Jim Gilmore, who served as Virginia’s governor from 1998 to 2002, became the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in May 2019. RTD Opinions met in December with Gilmore, who grew up in Henrico County. We recently followed up with questions about a variety of pressing topics, including challenges facing Europe, cybersecurity and the global coronavirus pandemic.
What do you see as the United States’ role in the OSCE?
The OSCE is a major international organization with 57 participating countries, which include the United States, Canada, the states of Western, Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the OSCE is based upon the Helsinki Accords of 1975 that helped lay the foundation for a peaceful end to the Cold War.
The pathbreaking Helsinki Accords took a comprehensive approach to security. Its founding principles recognize that respect for human rights and for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries are essential elements of lasting prosperity and peace.
The United States remains the leading voice in the OSCE for upholding those principles, which are even more relevant, I believe, today. The OSCE’s broad membership and scope provide an important international platform for us to advance and defend our and our allies’ and partners’ interests and values, guided by President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy.
Our democratic allies and friends in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia find strength in our presence and leadership in the OSCE. The U.S. role in the OSCE is to stand up for human rights, dignity and economic opportunity in a world that often seeks to deny them.
The U.S. mission to OSCE also stands against Russia’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors, such as Ukraine and Georgia, including its malign influence campaigns aimed at thwarting their aspirations of greater integration with Europe and the Transatlantic community. We also work to counter transnational threats and crime, such as terrorism and human trafficking.
What are the leading challenges facing the OSCE?
The leading challenge is an aggressive Russia that has decided its future and glory rests with destabilizing and undermining the independence of neighbors that do not want to be part of a new Russian empire or sphere of influence.
Russia has engaged in the military invasion and destabilization of Ukraine and Georgia. Russia has forces based in Moldova without Moldova’s consent, and which Russia committed to withdraw, but has not. In the case of Ukraine, Russia controls parts of eastern Ukraine through proxy forces it arms, trains, funds, leads and fights alongside.
Russia seized and continues to occupy Crimea, the sovereign territory of Ukraine, in blatant violation of international law. The United States and many other countries around the world firmly reject Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. In both eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia and its proxies severely restrict fundamental freedoms and commit serious abuses against those who oppose its occupation, including members of ethnic and religious minorities, such as Crimean Tatars.
Russia has continued to occupy approximately 20% of Georgian territory since 2008. Russia has blatantly disregarded its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement to withdraw its forces and continues to back de facto governments that deny Georgian citizens the right to vote, own property, register businesses or access life-saving medical care outside the occupied territories. At OSCE, the United States, together with our democratic allies and partners, calls out, condemns and pushes back against this malign Russian behavior.
The OSCE region includes a very large number of countries, some old, and some newly independent. Within those countries are communities that are identified and identify themselves first by race, ethnicity or religion. Malign appeals can be made to those communities to destabilize their own countries, either by outside powers, or by setting one community against another. This appeal to race and ethnicity leads to instability that can lead to conflict, actual civil wars, ethnic oppression, and loss of liberty or property.
The main challenge of the OSCE is to defend and strengthen though action the agreed principles as set out in the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which have been a template for maintaining peace and freedom in a region that has witnessed, and continues to witness, too many conflicts. The OSCE also provides a forum for dialogue, diplomacy and for finding common ground.
Can you talk about the monitoring role that the OSCE will have in this country’s upcoming presidential election and how that came about? Why is it necessary?
Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. All countries in the OSCE have committed themselves to holding free and fair elections. Yet many countries in the OSCE region have no history or tradition of free and fair elections. The United States supports the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which undertakes to carry out election observation missions in all 57 OSCE member countries.
OSCE election observation missions constitute the international gold standard and offer best practices and recommendations to help countries improve their elections processes. Nevertheless, some countries still run stacked elections with uneven playing fields to keep leaders and ruling elites in power. The OSCE observes and reports on the integrity of elections processes and how they have been carried out.
U.S. long-term security is best preserved in a community of genuine democracies. The United States cannot expect other countries to welcome ODIHR election observers if we are not willing to allow those observers into our own country. To provide that example, the U.S. government invited ODIHR to observe our own presidential election in 2020 — just as we have for every general election since 2002.
By modeling principled behavior, we demonstrate our confidence in ourselves and our institutions and show our willingness to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of our own society. We set a standard to which we can hold others in the OSCE.
Cybersecurity ranks as a top issue for the OSCE. How has the organization been addressing this international concern, especially as it relates to counterterrorism and cybercrime?
