VIENNA — The name Helga Schmid probably does not ring a bell beyond diplomatic circles in this very diplomatic city. Nor is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which Schmid leads, a household name, either.
But the German career diplomat is about to become better known this week. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently that the US wanted to “encourage Russia to engage meaningfully” in the Strategic Stability Dialogue in Geneva, the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels and the OSCE in Vienna meetings that are all scheduled to occur this week with US and Russian participation.
Schmid took over the organization’s post of secretary general in December 2020, after it went through a leadership vacuum for several months. She was put forward by the German government and was the most convincing candidate in the hearing process.
The OSCE is generally perceived as an obscure organization because it is mostly engaged in silent diplomacy and conflict prevention and management, activities that don’t attract too much public attention. However, the organization is uniquely placed to help manage current tensions between Russia and the West because of its inclusive membership and historical role in reducing East-West tensions. The OSCE membership also encompasses countries such as Ukraine, which needs to have a say in the potential settlement of the crisis underway with Russia.
Several senior Western officials interviewed for this article described Schmid in more or less the same way: as a persistent, energetic, goal-driven and highly skillful negotiator with a deep network of contacts.
Another fact that may not be widely known about Schmid, who was interviewed for this article in December by email, is her work as a behind-the-scenes arbiter who helped to clinch the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, also negotiated in Vienna. (The post is currently held by the Spanish diplomat Enrique Mora.) The deal was aimed at preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, and Schmid is widely considered to be the lead author of the agreement, which the remaining parties are currently trying to revive in this city after the US dropped out as a participant in the deal in 2018.
During her job as the deputy secretary general for political affairs in the European External Action Service at the time, Schmid acted as the mediator between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group, which includes the US, Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany.
“Helga Schmid has the unusual skill of recognizing what is feasible and what is simply not going to fly in a complex negotiation. She would always find a starting point that would guarantee the best possible result, even in very difficult situations,” a senior Western diplomat, who has been involved in the negotiations with Iran for many years, told PassBlue.
Another key player in the negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was Wendy Sherman. At the time, Sherman was US under secretary of state for political affairs and the right hand of Secretary of State John Kerry.
Schmid and Sherman became close as they worked together on the Iran deal several years ago.
Sherman’s travels to Geneva and Brussels this week for the Russia-US and NATO-Russian meetings means that the two women are delving into the same complicated topics as they did years ago.
They held a phone call on the matter on Jan. 7 and agreed “that the OSCE Permanent Council meeting next week will be an opportunity to call for de-escalation and diplomacy as well as discuss approaches to reduce regional tensions,” with the OSCE being a “critical venue for multilateral dialogue on European security issues,” according to a readout from the State Department.
“I didn’t go into the JCPOA negotiations expecting to make a real friend, but that’s what I found in Helga,” Sherman, who is now US deputy secretary of state, told PassBlue in an interview by email.
“It’s rare for two women to play leadership roles in a major negotiation like the JCPOA at the same time, and it was such a gift,” Sherman said. “We could have discreet chats in the ladies’ room, or run across the street for 20 minutes of retail therapy in the stressful final days of the talks, or unwind and compare notes over a glass of wine at the end of the day.”
Schmid’s essential role in achieving the deal with Iran was also appreciated by Germany.
In November 2015, then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded Schmid the Federal Cross of Merit Class I for her success. “I remember the long and cumbersome days of negotiations, when we, the foreign ministers, would return to our hotel rooms after many hours of talks to get a bit of sleep,” Steinmeier said in his speech at the award ceremony in Berlin. “But not you, dear Helga! You went on when all others were wiped out.”
In her email exchange with PassBlue, Schmid said that she had felt “totally frustrated” when she heard about Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the very deal that she had spent so many years negotiating.
After her career in the European Union, she was appointed secretary general of the OSCE.
The organization is the world’s largest regional security entity, with 57 member states from North America, Europe and Central Asia. It was established during the Cold War to foster relations between the Soviet Union at the time and the West.
Today, it has a broad mandate that includes election monitoring, human-rights protection, military confidence building and conflict mediation in eastern Ukraine as well as the breakaway regions of Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.
