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OSCE: American Diplomacy in the Heart of Europe


On a warm day in September 2019, I left the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to travel to the historic “ring” in the center of Vienna, Austria, to attend the weekly Permanent Council meeting of that organization. Leaving the U.S. Mission, located in a modern high-rise office building overlooking a bridge over the Danube, I climbed into an armored SUV and was driven to the Hofburg Palace where OSCE convenes.

That was my first meeting as U.S. Ambassador; in fact, it was the first meeting following the summer recess of OSCE. I got out of the car at the entrance to the Hofburg Palace, which once was the in-town residence of the Hapsburg monarchy. I was waived through the security checkpoint. Inside was a small elevator, built into a stone spiral staircase, typical of old Vienna. Then I moved through a large social space with table and chairs and into the meeting hall for the Permanent Council.

The hall is very large, built out of a grand palace space. The ceilings are 40 feet high, with big video screens. The hall is arranged with adjoining tables assembled in a long rectangle, with the Chairman and Secretary General seated at one end, as well as seats on the sides for the 57 ambassadors representing the member countries of OSCE. Across the way from my seat sat the ambassador from Ukraine, and down the table on his side, the ambassador of the Russian Federation. To my right were the seats for Andorra, and then Armenia and Azerbaijan, two hostile countries, side by side, all in alphabetical order according to the country names in the French language. All the ambassadors were dressed in suits and business attire, because, after all, they represent their countries.

In rooms above the hall sat translators for OSCE’s six official languages: French, German, Russian, English, Spanish and Italian. All discussions were simultaneously translated for the ambassadors through earphones.

It seemed that most statements by the ambassadors that day were relatively soft-spoken, but I wanted the ambassadors to know that the new U.S. Ambassador had arrived. The U.S. foreign service officers in the U.S. OSCE mission ably stood in during the confirmation process in the United States, but among country ambassadors, there is no substitute for the representative of the President of the United States, confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In a strong voice, I introduced myself and stated that the U.S. would support Ukraine, which was at that time partially occupied by Russian proxy forces. I said that the U.S. would “never” recognize the illegal “annexation” of Crimea by Russia. Thus began my adventure in American diplomacy.

Over the following weeks and months, and after regular private meetings with key ambassadors, I came to understand that Europe is not all that it seems. The beauty and history of Europe attract many American visitors, despite the great tension, competition and sometimes real violence that are present in Europe today. Of course, this is no surprise, considering that both great world wars of the 20th century began in the heart of Europe.

OSCE is the present-day continuation of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which began in 1972. At that time of the Cold War, the two great military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, faced each other, sometimes across the Berlin Wall. Some countries in the West bridled at American leadership, which made the Western alliance unstable. The real drive for a European peace settlement conference was driven by the actual instability in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. Russian General Secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev knew that the Communist governments of East Europe were experiencing unrest and resistance to Soviet domination. The Soviet Union needed a settlement to confirm the legitimacy of Russia’s conquests at the end of World War II. Brezhnev also understood that Russia needed to access Western technology and commerce.

By 1976, after hundreds of diplomatic meetings in Helsinki, Finland, and Geneva, Switzerland, the U.S., the Soviet Union and the countries of Europe reached an agreement, and the Helsinki Accords called the “Final Act” was signed with great ceremony in Helsinki. Indeed, it was believed that signing of the Final Act was as significant a moment in history as the Congress of Vienna in 1815 did in setting the terms for international relations in Europe.

As the years have passed since then, many world leaders have forgotten about the value that OSCE brings to the global community. European leaders know about OSCE, but Americans have never been reminded of the significance of OSCE and the agreement in Helsinki in 1976. Indeed, when President Donald Trump’s representative in the State Department discussed my possible appointment, they said it was for “real diplomacy,” appropriate for a former American governor. My response was the same as any other American’s would be. I asked, “What's OSCE?”

It turns out that OSCE is a large international organization, whose president is the foreign minister of a member country. It has a very large staff, structured to implement the principles of the “Final Act.” The core mission is peace and security in Europe and beyond. OSCE had a signature mission to place observers in eastern Ukraine to supervise the ceasefire following the Russian invasion in 2014. OSCE addresses media freedom, election integrity, the judiciary of emerging democracies and human rights. Continuous processes of diplomacy and negotiation address points of tension and crisis.

