Jaw, Jaw

February 13, 1992

As good a claim as any to a share of the credit for the explosion of freedom that shattered the Soviet empire and ended the Cold War belongs to an anomaly called the CSCE, standing for Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. It is not an organization, like NATO or the European Community, for it has no headquarters or staff. Its actions are not treaties or regulations, or even decisions, for their only effect is moral suasion. It is something like a floating poker game, for there is a certain amount of bluffing and calling, raising and folding, but the game is diplomacy and the chips are a series of prolix reports with names like the Helsinki Final Act and the Copenhagen Document.

The CSCE's genius turns out to be democracy-building. This is a prodigious irony, for the conference began 20 years ago as a tacit admission that the Cold War, with its rigid polarities, was here to stay. It offered ground rules to reduce the risk of war in the ongoing superpower-bloc competition.

The basic bargain, formalized at Helsinki in 1975, was acknowledgment of the political status quo in return for a code of conduct governing relations among European states. The former was taken by the Soviet Union as a grant of political and ideological legitimacy; the latter by the Western countries as a stick with which to beat the Soviets.

But the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were not as cynical as the players in the diplomatic poker game. They took the CSCE's human-rights statements seriously. Dissident groups sprang up and began pressing their governments to live up to their promises. Thus the code-of-conduct part of the CSCE bargain came to undermine the status-quo guarantees.

The other day in Prague, the CSCE took in 10 new members, former Soviet republics. That brings "Europe" to 48 countries, extending through most of the Northern Hemisphere, including such cradles of European ideals as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The group continues to do what it has always done, elaborate codes and standards on human rights and inter-state cooperation. It conducts a "Seminar on Democratic Institutions" in Oslo and monitors elections in the emerging Soviet successor states. It provides a forum for regional issues like energy sharing and pollution control.

Its great strength is the rule of unanimity, which was once thought to be its great weakness. The CSCE cannot say anything unless every member signs on; once it has spoken it cannot make any member do anything. But members that participate in the process and then traduce it find, as the Soviet Union did, that they lose face and legitimacy -- not least with their own citizens.

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