In 1954, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the four Great Powers (U.S., U.K., France and the U.S.S.R.), the U.S.S.R. first proposed to hold a conference on security in Europe. The U.S. and its Allies rejected the proposal, since it was offered as a replacement to NATO and did not provide for U.S. participation. However, in the improved political climate of the late 1960s, NATO countries began to consider expanding the dètente process in Europe.

A key NATO prerequisite for holding a conference on security in Europe was fulfilled several years later, in 1971, with the signing of the Quadripartite Agreement between the U.S., U.K., France and the U.S.S.R. After preliminary consultations in Winter 1972/73, the first Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was convened in Helsinki in 1973, with the participation of 35 States. The Conference concluded with the Helsinki Final Act (PDF 157 KB) in 1975. The Helsinki Final Act is a politically, not legally, binding document that sets out principles of conduct in three areas: military-political, economic and environmental and human rights.

From 1975 to 1990, the CSCE functioned as a series of conferences and meetings where new commitments were negotiated and their implementation periodically reviewed.

The Paris Summit meeting in 1990 marked the beginning of institutionalization aimed at meeting the challenges presented by the post-Cold War period. The Paris Charter for a new Europe (PDF 70 KB) established a permanent administrative infrastructure, which included a Secretariat, a Conflict Prevention Center and an Office for Free Elections. A major arms control agreement – the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) – was also concluded on the margins of the Paris Summit.

The development of the security situation in Europe in the 1990s, most importantly the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R., led to a fundamental change in the CSCE: in order to cope with the new challenges, the process of institutionalization was accelerated and expanded; new mechanisms were created, operational capabilities were enhanced and implementation of commitments was strengthened. These developments were reflected in the change of name at the Budapest Summit in 1994 from the CSCE to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Lisbon Summit of 1996 strengthened the key role of the OSCE in fostering security and stability in all three dimensions. It also stimulated the development of an OSCE Charter for European Security (PDF 69 KB), eventually adopted at the Istanbul Summit, in November 1999. This was instrumental in improving the operational capabilities of the Organization and reinforcing co-operation with its partners. An adapted version of the CFE Treaty was also signed at the Istanbul Summit by 30 OSCE participating States.

Today the OSCE is the largest regional security organization in the world with 57 participating States.