There is a growing chorus of experts and policy-makers calling on governments to establish and promote what has been termed a “Euro-Atlantic security community.” Proponents of the concept differ in their precise definition, but almost all are motivated by a shared set of concerns. They recognize that the states of North America, Europe and Eurasia depend on one another for security, economic prosperity and human development in an increasingly interconnected region and world. Yet these same states have not always acted to promote their shared interests as a security community, at the same time that they have periodically convened to reaffirm their best intentions.

In fact, a security community in the Euro-Atlantic space can be said to exist, based on the fact that states share basic interests, have compatible values, and frequently undertake co-ordinated actions. However, this community is currently weakened by the conduct of some states in opposition to agreed common principles, the persistence of deep historical cleavages and protracted conflicts within the region, and the inadequacy of the institutions and mechanisms at the centre of the community to deal with the challenges members face. To repair this situation, the states of the Euro-Atlantic security community must revitalize its institutional foundations and update its core principles to adapt to the shared security challenges of the 21st century.

What is the Euro-Atlantic security community?

Among the most prominent groups that have taken up the quest to define the security community in the Euro-Atlantic space is the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI), co-chaired by former US Senator Sam Nunn, former German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, with a Commission consisting of nearly two dozen former senior officials from North America, Europe and Russia, as well as a diverse group of supporting experts.1 In its framing document, the EASI Commission describes the goal of a Euro-Atlantic security community as follows:

By a Euro-Atlantic security community we mean an inclusive, undivided security space free of opposing blocs and gray areas. Within this space disputes would be expected to be resolved exclusively by diplomatic, legal or other non-violent means, without recourse to military force or the threat of its use. All would be bound together by a shared understanding of the major security challenges facing member states and ready to respond to them with effective organization and action.2

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen echoed this aspiration in his remarks to the 2010 NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon, in which he called for a “new era of co-operation under a common Euro-Atlantic security roof.”3 For his part, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed a more formal treaty on Euro-Atlantic security that combines the collective security aspects of existing blocs like NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with a broader and more inclusive conception of security reminiscent of the Helsinki Final Act, and mechanisms by which each member state can raise concerns and objections over the conduct of others.4 

Differences in the form and details of these conceptions notwithstanding, these and other advocates of a Euro-Atlantic security community have been motivated by a similar set of concerns, which are also widely shared among governments in the region. Almost all agree 1) that disputes within the community must be resolved without the use or threat of force; 2) on the need for regional co-operation around a common purpose and set of compatible values; and 3) that members of the community must exercise sensitivity with respect to one another’s security concerns in order to build the high degree of trust necessary to periodically put shared interests ahead of competition. These three principles constitute what might be termed a basic definition of the Euro-Atlantic security community.

There is, however, greater disagreement on how far the mandate or authority of a Euro-Atlantic security community should extend and on which states may actually be included or excluded. Officials and experts differ on the degree to which a security community requires the surrender of state sovereignty, as in the case of the European Union; on whether military resources should be contributed and pooled, as with NATO; and on what, if any, supranational legal authority the community should command.

To these questions I would suggest a pragmatic answer: the Euro-Atlantic region, which in its broadest sense encompasses all of Europe, Central Asia, and North America, should focus first on defining common interests and compatible values, and on solving problems. If and when the solutions require co-operation with states outside the region, as they doubtless often will, then such co-operation should be within the mandate of the security community on the basis of its unifying principles and values.

In keeping with this pragmatic spirit, we should not over-theorize the shape and structure of the security community. Let us recall that the idea of a zone of overlapping security interests in the Euro-Atlantic region is not the province of 21st century policy thinkers only. On the contrary, it is arguably as old as the history of international armed conflict in the region.

How does the Euro-Atlantic security community fall short?

Despite the extensive historical precedent and the significant existing infrastructure of the Euro-Atlantic security community, the reality is that the community has remained somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It is limited by regional states’ policies and conduct that are in direct contradiction with the security community’s basic premise, as well as by lingering cleavages within the community, such as between former occupying and occupied states, and between former Cold War rivals. Such cleavages have often been at least partially to blame for the outbreak of armed conflict within the Euro-Atlantic region, and for the difficulty of resolving protracted conflicts. The ability of the security community to solve these and other pressing problems is further constrained by inadequate institutions and structures, and by the lack of real consensus on mechanisms for managing fundamentally transnational challenges in the 21st century.

