IN the wake of the 1989 revolution in Central and Eastern Europe, new conflicts have become possible, both within and between liberated states. And following the collapse of the old security order on the continent, there is no agreed means for preventing or containing new threats to regional peace. But rescue may be on the way - from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). For 15 years, CSCE - the so-called Helsinki process - has been a political backwater. With no formal structure and only occasional meetings, it has been most important for keeping alight the flame of human rights and for devising some limited means for reducing the risks of war.
Now that is changing: in Paris last month, a summit meeting of 32 European states, the United States, and Canada, took decisions that could make CSCE a critical part of a new continent-wide system of security.
No one argues that these 34 states will be able to agree on collective security measures that will preserve the peace. CSCE will have no standing army, no organized means for disciplining any state that menaces its neighbors. At most, it will have a small secretariat, regular meetings of foreign ministers, a parliamentary Assembly of Europe, and some functional organizations. Today's security arrangements, such as NATO and the strategic nuclear systems of the two superpowers, will not be replaced by CSCE.
The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 represented an East-West compromise. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies gained implicit recognition for the borders established by World War II. Western states gained the recognition of the right to intrude in the Soviet empire in pursuit of human rights. And neutral and nonaligned states were acknowledged to have a role in European politics.
CSCE has survived the Cold War and proved its worth as a method by which many diverse nations can pursue a limited but useful agenda. More important for the future, this institution uniquely includes all states with an interest in European security. And it is especially valuable in legitimating the political engagement in Europe of the two powers at the geographic extremes, the US and the Soviet Union.
In the afterglow of the 1989 revolution, this may seem a minor point. But the worth of any security system is proved in heavy weather, not when the political sun is shining. As a gathering point for discussion - indeed, as a philosophy inculcating the values of shared security - CSCE can become increasingly important as the difficult work of building new societies in states stretching from the old inner-German border to the Soviet Far East goes on.
In the West, the worth of this pan-European institution may be depreciated, in part because there are so many other means for states and peoples to work together, including the European Community, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, NATO, and the Council of Europe - only the last of which is beginning to include the emerging societies of Central and Eastern Europe. For these societies, a link to an encompassing European political culture can be critical in making the rough passage to pluralism and market economies. At the same time, giving CSCE a permanent status and a few formal institutions also helps to protect the role of smaller European states.
In the post-Cold War era, the key test for the CSCE will be its ability to help deal with serious near-term threats to European security. These include the risk that old ethnic, religious, and territorial disputes in Central and Eastern Europe will disrupt progress toward modernization or, worse, will lead to conflict across borders. The most critical process for stability in Europe, national self-determination in the Soviet Union, might create conflicts that could not be handled by any existing all-European institution.
The Paris CSCE summit meeting endorsed a proposal to create a Center for the Prevention of Conflict. As currently conceived, however, the center would have a modest role, primarily for the exchange of military information and discussion of ``unusual military activities.'' It would likely also gain responsibility for confidence- and security-building measures among the several states and become a place to which they can bring emerging concerns about security. Thus it could be a valuable instrument for the CSCE foreign ministers' conference in dealing with intra-European conflicts.
In time, the conflict prevention center could take on added functions. Some may be agreed this winter in Malta at a conference on the peaceful settlement of disputes. But as it stands now, the center would be inadequate to the task of containing, much less trying to resolve, the tensions that are coming to the boil in several parts of Central Europe - most notably Yugoslavia.
Also needed is a mediation and conciliation service, some agreed means whereby states can choose the arbitration of disputes, a commitment to discuss problems regularly and routinely. Today, there is insufficient political support for undertaking any of these projects, but tomorrow may be too late.
The CSCE is thus gaining a new lease on life and can perform many valuable services - not least to provide a broad framework for developing more ambitious structures of security. But as projected now, CSCE will not meet today's urgent requirements for conflict containment and resolution in Central and Eastern Europe. Whether this failure can be corrected will be important in determining how relevant CSCE can be to Europe's future.