March 26, 2019

What went wrong?

By Barend te Haar.

The Charter of Paris(1990) is a milestone in European history. The Heads of State and Government of the countries of Europe and North America stated that the “era of confrontation and division of Europe” had ended and declared “that henceforth our, relations will be founded on respect and co-operation” and that “a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe” had opened.

But now, almost 30 years later, confrontation and division are back and respect and co-operation are lacking, in particular between Russia and the West. How could that happen? Who is to blame and what to do? These questions were discussed in a number of workshops organized by the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, with a focus on the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the above mentioned summit of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) a year later. One of the workshops brought historians together with former diplomats (including myself) that participated in the negotiations in 1990.

The results of the project were published in December 2017 in a report entitled The Road to the Charter of Paris: Historical Narratives and Lessons for the OSCE Today. A main conclusion of the report is that “Mistakes were made on both sides, but some of the more fatal long-term developments resulted largely from unintended side-effects of crucial decisions that made perfect sense for the respective side at the time.”

Governments would have had difficulty in arriving at this conclusion, because they tend to look at things only from their own side. It is interesting to see that almost every country has its own view on what happened, depending on its particular history and interests. Even within one country different narratives can co-exist.

See for example my report on Dutch narratives, published in Security Narratives in Europe, A Wide Range of Views(

How is it possible that so many different narratives exist? One reason is that some countries deliberately falsify history, e. g. by prohibiting mentioning events that do not fit in their rosy self-image. Less reprehensible, but at least as important is the habit of selective reading of the historicalrecord, because countries tend to focus on the events that are in line with theirpreoccupations and interests and tend to ignore those that do not.

For example, Western countries argue that enlargement of NATO and EU was the most effective way to promote stability and democracy in central Europe, but they tend to conceal that they did not know how to include Russia in their plans.

Misperceptions and misunderstandings caused by a selective reading of history have provided a breeding ground for mistrust and conflict. A more complete and multifaceted understanding of what actually happened and how that was perceived will not solve these problems, but it can contribute to deeper mutual understanding and thereby lay the basis for cooperation.

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