IT'S something the White House considers too big, hard to control, and poorly defined.
Congress? No - the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which in the wake of the cold war has expanded to 52 members and become a candidate to be the primary supranational organization of the new European order.
President Bush is in Helsinki July 9 and 10 for a CSCE summit intended to bless expanded powers and more formal structure for the previously amorphous institution. As usual, a primary US concern at the summit will be making sure CSCE does not start edging out NATO, the smaller military alliance that is America's club of choice in Europe.
But US officials are clearly taking CSCE more seriously now than they did a year ago, or even six months ago - in part because the Europeans are. Among other things, they've accepted that it should have a role in trying to settle Europe's exploding ethnic disputes and that it can call on NATO troops for peacekeeping purposes. The US is actually a member of CSCE.
Seventeen years after a first Helsinki summit launched CSCE as a means of working out various disputes with the Soviet Union, "Helsinki II must [now] help set the stage for a democratic Eurasia by equipping CSCE to address more effectively the momentous opportunities and challenges that we face today," said Secretary of State James Baker III at a briefing for reporters last week.
The continued fighting in the former republics of Yugoslavia highlights the need for some kind of pan-European organization with more strength to head off conflicts. At the same time, the Balkans tragedy points out CSCE's current flaws.
CSCE is hardly an organization in the UN sense of the word. It is more a collection of free-flowing meetings, with little staff. Decisions are taken only by consensus, and with more than half-a-hundred members, CSCE had, until yesterday been unable to take strong action against a Serb-led Yugoslav government widely considered the main villain in the Balkans fighting.
The CSCE however, decided to go along with the request of the Western industrialized nations to suspend Serbia, aka Yugoslavia, from CSCE's own proceedings. (Yugoslav delegates aren't attending the Helsinki summit in any case.)
CSCE has also been trying to mediate a dispute with the potential to be another Yugoslavia - the tug-of-war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Earlier this spring it took a whole month for CSCE nations to agree just to send an observer mission to the area.
Thus high on the Helsinki summit's list of priorities is giving CSCE a little more structure, so such decisions can be taken more quickly.
Delegates laying the groundwork for the meeting have so far agreed to give more investigative authority to CSCE councils, rather than waiting for all-member canvassing before taking action. In addition, they are likely to agree on the creation of a commissioner on national minorities, specifically charged with trying to forestall the ethnic violence now threatening to rend many former corners of the Soviet empire.
Dan Nelson, a Georgetown University professor of Soviet studies, says this work "reinvigorates the process" of CSCE without so burdening it with bureaucracy that "it becomes locked in."
Throughout the years of the cold war, the US used CSCE as a useful meeting place to complain about Soviet violations of human rights. But US officials have long resisted transforming an organization they considered largely diplomatic into an instrument of collective security.
The US didn't, and still doesn't, want anything to undermine NATO's military primacy. NATO is a small club, with a clear purpose - and an organization the US of necessity dominates. In a larger CSCE structure, it's harder for the US to get its way.
But the US clearly now recognizes that CSCE can serve a purpose as a bridge to the nations of Eastern Europe. Whether the organization develops into anything more than an adjunct to NATO remains to be seen. And the Western European nations have begun utilizing the Western European Union as a multinational military force.
The US can benefit from CSCE in a number of ways, according to Mark Lagon, an American Enterprise Institute research associate. Among other things, CSCE could help spread capitalism in the east and could help Germany assert itself diplomatically in positive ways, according to Lagon.
One other event at the Helsinki summit will be the signing of an addendum to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty which rolls back the number of soldiers in Europe. It does not require ratification by the member states. The CFE treaty governing heavy equipment cutbacks has been signed, but it still has not been ratified by all member countries' parliaments. CSCE diplomats say, however, that ratification is just a formality and the process will wind up in a matter of weeks.