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Managing mistrust and multipolarity: what the Middle East can glean from past OSCE approaches

  • Jane Kinninmont

    Director of Impact, European Leadership Network

    مديرة التأثير بشبكة القيادة الأوروبية

Decades after the end of formal empires in the Middle East, regional governments are increasingly interested in ensuring their self-reliance over security – with minds focused by questions about the future role of the US and fears of the damaging impact of big-power competition. Countries in the region are building up their defence industries and forming blocs. But there are also tentative moves to more regional dialogue and rapprochement. In this shifting and uncertain phase, there are a number of reasons why regional leaders should agree to a regular, inclusive and institutionalized process of dialogue, to establish a basis of shared norms for regional relations and security. The experience of the Helsinki process at the end of the Cold War is instructive.

Past approach offers future pathway

The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) during the Cold War is a more relevant example to today’s MENA region than the more institutionalized body of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Crucially, the CSCE model was designed for a time of ideological polarization when the nature of the international order was deeply contested. The Helsinki dialogues that shaped the CSCE were able to develop principles of coexistence that had the buy-in of participating states, rather than rules that were primarily imposed or inherited. Such an approach is needed for a region where key stakeholders either do not want to implement international law, or believe that the rest of the world will never apply it fairly to them. Moreover, the comprehensive approach to security that the CSCE adopted has high relevance to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as it faces complex climate security and economic security challenges.

The OSCE is itself now in crisis. Its system of norms and agreements has been eroded gradually over several years, and was dealt a potentially existential blow by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. To survive, the OSCE may need to revisit and renew its foundations for a new generation whose worldview is not shaped by the post-Second World War commitment to multilateralism, and increasingly is not shaped by the ‘unipolar moment’ at the end of the Cold War. Part of this renewal should include a European commitment to be more consistent when applying the principles of international law and multilateralism around the world, including in the Middle East.

Implications of the OSCE crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed the OSCE into deep crisis.1 Conflict prevention is a key element of the OSCE’s mandate. It provided multiple tools, structures and forums that could have been used to manage the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over eastern Ukraine. But ultimately when the Russian leadership decided to invade, the OSCE was not able to prevent it. Unlike previous conflicts in the region,2 this interstate war of aggression, chosen by Russia, raises fundamental questions for an organization whose raison d’être was to develop peaceful coexistence between the then USSR and Western countries. 

The crisis has wider implications. The hard power of Ukraine’s Western allies also failed to deter the invasion.3 In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the US, as well as Russia, the UK and France, all provided Ukraine with explicit, official security ‘assurances’, as part of the process of Ukraine’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but these did not prevent the invasion. Putin’s revanchist attack on Ukraine has parallels with Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait but there has been no parallel US-led defence of the invaded country. 

The Russian invasion also raises deep questions about how norms, laws, taboos and incentives for multilateralism are constructed. For a regional system of principles to work, at least a minimum of goodwill and commitment – of buy-in – is needed on the part of each state involved. The OSCE experience is perhaps a reminder that the bargains that underlie institutions need to be renewed over time.4

Much thinking about security in the Euro-Atlantic area has centred on reducing the risks of unintended escalation. This remains vital as there are multiple risks of escalation across geographies and domains of conflict (such as cyber and space). But different approaches are also needed to prevent deliberate, intended escalation. 5

Russia’s war with Ukraine is now being determined primarily by battlefield factors (strategy, weapons supplies, morale, intelligence, etc.). A consequence of the invasion has been to increase Ukrainian support for eventual NATO membership on the basis that only this would deter future threats. Similarly, Sweden and Finland are joining NATO, reversing decades of neutrality. Interestingly, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that in the future Ukraine will need to be more self-reliant and has cited Israel as a model.6

The OSCE may eventually have an important role to play in bringing the war to an end – for example, to structure and support negotiations and monitor a ceasefire. It remains a key player in preventing (so far) an escalation of the conflict into Georgia and Moldova. The OSCE also presents the only existing forum outside the UN that convenes Russia, Ukraine and NATO countries along with other non-NATO European countries. As such, its importance may lie in future dialogues over not only the hot war that Russia is waging against Ukraine, but the ‘cold’ political conflicts between Russia and NATO, and Russia and the US. It may eventually be a place to rekindle common principles – even if this does not seem likely under the current Russian leadership. 

The intensification of conflict in Europe means that forums, processes and mechanisms for conflict management and resolution are needed more than ever. The same applies to the MENA region; the high levels of mistrust are a reason for promoting regional dialogue – not an argument against it. It appears that both deterrence and diplomacy need to be re-engineered for future security. 

Ideas for mobilizing cooperative security in MENA

Levels of insecurity in the MENA region are such that it is unlikely to shift from the ‘security against’ model of collective defence to a ‘security with’ model of cooperative security. Yet, cooperative security discussions and arrangements can help to manage some of the risks that are likely to arise from a growing arms race, intensifying geopolitical competition at the international level, and ongoing uncertainty about the US security role in the region. A cooperative security approach is also needed to address the cross-border challenges that the region faces, from climate change to preventing future pandemics. Such an approach needs to be designed not from a starting point of trust and common values, but for a context where trust is lacking and ideological divisions are intense. Here, the Helsinki process is highly relevant.

A regional dialogue could seek to build agreement on a list of principles comparable to the Helsinki Decalogue. Some of the existing ‘track two’ dialogues between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already identified some principles that could be agreed upon, such as a combination of non-aggression and non-interference. 7 The issues of good governance and human rights, as seen in parts 7 and 8 of the Helsinki Decalogue, would be complicated; one area where MENA governments can find common ground is a shared interest in preserving authoritarian rule. Yet less adversarial state–society relations are vital to future security in a region where many of the challenges come from non-state actors and civil conflicts, and where future economic sustainability also depends on active citizen engagement in the transition to post-oil economies. Consultations should examine possible pathways into these issues with concepts such as internal peacebuilding, good governance, active citizens, social solidarity and internal conflict-management mechanisms.