In the modern world, we are empowered by information technology, which can be a tremendous force for good. At the same time, malign governments and non-government actors, such as cybercriminals, seek to exploit that interconnectivity and even threaten our ability to respond to an attack upon our country. Cybersecurity is a top priority for the OSCE and is a particular focus of the U.S. mission to OSCE.
Online channels can become vehicles for disinformation — the deliberate spread of falsehoods — which can destroy a people’s confidence in themselves and their governments. Direct cyberattacks on computer systems and communications can disable defenses, and render a country more vulnerable to physical attack. Criminals can use cybercrime to steal, to defraud, to conduct human trafficking and to enable corruption.
The OSCE understands that cybersecurity is essential in a time of organized cybercrime and hybrid warfare by adversary states. These can undermine the democracy that is the foundation of human freedom. The OSCE applies resources, training, and confidence and security building measures to prevent cyberattacks within its member countries.
Long before COVID-19, Europe was a dangerous place. In your position as U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, how has the pandemic added to the perilous state of affairs?
Some governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on dissent, political opposition, civil society and the press. Russia has turned away from true democracy. Iran and China never were democracies, and although they are not OSCE participating states, they are nonetheless influential in the region.
Many other countries have not fully embraced democracy. They also have used the health crisis as an excuse to undermine electoral processes. Fear of the disease has led to expanded arbitrary or unlawful use of monitoring technologies to undermine civil liberties and human rights, or to permanently expand state authorities. The United States is working with the OSCE to ensure governments and civil society work together to protect democratic institutions while keeping the public safe during the pandemic.
In a recent statement, you stressed that: “We need to find ways to rebuild and confirm institutions and structures that make a society diverse, prosperous and free.” What’s the U.S. role in this process?
The greatest threats to freedom are governments that act with impunity outside the rule of law. The OSCE stands for civil institutions that protect citizens. This means the OSCE stands for the rule of law, independent judiciaries to apply that law, and institutions that fight corruption and maintain government transparency and respect freedom of speech.
The OSCE has a permanent Secretariat, but also a Representative on the Freedom of the Media, a High Commissioner on National Minorities, and an Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Additionally, the United States supports 13 OSCE field missions that work with member countries to build and preserve the institutions of a free society.
One major OSCE institution is the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM). The mission plays a critical role in maintaining regional stability by serving as the international community’s eyes and ears on the Russia-fomented and -fueled conflict in eastern Ukraine. The SMM has placed hundreds of observers on the ground in the conflict area of occupied Ukraine. This mission helps document and report on the conflict, which helps to prevent escalation and create an environment for ultimate settlement of the conflict.
Each week, the 57 ambassadors to the OSCE meet in Vienna at a permanent council that provides a venue for each country to state its concerns and positions. Each week the U.S ambassador stands up for American values and the positions that further and protect American interests.
As governor of Virginia, you led several global trade missions to overseas countries. And in the months right before the pandemic, the commonwealth launched its first international Trade Strategic Plan. How do we restore the global economic relationships at a time when countries are consumed with their own unique battles?
As governor, I led trade missions for Virginia to 18 countries on three continents. On those missions we promoted successful Virginia businesses that could offer great products, agriculture and services at fair prices. In a free market, Virginia, as well as every American state and businesses, should get their share of international markets.
Sadly, in recent years we have seen other countries subsidize their own businesses and place them at an advantage through trade discrimination, tariffs and economic favoritism. President Trump recognized these disadvantages and has sought to level the playing field for American businesses and workers.
The United States recognizes that economic power is an essential part of a nation’s power. The PRC is developing its “Belt and Road” initiative to further its economic and political influence in the OSCE area. Russia subsidizes the sale of gas, oil and other natural resources to project its national power on countries they wish to control.
Organized crime uses economic activity to American’s disadvantage. Bribery and corruption overseas places American business at a disadvantage. The United States supports the OSCE programs that prioritize the fight against corruption and economic organized crime. The United States provides financial assistance to anti-corruption projects across the OSCE region.
On a personal note, what has serving in this position meant to you?
Over my years in public life, I have had the chance to build experience and learning in public service. As commonwealth’s attorney in Henrico County, as attorney general of Virginia, as governor of Virginia, and now as United States ambassador I have had the opportunity to enjoy experiences that can now be put to work for the public.
There is great satisfaction in serving and representing our great state and our great county. There is true value in a life of working to shape the community to make our state and country a decent place to live and raise a family. Only one who has served in public office can truly know the satisfaction of doing something beyond one’s own self, to help preserve a better future for all of us.
— Pamela Stallsmith, Robin Beres and Chris Gentilviso