, through experience, why this makes sense and why this is so necessary”.[6]To conclude, while it is good that the current SG has put forward reform proposals on how to make the OSCE Secretariat more effective, participating States also need to look at the bigger picture – how to make the OSCE politically ‘fit for purpose’ to rebuild trust, resolve conflicts, and deal more effectively with threats and challenges that affect the whole OSCE area.

[1]OSCE, Summit Meeting, Astana Commemorative Declaration Towards a Security Community, SUM.DOC/1/10/Corr.1, 3 December 2010,

[2]See: OSCE, Back to Diplomacy, Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, 3 December 2015,

[3]See: Common Purpose: Towards a more effective OSCE, Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on strengthening the effectiveness of the OSCE, 27 June 2015,

[4]Jan Kubis, Dual leadership: Dysfunctional or mutually supportive?, Helsinki Monitor, Vol. 16, Issue No. 3, 2005.

[5]Stephanie Liechtenstein, Interview with Lamberto Zannier, Security and Human Rights Monitor, 4 July 2017,

[6]Kubis, Helsinki Monitor, 2005.


This paper was commissioned by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and prepared for the OSCE Focus Conference on 12-13 October 2018, co-hosted by the foreign ministries of Austria, Italy, Slovakia and Switzerland as well as by DCAF and the Center for Security Studies at the ETH Zurich (CSS/ETHZ).


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