Multilateralism today is under threat. In the past few years, there have been serious violations of fundamental principles of international law. Trust is broken – at so many levels. There is little constructive dialogue. Agreements have not been kept. In the process, ladders have been kicked away that make it harder to climb down, writes Thomas Greminger, Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Multilateralism certainly has a past. The institutions and commitments that have been developed since 1945, pursuant to the United Nations Charter, and since 1975 through the Helsinki Final Act, have made both Europe and the world a safer place.
Unfortunately, multilateralism today is under threat. In the past few years, there have been serious violations of fundamental principles of international law. Trust is broken – at so many levels. There is little constructive dialogue. Agreements have not been kept. In the process, ladders have been kicked away that make it harder to climb down.
Relations deteriorate with every tit-for-tat action, whether it be a new deployment, more bellicose rhetoric, targeting adversaries, imposing new sanctions and tariffs, or accelerating an arms race.
An important starting point is to appreciate that international cooperation works. Indeed, it works so well that we take it for granted. Think of the efficiency of logistics and supply chains, air traffic control, telecommunications and the Internet. Or think of cooperation in space, at sea, or in sport. Countries work together in these areas for one simple reason: shared interest.
To cooperate, countries need talk to each other. Dialogue is the key to rebuilding trust and reviving a sense of common purpose and a culture of co-operation.
Take the situation between Russia and the West. Relations have not been this bad since the end of the Cold War.
One of the few places where Russia and countries of Western Europe and North America still meet on a regular basis is in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Indeed, in trouble times, the OSCE is proving to be an “all-weather” organization.
Concerned by a deterioration of the security situation, OSCE foreign ministers launched a Structured Dialogue in December 2016. This inter-state process is designed to work towards creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control and confidence and security-building measures in Europe.
While the Structured Dialogue – now into its third year – has become a flagship of the OSCE, it can only be successful if there is sincere engagement. And positive words must be matched by constructive deeds.
As a priority, attention should be given to preventing and better managing military incidents and accidents in the OSCE area. And states should show restraint.
Furthermore, trust-inducing steps are needed to increase predictability, rebuild confidence and reduce tensions and the risk of miscalculation.
There is no need to re-invent the wheel. A wide and rich variety of confidence- and security-building measures were agreed almost thirty years ago in the so-called Vienna Document. These include regular exchanges of information, military to military contacts, risk reduction measures as well as verification and inspection like observing each others’ military activities. These measures were created to deal with precisely the type of situation that we find ourselves in now – to prevent war games from becoming wars. So let’s use them!
Taking such trust-inducing steps can enhance security today and give multilateralism a better future.