The OSCE is a regional arrangement under Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter and is mandated to support the Security Council in the peaceful settlement of disputes between states. The OSCE’s role with the Council is also vital but not well publicized. It is the only international organization negotiating a settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria conflicts. It has also deployed a large civilian monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine that observes and reports on cease-fire violations and mediates local cease-fires. (The OSCE observed the lead-up to the Nov. 3, 2020, general elections in the US. The organization has been monitoring elections in the country since 2002.)
Schmid is the first woman to head the OSCE. This is nothing unusual for her. In 2003, she was the first woman to become head of cabinet in the German foreign ministry, under Joschka Fischer, who led the ministry between 1998 and 2005. She was also the first woman deputy secretary general for political affairs in the EU, as well as the first woman to become secretary general of the EU’s European External Action Service.
“But getting to where I am now has not been without challenges,” Schmid told PassBlue. “Starting out in the 1990s in Germany, I was one of only nine women out of the 60 new entrants to the foreign ministry, so there has been plenty of mansplaining to be overcome, and plenty of trailblazing as the first woman to be appointed to certain jobs.”
Schmid, who is fluent in German, French and English, was born in Dachau, Germany, in 1960. She studied Romance languages, literature and history in Munich and Paris.
The elegant diplomat can be easily spotted in every conference room she inhabits, wearing her visible trademark: she likes to complete practically every outfit with a colorful scarf.
One goal for Schmid is to advance the partnership with the US, and she confirmed that she was visiting the State Department in Washington and the UN early this year, contingent on the Covid-19 situation.
“The OSCE enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. thanks to the active role of the Congressional Helsinki Commission,” she said in her email.
But the OSCE also faces a range of problems that could be difficult to overcome for Schmid. It has a modest annual budget of roughly 140 million euros (about $158 million) that has remained unchanged for years.
Indeed, if the organization wants to deliver on its broad mandate, more money is needed. Schmid will face the complicated task of convincing OSCE participating states to increase their contributions. At a gathering of the foreign ministers of the OSCE member states in Stockholm in December, Schmid pleaded for the countries to increase their contributions, saying, “We cannot sustain another year of zero nominal growth.” She stressed how the organization delivers on an exceptionally broad mandate that costs states just “around 20 cents per citizen per year.”
The success of the OSCE under Schmid will also depend a lot on the state of relations between Russia and the West. Since tensions have reached a new high as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops along parts of its border with Ukraine, there have been increasing calls, including by the US, to use the OSCE as a platform for dialogue to de-escalate the situation.
The first regular meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council will take place in Vienna on Jan. 13. This is the first such meeting this year, which is traditionally used by the organization’s chair to present its priorities. Starting Jan. 1, Poland holds the yearlong chairmanship, and its foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, will deliver the opening statement at the meeting.
It will also apparently be used by Russia and the US to make official remarks on the state of East-West relations, but it seems the statements will not be more than the usual exchange that happens at the Permanent Council meeting every week.
But using the OSCE for initiating a process of high-stake talks between Russia and the West could put the organization under the spotlight and be a litmus test for Schmid and her ability to manage tough negotiations as well as a test for the OSCE chair.
In the organization, leadership is shared between the secretary general and the annual rotating chair. While political leadership rests largely with the latter, the secretary general’s political role, even if limited, should not be underestimated.
According to the official mandate, there is scope for Schmid to take on a more proactive role in supporting the chair to foster dialogue between Russia and the West. She would be ideally placed to do so since she has a long-established relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and high-level officials in the US State Department from her time brokering the Iran nuclear talks.
Schmid said in an interview in October that she also saw her role as helping to provide “political impetus” and creating “informal channels of dialogue.”
What could help her make headway is her “broad network of contacts among politicians and ministers,” said Alessandro Azzoni, a former Italian ambassador to the OSCE. “Wherever Helga Schmid calls, she can always be sure of someone powerful to pick up the phone.”
This article has been updated to correct that Schmid was deputy secretary general for political affairs in the European External Action Services, within the European Union, and that she never attended the Diplomatic Academy.