Civil society organizations have concerns that if all issues are subsumed under a security agenda, civil society is all the more likely to be excluded. Security and development cooperation might be a useful broader framing. At least some tracks of regional dialogue should convene a mix of civil society, scholars and private sector representatives along with officials. 

One productive way to involve a wider set of stakeholders would be to include capacity-building and experience-sharing programmes for a mixture of officials and non-governmental stakeholders, especially women and youth. The region could develop shared mediation and conflict prevention and management capabilities, including women mediators8 and diverse young people from around the region. If acceptable to regional stakeholders, there would likely be international multilateral and philanthropic funding for such initiatives.

European governments such as Germany, Norway, Sweden and Finland have already invested in track two dialogues on some of these issues. France has been involved with recent dialogues among several Arab governments hosted by Iraq. Some track two participants have informally expressed concern that the US might oppose an inclusive approach to regional security. US support is vital. Better still would be wider P5 buy-in secured with a UN Security Council Resolution and an understanding, driven by regional states, that the MENA region should be safeguarded from growing geopolitical tensions among the P5. Indeed, a certain degree of mistrust of external powers will likely be one of the factors that can bring regional states together.

MENA stakeholders can and should also look at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the African Union and other examples of cooperative, inclusive regional security organizations. The African Union response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the role of the African Centre for Disease Control, is a powerful recent case study for the region to examine.

The membership of the UN’s Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction is one option to consider for a regional security dialogue, as it represents an established forum in which Arab countries, Iran, Israel and the Palestinian Territories are all included. 9 The P5 powers were all invited as observers, as were relevant international organizations and UN bodies. In the MENA context the Arab League and subregional bodies (such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab Maghreb Union) should be included.

Early goals and starting points

The initial goal would be to create space to manage conflict and instability. Regional security and cooperation approaches will need to be about managing mistrust and agreeing on minimal joint principles rather than converging values. Dialogue will need to start between adversaries. But such a process can perhaps lay seeds for conflict transformation in the longer term – by incrementally building common understandings, moving towards some areas of common agreement and ‘rules of the road’, and expanding the areas of common interest. Multilateral values cannot be taken for granted, but there is a chance to forge once again principles for peace after war and devastation, whether in the Middle East or in Europe. 

The EU, individual governments and the UK can all play a helpful role here. One concern is that amid multiple crises, the bandwidth of European governments to focus on the Middle East will be limited. However, supporting a CSCE-style model for the Middle East does not need large quantities of money or prime ministerial time. Beyond that, initiatives already under way by civil society, scholars and track two initiatives can provide ideas that can be further refined. These can be taken forward in track one and 1.5 discussions, in small, neutral countries such as Jordan, Oman or Kuwait, with support from working-level European and regional diplomats  and possibly from the UN and the OSCE itself. P5 and European heads of state and government need simply to give it their blessing.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. 


1- A timely set of analyses from think-tanks in OSCE member states can be found in: Friesendorf, C. and Wolff, S. (eds) (2022), Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Implications for the Future of the OSCE, OSCE Network Perspectives I/2022, OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, https://osce-network.net/fileadmin/user_upload/OSCE_Network_Perspectives_2022_20June_final.pdf 

2- Other conflicts occurring within the OSCE’s geography during its existence are the Balkans wars, the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict and Russia’s earlier invasions of Crimea and Georgia.

3- There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which Russian President Vladimir Putin was ‘undeterrable’ due to a combination of hubris and revanchism, or whether Ukraine was vulnerable precisely because Western countries chose not to apply full-scale conventional military deterrence to defend a non-NATO member.

4- For some analysts of the OSCE the organization’s relevance has been eroded over some years as key member states have made decisions in NATO or the EU instead. Perhaps more fundamentally, the post-Cold War understandings of the future of Europe have evolved as the seeming liberal convergence of the early 1990s has been questioned and challenged.

5- Some diplomats now seek to focus on ‘guardrails’ to prevent or limit confrontation between Russia and Western countries from infecting all areas of life – for instance, limiting the militarization of space and protecting the functioning of the internet, and on ideas for limited cooperation such as taking forward international climate change agreements or renewing the New START treaty after 2026.

6- See for instance, Shapiro, D. B. (2022), ‘Zelenskyy wants Ukraine to be “a big Israel.” Here’s a road map’, Atlantic Council New Atlanticist blog, 6 April 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/zelenskyy-wants-ukraine-to-be-a-big-israel-heres-a-road-map/

7- Sager, A. and Mousavian, H. (2021), ‘We can escape a zero-sum struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia – if we act now’, The Guardian, 31 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/31/iran-saudi-arabia-joe-biden-cooperation

8- The Elders Foundation (2020), ‘Women in Mediation in the Arab World: Increasing the Chances of Peace’, Policy Note, 26 October 2020, https://theelders.org/news/women-mediation-arab-world-increasing-chances-peace. This discussion, held in partnership with Wilton Park in 2020, is being taken forward in a further conference by Wilton Park and UN Women in 2022.

9- The UN lists the participating states of the conference as: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran (Islamic Republic Of), Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, UAE, Yemen and State of Palestine. See: United Nations General Assembly (2022), ‘Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report of the Secretary-General’, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3851896. As observers, Russia, the UK and France are invited as co-sponsors on the resolution on the Middle East at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, while the US and China are invited as the two other nuclear-weapons states.