Food for Thought: "Back From the Brink, Back to Diplomacy"

What can be done to restore security and cooperation in Europe? "We do not need new rules, but [...] we need to create a context where the existing rules can work," argues Wolfgang Ischinger, MSC Chairman and Chairperson of the OSCE-mandated "Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project," in our latest Monthly Mind column.

The "Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project" during a meeting in Belgrade (Photo: OSCE).

"New rules or no rules" was the slogan proposed for debate at the Valdai Club by President Putin last year. "No rules" is not an attractive idea. Society operates by rules. A society without rules would mean Thomas Hobbes' war of all against all.

International society also has rules. These are violated from time to time – too often, actually – but that does not make them less essential. Traffic regulations are violated daily, but they remain necessary for order on the roads; no one suggests we would do better without them.

For Europe the rules for living together are the Helsinki Principles, agreed in 1975. The period that followed, by historical standards, was one of stability in Europe – though the Cold War went on in the world outside, and oppression continued inside. The Cold War ended twenty-five years ago, but our situation today is more precarious. The seizure of Crimea and the intervention of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine bring uncertainty and insecurity.

A panel of political leaders and diplomats, established by the OSCE Troika (Switzerland, Serbia and Germany), was asked what might be done to restore security and cooperation in Europe. We concluded that we do not need new rules, but that we need to create a context where the existing rules can work.

In 1975, stability came from an understanding about the territorial status quo. The West opposed Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but did not attempt to change it by force. This status quo was ratified in the Helsinki accords; but it had been built up, piece by piece, under the name of "Ostpolitik". With agreement on territory the two sides in the Cold War were able, slowly, to reach other agreements, including on military confidence-building.

No one wants to go back to the Cold War, but a return to jointly managed stability would be good for all sides. The starting point for that has to be an understanding about territory. At the moment we have a contested zone that runs through Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Worse still, we lack clarity on the intentions and wishes of all of the main actors. Is NATO still planning to offer alliance membership to Ukraine and Georgia? Or has this been abandoned? If Russia thinks in terms of a sphere of influence, what exactly does that mean? What of the wishes of Ukrainians and Georgians? Where do the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union fit in?

These questions are central to European security. Uncertainty about them increases the chances of a miscalculation; clarity would make possible confidence-building measures, re-designed for an age of technology rather than mass armies.  

We need to return to diplomacy. Implementation of the Minsk agreements would provide the right background against which to launch a wider effort for stability in Europe. As steps are taken towards normality in Ukraine, the Chair of the OSCE should take steps to organise a diplomatic process on behalf of Europe, in its widest definition, to answer these questions. If the Finnish initiative of the 1969, at the height of the Cold War, could lead to the Helsinki Final Act, there is no reason why a broad-based approach cannot be useful – even successful – today, 40 years later. It would be negligent not to try.

The ultimate objective should be a summit to reaffirm not just the principles of common security in the Euro-Atlantic area, but concrete agreements that allow its implementation.

This will need commitment on all sides, and also time and preparation. Meanwhile we can make today's dangerous situation less dangerous by agreeing rules of behaviour and communication among our military forces to avoid accidents at sea or in the air. This is common sense and it is urgent: the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkey underlines this.

It would be agreeable to live in a world of common values, where the kind of cooperation that exists in the EU could be reproduced across all Europe. That does not look likely for the moment; but our differences are less than those of the opposing ideologies of 1975. What remains is the same common interest in avoiding war. To solve problems without resort to force, agreed rules are essential.

We have a long history together – going back to the Congress of Vienna and before – and we have solved our cross continental problems before. The understandings of 1975 opened the way to a period of trade, investment and cooperation. This is what we need now: then we could tackle the challenges outside Europe together.

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, chaired the OSCE-mandated "Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project". Its report "Back to Diplomacy" is available also online. A modified version of this article appeared on 24 January 2016 in the Financial Times.

25 January 2016, by Wolfgang Ischinger