THE discussions at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) summit in Helsinki last week seemed almost frivolous in light of the bewildering human tragedy still raging in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The tragedy of the international response is that leaders are giving the Balkan crisis the most attention to date at a time when their political options for resolving it have dwindled if not disappeared. One of the central lessons of this conflict is the importance of early diplomatic intervention,
and the Helsinki summit has equipped the CSCE with an extensive menu of possible responses to crises.
A disproportionate amount of attention has focused on the CSCE's new peacekeeping arrangements, but this mechanism is a last resort. Peacekeeping is restricted to very particular circumstances - to separate combatants once a cease-fire has been established. In Bosnia, for instance, most governments have insisted that forces would only be sent after the shooting stops.
In recent weeks the media has persistently pressed the question of why the United States and its allies don't simply attack or cordon off the Serbian aggressor. Officials rightly point out that such "peace enforcement" (a traditional term that has now been oddly replaced by the phrase "peacemaking") would have, at best, uncertain prospects for success and could bog down terribly.
To an extent, the governments brought this pressure upon themselves by making a big fuss over the new peacekeeping mechanisms - and NATO's potential role in them. Such a focus gives short shrift to the many other useful conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms outlined in the Helsinki Document adopted by 51 leaders last week.
In the document, CSCE accepts a new level of responsibility for dealing with conflict. Traditionally, CSCE has been more of a debating society than a serious political forum; it was used to find areas of universal consensus rather than work out solutions to urgent problems. After reviewing its modes of operation for four months, however, the CSCE governments have developed a system for responding to conflicts at various stages.
To provide "early warning" of emerging disputes between ethnic groups, the leaders in Helsinki approved the creation of a High Commissioner on National Minorities. The position is supposed to be filled by a recognized international figure and will be totally independent. As described in the summit document, the commissioner will have considerable latitude to investigate situations on the ground, mediate between the parties, and make recommendations to the CSCE's governing councils. If given the proper su pport, he (or she) could really help nip conflicts in the bud.
The summiteers deferred decision on one element of the new conflict resolution scheme. They called for a special meeting in October to work out a mechanism for conciliation or arbitration. France and Germany have corralled a group of 16 countries in support of their proposal for a Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, but the US feels binding arbitration would be too rigid and has put forward its own alternative.
If the CSCE could establish an authority for binding arbitration, it would be of enormous value. But both of these proposals share the flaw that they delegate too much responsibility to legal experts. While principles of international law might provide the basis on which some disputes could be settled, many will require the flexibility of political dialogue.
Indeed, the CSCE's major current conflict resolution project is working under the latter premise. Eleven CSCE states are meeting in Rome to establish ground rules for a peace conference on the conflict over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. This conference illustrates one of the most useful recent CSCE innovations - the steering group. CSCE skeptics often complain that it is impossible to accomplish anything in a group of 52 nations that operates on consensus. The steering group mec hanism, however, allows the CSCE to designate certain countries as a task force for a particular problem.
In backing an ambitious agenda for the body, some major Western powers are reversing an earlier wariness of CSCE. In some cases, they are even recognizing the problems caused by their earlier skepticism. Bureaucratic infrastructure has been one of the big bugbears of CSCE reform. But the modest institutions that have resulted are, by any standard, almost impotent; the secretariat in Prague has a staff of 14 (including the doorman and driver), and this year's budget for all of the CSCE's institutions is $3 million. At the summit, a British official said "the time is probably right to give the chairman in office some support."
With the various new mechanisms of CSCE, its leaders have an impressive apparatus to help check the splintering of Europe; the question now is whether they will make use of it.