European leaders know how fragile peace is in Europe. They are deeply aware of their own history of violence and war. Still, many in the diplomatic corps of the United States don’t understand the potential of OSCE in a world of conflict. OSCE doesn't deal in armies and weapons of war like NATO, the favored international organization of the Americans. It doesn’t deal with trade and tariffs like the European Union. Many deride OSCE as a “talk shop” that uses budget appropriations but accomplishes little. Those that say this simply don’t understand the vital role of OSCE’s diplomacy in a troubled and dangerous world.

OSCE exists to uphold the principles set out in the “Final Act” of the Helsinki Accords. Those principles are standards of conduct that preserve peace while also extending the fundamentals of modern democratic societies. The Helsinki Accords agreed to by Russia in 1976 state that borders cannot be changed by attack and invasion. Those accords state that any sovereign country has the right to choose what alliances and associations they may be a part of. The Helsinki Accords enshrine freedom of travel, news media and information and free and honest elections. These rules set the standards of civilization that stand not just for peace but also for freedom, in a world that often denies citizens the right to be free. In the end, the Helsinki Accords led to the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

OSCE is a vital channel of communication between its member countries and the entire world. The ambassadors are understood to speak not for themselves, but for their governments. In the constant one-on-one meetings between ambassadors and at the weekly Permanent Council meetings, countries note the nuance of the diplomatic statements, day by day and week by week. Every time I made a statement at the Permanent Council meetings, I restated the American position that we would “never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and that sanctions would continue until Russia withdrew. Every week we denied the legitimacy of that occupation and the Russian-inspired proxy war in eastern Ukraine.

I once asked my very able and experienced deputy, “Why do we say the same thing week after week? I know the Russians heard us the first time.” The answer was, “because if you stop saying it, the Russians will think we are communicating a change of position.”

As the months went on, I came to know the Russian ambassador and his staff members and to like all of them, although I never forgot that they represented their country. One time in a private meeting with one of the Russians, I vigorously stated the American position. Then I said to him, “Oh well, I doubt anyone cares what I say here in Vienna.” His response was, “Oh no. The people in the Kremlin know every word that you say.” That told me everything about communication at OSCE.

OSCE has mission offices positioned across Europe and central Asia. Some offices assist in the development of democratic institutions. Americans may think such offices have no power to compel compliance and, therefore, are of no importance. Maybe some countries think of OSCE offices as nuisances, but they have to take their presence into consideration, particularly when OSCE special envoys make periodic reports to all the ambassadors sitting in the Permanent Council.

OSCE regularly sends election monitor teams to report on the validity of elections in member countries. This is important in member countries with histories of authoritarian rulers. The monitors can’t be everywhere, but their presence increases the risk that a sham election will be exposed to the world.

OSCE may monitor American elections like those of any other member country. When OSCE proposed to send a team to monitor the 2020 election in the U.S., there was concern that U.S. election officials would resent and resist the election observer. Before I went to my post in Vienna, I flew to Texas to speak to a meeting of local election officials. I asked them to welcome the OSCE monitors. My message to them was, “How can we send an election integrity mission to a country with a questionable election if we refuse to allow our own election to be observed?”

The primary mission of OSCE, as defined in the Helsinki Accords, is to avoid war. In 2014, Russia violated the Final Act by invading Ukraine. After a ceasefire agreement, proxy forces supported by Russia controlled several provinces of eastern Ukraine, against the will of the government of Ukraine. During the time I was ambassador to OSCE, the organization sent hundreds of observers into eastern Ukraine, often in great danger, to monitor that occupied area, to tamp down violence and to provide some contact with the citizens of Ukraine in those areas. Together with other ambassadors, I met often with the leader of the special monitoring mission to review its work.

As important as OSCE’s special monitoring mission was, I understood I was a steward of America’s interests. At one point, the Ukraine monitoring mission ran out of money to continue its work. I was approached and asked whether the U.S. would make a special donation to cover the shortfall. In truth, American money was available to cover the entire amount. However, being sensitive to the principles set out by President Trump, I refused to donate and recommend any financial support unless other key countries would also participate. Upon my request, many other countries, including France, the United Kingdom and Germany paid substantial contributions to the shortfall. Only then did I agree to recommend American financial participation. The shortfall was met, and the monitoring mission continued in eastern Ukraine.