The behaviour of states in the Euro-Atlantic security community often fails to live up to their rhetoric about shared interests in peace and security. As blocs and individually, states continue to deploy military forces to threaten one another and to defend against perceived threats. This is most notable in the military postures of Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe, as well as in the Caucasus, where despite the end of the Cold War, there remains a “frontline” mentality, and overt planning exercises are still  conducted which train forces to invade and occupy one another’s territory, and to repel such invasions. Heavy troop deployments and provocative movements on both sides over months and years during the last decade certainly made war between Russia and Georgia more likely and may even have been the proximate cause of fighting in August of 2008.5 Deployments, exercises and movements like these exacerbate a climate of tension and distrust which is fundamentally incompatible with the security community’s primary pillar of non-use of force to resolve international disputes.

States have undermined and constrained the security community through behaviour other than the use or threat of force as well. Energy has been used as a weapon by suppliers and transit states, while importing states have sought to build new pipelines and tap new suppliers in order to circumvent others. The gas war between Russia and Ukraine in 2006 is a notable recent case of such coercive behaviour; however, the threat of a gas-supply shut-off has loomed over Russia’s relations with many other post-Soviet states.6

A number of states have also employed passports and citizenship to exert coercive influence on one another, either by claiming individuals living in neighbouring states and along border areas as citizens, and thus seeking to extend sovereignty beyond their borders, or by intentionally preserving the ambiguous stateless status of residents in disputed territories. Such overlapping and ambiguous citizenship and territorial claims not only facilitate confrontation between neighbouring states, but often also encourage illegal trafficking of persons and goods, since normal patterns of commerce and migration are disrupted.

The cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic security community as a single space is further disrupted by longstanding and unresolved cultural cleavages between nations, typically based on traumatic historical events in which each side portrays the other as guilty of perpetrating grave injustices. Although the post-Second World War process of European integration has facilitated reconciliation of historical grievances among the states of Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe were largely excluded from this process, and therefore the legacy of the Second World War, the Holocaust and associated crimes continues to disrupt relations between and among these states. The additional trauma of Soviet occupation between 1945 and 1989, perhaps more than any other factor, prevents formerly occupied states in Central and Eastern Europe from achieving completely normal relations with Russia, as in their eyes Moscow continues to bear responsibility for Soviet crimes.7

There have, of course, been some efforts at overcoming these longstanding tensions rooted in historical grievances, most notably the Russian-Polish rapprochement, begun as a scholarly commission on difficult historical issues, and reinforced by high-level political will following the Smolensk tragedy in 2010.8 Still, a complete reconciliation between former occupiers and occupied will necessitate some soul-searching within the formerly occupied states themselves, where many citizens were also collaborators in, and beneficiaries of, Soviet domination, and this is still a long way off. As one senior official in the region told me, such a process is simply too hard as long as the individuals in question are still living.

Related to historical and cultural cleavages, and indeed often arising from them, are the protracted conflicts in the Euro-Atlantic space. The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 erupted over two breakaway Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to claim victims each year, and to undermine further reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova bordering Ukraine, continues to be a major source of tension between Russia and the West, especially now that Romania, Moldova’s ethnic cousin and major advocate in the West, is a member of NATO. In Cyprus and the Balkans, territorial and ethnic conflicts have been at least partially resolved through international mediation, but tensions remain between the parties to the conflict, with a real danger of drawing in neighbouring states on opposing sides.

The Euro-Atlantic security community is further limited by its own incomplete institutional development. The most obvious institutional contradictions within the Euro-Atlantic security space track with some of the historical and cultural cleavages described above. In particular, what was once the standoff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact has transformed into a sometimes tense arms-length relationship between an expanded NATO alliance and the post-Soviet CSTO, a mutual defence pact of seven states dominated by Russia.9 The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) splits regional states along yet another dividing line, excluding NATO countries and Western-leaning former Soviet republics, but including China.10 At the same time, there are some states in the region, such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are not included in any formal collective security alliance, and are therefore considered security “gray zones”, where external rivals compete for influence and armed conflict may be more likely.11

Despite the end of the Cold War superpower rivalry, Russia and the US still maintain large nuclear arsenals with the capability to completely destroy one another. In addition to direct deterrence against one another, Russia and the US have both employed the doctrine of “extended deterrence,” threatening to use their nuclear weapons to retaliate against any state that might attack a non-nuclear ally. This concept serves the important purpose of reducing other states’ incentives to develop or acquire nuclear weapons of their own, but it has also created a strategic posture of direct opposition between the US and its NATO allies on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other.

