THE Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) may have been the perfect forum for handling the conflicts of the cold war, but it is having a difficult time finding its place in the new era.
At the first CSCE summit in Helsinki in 1975, 35 heads of state attended, but they represented only two blocs: the Warsaw Pact and NATO.
As the years passed, CSCE - also known as the Helsinki process - began to chip away at East-West confrontation, mostly through human rights and arms control. Little more than a series of roving conferences, the CSCE reached decisions through consensus, and its decisions were not legally binding.
It was precisely this loose forum, however, that allowed the two blocs to move toward cooperation one step at a time. (US view of CSCE, Page 2.)
At the CSCE's third summit today and tomorrow in Helsinki, its heads of state will be looking at the conference through different eyes than did their predecessors in 1975.
First, the emergence of new countries in Eastern Europe has caused CSCS membership to balloon to 52. These countries have their own concerns, which no longer fit neatly into two camps.
Second, the problems to be tackled by the conference are of a much different nature: rising nationalism and regional wars in Eastern Europe; a grave economic imbalance between East and West Europe; fledgling democracies in danger; and environmental wastelands created after years of neglect under the Communists.
Conference member-states believe their loose organization of the past is incapable of responding to today's challenges, many of which need swift and decisive action.
So at their second summit in Paris in 1990, they began reshaping CSCE - "institutionalizing" it, as the diplomats put it. They instituted more-frequent meetings of foreign ministers and top officials, and they set up a small permanent secretariat in Prague, an office to monitor elections in Warsaw, and a conflict prevention center in Vienna.
But these measures were not enough, as the failure of CSCE to head off or mediate crises such as Yugoslavia and Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated.
At this summit, leaders are determined to further strengthen CSCE, to make it "capable of action," as the Germans are saying.
One German official, who asks not to be named, characterizes CSCE as "a big, international circus." He calls the summit's planned declaration on Yugoslavia "without substance," a lot of "tra la la." These are sharp criticisms from a country that has been one of CSCE's strongest advocates.
N a document entitled "decisions," the leaders at the summit are expected to take the following steps to put some teeth in the conference:
* Peacekeeping. The member states of CSCE have agreed to declare themselves a "regional arrangement" of the United Nations under Chapter 8 of the UN Charter. This will empower them to maintain international peace in ways "consistent" with the principles of the United Nations. CSCE members are taking this to mean the use of peacekeeping forces.
The CSCE has no military forces of its own, but NATO and the Western European Union have declared themselves ready to assist the CSCE if asked. In deciding on a peacekeeping mission, the CSCE would not have to wait for a mandate from the UN Security Council, but could act on its own.
* Decisionmaking. Establishing consensus among 52 members is an unwieldy process; one dissenting country can sink a whole project. At the CSCE meeting in Prague last January, the countries' foreign ministers changed the requirement to consensus-minus-one. But this has still proven unwieldy.
To streamline decisionmaking, the heads of state meeting in Helsinki are expected to approve the concept of a "steering group." Less powerful than a steering committee, which was what the Germans originally wanted, a steering group would consist of a selection of conference members, and would be established on an ad hoc basis to advise the CSCE's chairman on urgent issues as they come up.
In the CSCE "you have a group of states with less than one-third the membership of the UN with no executive or security council taking authority for the group," says John Chipman, of the International Institute for Security Studies in London. "All collective security organizations, if they are to work, need an executive [body]."
* Targeting problems. At the urging of the Dutch, the CSCE summit is expected to approve a CSCE commissioner for minorities. The purpose is to identify minority trouble spots and try to diffuse the tensions before they turn into violence.
The conference also wants to tackle environmental problems. It is expected to endorse a coordination mechanism in which member countries send "green helmets" to deal with environmental catastrophes - either natural, such as earthquakes, or man-made, such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986.