Previous issue's column | November/December Contents | Gazette Home


International Internship
From debonair diplomats to the conflict in Kosovo.
By Shannon Burke.

Until this summer, my understanding of international politics was shaped entirely by the American environment I had grown up in, the American schools I had attended and the American media that had been my source of world news. I was conditioned to equate the term international organization with institutions dominated by the United States, such as NATO and the UN. When I applied for an overseas internship with the State Department last November, I requested the Bureau of European Affairs and the Bureau of International Organizations with the hope of being placed at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels. Four months later, I received a copy of a cryptic cable assigning me to the political section of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna.
illustration by Jose Ortega / SIS   At the time, all I knew about the OSCE was that it sponsored a Kosovo verification mission whose reports on the refugee situation were cited in newspapers and on CNN. I soon learned that the OSCE is the world’s largest regional-security organization, with 55 member states spanning the area from Vancouver to Vienna to Vladivostok. It was established by the 1973 Helsinki Final Act as a forum for dialogue during the Cold War. Because the original members of the OSCE included the Soviet Union and the communist-bloc countries, it was able to facilitate direct negotiation between Cold War enemies in a way that other organizations like NATO could not. The OSCE has evolved over the past 25 years and now includes the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics. With the end of the Cold War, it redefined its role to focus on preventing conflict and encouraging democracy in the newly independent states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It also expanded its scope to include organizing democratic elections, monitoring human rights, and promoting economic and environmental cooperation in the developing states of the OSCE region.
   Many of my internship duties revolved around the weekly Thursday morning meetings of the OSCE Permanent Council. I received a copy of the agenda early in the week and was usually given responsibility for one or two items. The State Department’s Bureau of European Affairs in Washington sent me cables with the U.S. position on my agenda items. Once I received this guidance, I drafted talking points for the ambassador and briefed him. My duties also included taking notes at the frequent informal meetings he held with other ambassadors to assess where they stood on different issues and attempt to gain support for U.S. positions before they were brought before the council.
   Each Thursday morning, debonair diplomats in pinstriped suits flocked to the Hofburg, the majestic Hapsburg palace in the heart of Vienna, for the permanent council meetings. My first few meetings were exciting because I did not know what to expect, and I got a thrill out of just being in the historic Hofburg, surrounded by the bustle of staffers and the sound of numerous languages blending together. But the meetings soon became rather anticlimactic, because I knew the U.S. position on every agenda item and I could predict how other countries were going to respond. I soon discovered that what was actually said at the meetings was often less important than the negotiations that took place behind the scenes. On those mornings, the Hofburg lobby became Vienna’s answer to Washington’s legendary "smoke-filled rooms" as diplomats mingled, shared information and traded favors.
   Most of this summer’s council debate focused on Kosovo. The OSCE had established the Kosovo Verification Mission late last year to monitor the refugee situation, but the KVM had pulled out when the NATO bombings began. When I arrived in Vienna, the bombings had ended and the OSCE was beginning to reestablish its presence in Kosovo. On July 1, the OSCE approved a new Kosovo mission with responsibility for establishing democratic courts and legal institutions, media outlets for free and open expression, and a police school to train Kosovo’s civilian police force.
   I participated in several meetings in which the U.S. mission attempted to define its interest in Kosovo, develop a vision for the new OSCE presence, and determine how America would contribute. Once the Kosovo mission was established, I was involved in prioritizing which positions should be filled by Americans and identifying strong candidates to nominate. I was also responsible for editing reports from the mission and transmitting them back to the State Department in Washington. I got a sense of the real situation on the ground in Kosovo by reading these reports, which detailed everything from humanitarian aid in the refugee camps to disarmament of the Kosovo Liberation Army to the search for a suitable mission headquarters in Pristina, where most of the office buildings had been destroyed by NATO bombs.
   But I learned about a lot more than just Kosovo this summer. I was exposed to the wide range of issues that affect the OSCE region, ranging from nuclear disarmament in Ukraine to minority language laws in Latvia and the Slovak Republic to the economic development of Central Asia. I was able to apply the many theories I had learned and skills I had acquired during my four years as an undergraduate at Penn as the U.S. mission worked toward resolving these issues. Most importantly, I learned about what the OSCE does and how it operates. Like every organization, the OSCE has limitations. For example, it is constrained by limited financial resources and the requirement that member states must unanimously approve all decisions of the permanent council. However, I believe the OSCE also has a great deal of potential. The organization has already proven its effectiveness in the area of post-conflict rebuilding with the rapid re-establishment of the Kosovo mission under extremely difficult circumstances, and I look forward to watching it strengthen its position as the world’s premier instrument for conflict prevention, crisis management and rehabilitation in the future.

Shannon Burke C’99 is currently a graduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences working toward a master’s degree in history. She received her B.A. in diplomatic history last May.

Previous issue's column | November/December Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/26/99