When it comes to economic and human security issues, there are a number of additional competing institutions within the Euro-Atlantic security community. The EU, though not primarily a security organization, has sought a larger role in traditional political-military security, while demonstrating its central role in European economic security (for both EU member states and non-members) during the financial crisis, when it co-ordinated bailout loans for many governments facing imminent budget shortfalls that might have led to sudden economic shocks. At the other end of the continent, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose grouping of former Soviet republics formed in 1991, has sought to manage economic relations among its member states, most notably with the implementation in 2010 of a customs union among Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which Kyrgyzstan recently announced the intention to join as well.12 The CIS also typically sends observer delegations to elections in the region, whose conclusions are often at odds with those of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.13

Simply put, the current set of institutions and tools available to the Euro-Atlantic security community are inadequate to address current challenges, with the result that too often policy responses to these challenges are formulated on an ad hoc basis, with inadequate consideration of the broader consequences and interests of the community as a whole. Recent crises in Libya, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and elsewhere have raised the important question of whether and when the security community should intervene to prevent murder and gross human rights abuses from being committed by an authoritarian regime against its own people or by one group within a country against another. In some cases, such as Libya, Euro-Atlantic states have intervened, with as yet uncertain consequences, but no standing mechanism exists within the community for taking such a decision and then managing its consequences, with the result that innocent civilians very often suffer abuse and death while states hem and haw over possible responses.

In states within the Euro-Atlantic space, such as Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, and those on its periphery, such as Afghanistan and Yemen, there is an obvious need for capacity-building operations. Enhancing the ability of governments and civil society in these countries to deliver basic services will certainly increase stability and prosperity and redound to the benefit of the states providing assistance. Yet there is at present no sufficiently effective institution to channel the resources, expertise and political will of states throughout the Euro-Atlantic region into such projects.

Current institutions also appear to be inadequate to the task of conflict resolution and prevention. Although the OSCE has established processes and working groups on several of the protracted regional conflicts, there has been insufficient flexibility and willpower to break through even the first layer of political impasse. The Minsk Process on Nagorno-Karabakh is nearing its twentieth anniversary without a resolution to the conflict, and although there has been no shooting since the 1992 ceasefire, the on-again, off-again “5+2” talks on Transdniestria have also failed to produce any agreement. The 2008 conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia illustrated the failure of the Euro-Atlantic security community to heed clear warning signs and make effective use of conflict prevention tools.

Finally, there is increasingly broad recognition among Euro-Atlantic states of the urgent dangers of transnational threats such as terrorism in the physical world and in cyberspace, trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings, mass migration and environmental degradation. Yet no existing regional security mechanisms have proven adequate to address these threats. Almost by definition, threats that cross national boundaries are able to exploit intra-regional cleavages and strike where the ability of the security community to respond is weakest.

How can we fix the Euro-Atlantic security community?

For the Euro-Atlantic security community to meet its full potential, a clear and decisive strategy with the backing of all states is needed. They must seek to reduce the persistent divisions that weaken the community, while establishing and strengthening institutions and mechanisms that will enable the community to deliver greater security for all its members.

Among existing security institutions in the Euro-Atlantic space, the OSCE clearly comes closest to embodying the definition of a security community as outlined above. It is fair to say that this institution must continue to play a central role, even as the broader institutional framework of the security community may undergo some revision. We must therefore strive to preserve and strengthen those features of the OSCE that have been most valuable and are most essential going forward. First, the OSCE is inclusive — no regional state is excluded from the institution, even when some states find themselves isolated economically or politically — and it has established “partnerships for cooperation” with six Mediterranean and five Asian states on the periphery of the Euro-Atlantic area, as well as with Australia.14 Second, the OSCE’s core documents, including the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, recognize the critical linkage between the political-military, economic and human dimensions of security. And third, the OSCE enjoys unparalleled legitimacy, in part because of the universal participation of Euro-Atlantic states, but also because of its history of more than three decades of responsible and responsive diplomacy. These features will be essential to a successful Euro-Atlantic security community in the future.