As U.S. Ambassador, I coordinated and cooperated constantly with the OSCE desk and the European Bureau at the State Department. I found those career employees to be loyal, competent and dedicated, just as my staff members in Vienna were. There was latitude for me to take policy initiatives of my own making, consistent with American policy. I placed a special priority on relations with the “quad” members: France, Germany and the United Kingdom. I met personally with the ambassadors from those countries every week to share our observations and to harmonize our positions. Just as important were the weekly private meetings with ambassadors from the countries of eastern Europe, liberated from Russian rule and determined to remain so.

At OSCE, I worked to project American strength and commitment, particularly in light of negative reports from the American press that America was disengaged in Europe. I worked to speak directly and clearly to the Russian diplomats about our nation’s position so that there would be no misunderstanding regarding American resolve. I was aggressive in public communications. Every statement we made in the Permanent Council was translated into Russian and placed on the Internet, hopefully to reach the Russian public.

So why does OSCE matter to the U.S.? Because Europe matters to the U.S. The U.S. has never been willing to allow either the Pacific or Europe to be dominated by a power hostile to our country. If Russia prevails in its war against Ukraine, the principles of the Helsinki Accords will disappear everywhere. This would usher in a new world, with the acknowledgment of military conquest, atrocity and war crimes. America has never been willing to live in that kind of world and eventually would be drawn into a global conflict to fight it.

OSCE came into being in large part because Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sought peace and stability, not because he wanted freedom for any of the people of the Soviet empire. Brezhnev was a committed communist. But Brezhnev wanted to better the condition of the Russian people and needed access to Western commerce and technology to achieve that goal. Brezhnev also wanted peace. He had seen war and understood its dreadful cost.

Today, Russia is ruled by quite a different leader. Vladimir Putin came to power believing the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin seeks to reassemble the Russian empire through the fascist doctrine of “blood and soil.” He turns to war exactly as Adolf Hitler did in Europe in 1939. If he prevails, millions of people in Europe who are free will be consigned to a terrorist state. The rest of Europe may not be conquered or occupied, but the countries of Europe will have to live “with one eye looking over their shoulder.” This is a real threat to the existence not only of Europe but also to the United States.

In May 2021, I was asked to lead a delegation to Ukraine by the American Foreign Policy Council. Our delegation visited most of the government ministries, traveled to Mariupol in southern Ukraine, sailed out on the Sea of Azov and drove with the Ukrainian army to the border of the Russian-occupied area. The visit occurred before the new invasion launched by Russia in February 2022. During our trip, I frequently asked the Ukrainian officials, “What will you do if the Russians Invade Ukraine? After all, your country was once part of Russia.” Their answer was consistent: “We are not Russians. We have never been Russians. We have not forgotten the Holodomor when we Ukrainians were nearly eradicated by Russia. We will fight for our country!” I then asked, “How can you resist such a large country like Russia?” Their answer was always the same: “What choice do we have? This is the only country we’ve got.”

I disagree with the famous American “pivot to Asia” because it communicates that Asia is more important to America and Europe is less so. In fact, I believe communicating a “pivot to Asia” made the war in Ukraine more likely as Putin reasoned that American attention was elsewhere. I agree that China is a long-term danger to freedom and to Western values. China’s leaders demonstrate their desire and ability to deny freedom to over one billion of their own citizens and to justify it. The program of the Chinese Communist Party is the opposite of the principles contained in the “Final Act” of the Helsinki Accords.

I do not believe that the Chinese communist dictatorship will last very much longer. Thomas Jefferson was right that the desire for freedom exists in every human’s heart and cannot be suppressed forever. This was true in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It is true in the cities of China today. It is true in the demonstrations in Iran against regime repression. It is even true in Russia, as we saw in the resistance to the communist coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1989. The days are numbered for dictators across the world as long as America and its allies remain resolved to oppose them. America’s resolve, together with other countries supporting Ukraine, averts a larger and longer war and stops Putin’s goal to reverse history.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, in fury I wrote that the U.S. should not fund OSCE when all of its principles were being destroyed by a member state. Upon later reflection, I still embraced the certainty that OSCE stands for the “Final Act” of the Helsinki Accords. The Russian violation of their agreement and of those principles must not be allowed to destroy this essential organization of 57 countries, which all except Russia and the puppet government in Belarus, are dedicated to OSCE principles of democracy and human rights. So long as OSCE exists, the principles endure, and a new dark age will never take root. OSCE is a tool of United States diplomacy to shape a bright future for Europe and the world.


AMBASSADOR GOVERNOR JAMES S. GILMORE, III, was U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2019-2021. He was the 68th Governor of Virginia.


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