In addition to the OSCE, other institutions will continue to respond to regional states’ security concerns and interests, so it will be of continuing importance for the OSCE to maintain deep and productive collaboration with these other actors. In the realm of political-military security, the OSCE could play the role of facilitator to improve dialogue between the competing security blocks of NATO and the CSTO, and the role of co-ordinator with extra-regional organizations such as the SCO and ASEAN, as well as that of advocate for legal authority from the United Nations as necessary. On economic security issues, the OSCE should partner with the EU and the CIS to monitor the consequences of major economic events like the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, and to facilitate the development of region-wide responses. Finally, in addressing third dimension human security issues, which have been a core competency of the organization since the end of the Cold War, the OSCE should draw on the expertise and influence of newer intra-regional and global institutions, particularly the European Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, and the UN Human Rights Council.

Within the OSCE itself there is need for reform and a renewed look at the tools it offers for addressing security challenges. For instance, taking note of escalating tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Berlin Mechanism for early warning and prevention of conflict should be activated once again, to acknowledge the state of high risk, establish direct dialogue between parties and engage participants in the Minsk Group at a higher level.15 Likewise, after widespread arrests, alleged torture and politically motivated prosecutions in Belarus following that country’s December presidential contest, fourteen OSCE Participating States have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will enable an investigation and report with or without co-operation from Minsk.16 While neither of these measures may be sufficient by themselves to stop abuses or prevent further conflict, they will have the effect of concentrating the attention of Euro-Atlantic states on trouble spots in the region, and could provide the framework and justification for further action by the OSCE in co-ordination with the UN Security Council.

Ineffective or outdated OSCE programmes should be shuttered, while those most suited to the modern Euro-Atlantic security environment and challenges deserve stronger and more consistent application. In some cases, it will be appropriate to create new programmes under OSCE auspices. In light of the deep divisions between states in the region stemming from competing historical narratives, there is an urgent need for more widespread reconciliation on the model of the Russian-Polish rapprochement. A standing commission for historical reconciliation could be created under OSCE auspices, with authority to facilitate bilateral and multilateral expert dialogues, as well as to attract high-level political attention to points of agreement and enduring challenges. Of course, participants in these dialogues should come from the states party to the reconciliation process, and only with the agreement and support of their governments. At a minimum, this neutral, impartial body could maintain an archive of historical documents related to conflict and reconciliation in the Euro-Atlantic space. This resource could then be made available to the public at large, along with expert commentaries and guides to best practices for reconciliation.

There must also be changes, especially in some time-worn security narratives common among OSCE states, with a new consensus around the top security challenges faced by the entire Euro-Atlantic community and a movement to develop new consensus rules of the road for addressing the most difficult and novel security problems.

Because intra-regional collective security blocs like NATO and the CSTO are not likely to disappear in the near future, it is essential that the narrative surrounding these institutions change to reflect reality: as a community, the Euro-Atlantic states have put the prospect of Cold War style conflict far behind us. Instead, as the US-Russia “reset” and a similar warming of ties between NATO and Russia have illustrated, broad and deep co-operation between former adversaries is possible, and it can yield tangible results. Leaders on both sides must strongly impress upon their publics the importance of recent accomplishments on nuclear co-operation, progress toward a joint missile defence system, and the ongoing effort in Afghanistan that depends increasingly on critical contributions from both NATO members and Russia.

Euro-Atlantic states should also strive to identify a clear set of top priorities and shared security challenges that can provide a unifying agenda for the OSCE’s future work. On this agenda must be peaceful resolution of the protracted conflicts in the region and an accompanying effort to fully normalize relations between former occupiers and occupied states, on the basis of historical reconciliation. Among the shared challenges that demand attention should be the increasing dependence of economies, societies and even militaries on the Internet, and their corresponding vulnerability to cyber terrorism. Combating more traditional forms of terrorism, along with the extremist ideologies and illicit trafficking that underpin such illegal activity, are already well established priorities for states in the region. Although the interests of states that primarily export energy resources differ from those of net energy importers, all can agree on the importance of stable, secure supplies and the imperative to avoid manipulation of energy markets that will disrupt confidence and cause economic harm to buyers and sellers alike.

Finally, the Euro-Atlantic security community should seek agreement on “rules of the road” to address the most difficult security questions that continue to arise, but for which current legal and political tools are inadequate. While there is some precedent in international law to determine when a separatist entity’s declaration of independence may be recognized, practice has been inconsistent throughout the Euro-Atlantic area and globally. Until states can agree upon a consistent, reasonable formula for recognizing the autonomy or independence of an ethnic enclave, protracted separatist conflicts are unlikely to be resolved.

Similarly, states must more clearly define the circumstances under which humanitarian emergencies necessitate and justify international intervention. While few would dispute the responsibility of community members to prevent genocide, there is some debate over cases that fall short of this bright line, such as the recent NATO intervention in Libya. As natural resources, especially fossil fuels, become increasingly scarce, and the environment is increasingly polluted by industry, states will also be under greater pressure to agree on consistent principles for bearing the costs and enjoying the benefits of resource extraction. That pressure is already substantial, as illustrated by disputes among neighbouring states throughout the region over construction of new nuclear power plants and energy pipelines.


The challenges facing the Euro-Atlantic security community are vast. The rivalries and mistrust that divide states and blocs from one another came about over decades and even centuries of history, and they cannot be undone overnight. Institutions like the OSCE, NATO and the CSTO are complex organizations in their own right, whose structure and limitations reflect the interests and histories of the states that created them. Yet rapid technological change and globalization have ushered in a host of new security challenges.

The first step to building a Euro-Atlantic security community that works is to recognize the need for one, and leaders and experts are increasingly doing just that. The shortfalls of current security institutions and underlying tensions among states can only be addressed if leaders also recognize their own responsibility to take bold action. North America, Europe and Eurasia have come a long way since the Cold War’s end, but the vision of a Euro-Atlantic space whole, free, and at peace has not yet been made real.


1 The author serves as a supporting expert to the Commission’s sub-group on reconciliation and protracted conflicts. EASI receives operational support from the Carnegie Endowment but its proceedings and conclusions are independent and are the sole responsibility of Commission members.

2 Sam Nunn, Wolfgang Ischinger, Igor Ivanov, and Robert Legvold, “Why Euro-Atlantic Unity Matters to World Order,” Commentary, November 9, 2010, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,

3 Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “NATO Needs a Missile Defense,” New York Times, October 12, 2010,

4 “The draft of the European Security Treaty,” President of Russia, November 29, 2009,

5 Hans Mouritzen, “Wikileaks, South Ossetia and the Russian ‘reset,’” Open Democracy Russia, April 4, 2011,

6 Andrei Nesterov, “Russia-Ukraine ‘Gas War’ Damages Both Economies,”, February 20, 2009.

7 Tony Halpin, “Analysis: why the Bronze Soldier is so controversial,” Times, April 27, 2007.

8 “Regarding the results of the work of the Joint Polish – Russian Group for Difficult Matters,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, June 17, 2008,,the,results,of,the,of,the,work,of,the,Joint,Polish,%E2%80%93,Russian,Group,for,Difficult,Matters,session,18328.html.

9 “Basic Facts,” Collective Security Treaty Organization,

10 For a list of member states, see the Shanghai Cooperation Organization website,

11 In 1997, these countries, with Uzbekistan, created their own bloc for “democracy and economic development,” known as GUUAM,

12 “Executive Committee of the CIS” (In Russian),; and “Kyrgyzstan Wants to Join Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union,” RFE-RL, April 11, 2007,

13 Compare “Elections in Kazakhstan did not meet OSCE Standards — head of observer mission,” Interfax, April 4, 2011, with “Elections in Kazakhstan Open, Democratic, Observer Missions’ heads,” April 4, 2011, Itar-Tass,; see also “OSCE and CIS Observers Disagree on Presidential Election in Tajikistan,” New Eurasia (Blog), November 9, 2006,

14 “Partners for Cooperation,” OSCE,

15 “Berlin Meeting of the CSCE Council,” June 19-20, 1991,

16 “EU Statement on Moscow Mechanism,” OSCE Permanent Council Nr. 857, Vienna, April 7, 2011,