Foreign Policy Blogs

Hopeless But Not Serious: Austria’s Foreign Policy

Hopeless But Not Serious: Austria's Foreign PolicyLast night I attended the New York Premiere Screening of Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace. Featuring interviews with Leon Charney, Back Door Channels reveals the unlikely confluence of events that produced one of the most significant diplomatic achievements of the 20th Century: the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt. The term “back door channel” has been in use since the early 1950s by government and foreign policy officials as well as intelligence operatives. It refers to alternative methods for official governmental, diplomatic entities and covert intelligence agents to communicate across borders. One “back door channel” was the Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky,in office from 1970 to 1983, whom Leo Charney, in his capacity as an unofficial advisor to President Jimmy Carter, met in Vienna for a private off the record conversation on world politics. According to Charney’s book on his role in the Camp David Peace Accords the Austrian Chancellor:

…wished that the Americans in particular would appreciate Austria’s Middle East policy as a necessary function of its struggle for survival.”The Middle East will be the starting point of the next cold war, and that will hurt us here. You know, if the Russians decide they have to protect Syria, they won’t stop there but will move in elsewhere. That means they could march back again into Austria as well.”

Charney’s assessment of Kreisky, despite being rather critical of the Austrian chancellors Middle East expertise, is highly favorable:

I found him a fascinating and complex character, a man of intelligence and a political leader with a clear desire to leave his imprint on the world. He sought to use Austria’s neutral position to bring East and West together. I had the impression that he was bored, and sought to play a role on the world stage.

The British historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd shares Charney’s assessment in his book The Austrians: a thousand-year odyssey :

He [Kreisky] was to hold this post for the next thirteen years, making him, in his day, the longest serving head of government in the western world. This accumulated experience, added to his eloquence and intelligence, could have made him one of the world’s most influential leaders. Had he been chancellor in Bonn for such a long uninterrupted spell, that would certainly have been the case. But in the Austrian setting he was, quite simply, a man too big for his country. The national-power base was missing, while Austria’s neutrality also denied him any voice in the military and economic councils of the West.

I am citing these descriptions because one would be hard pressed to find any Austrian politician after Kreisky, to even be worth mentioning, in a book and documentary dealing with international politics. The plain fact is that Austria does not have a foreign policy.  Recently released wikileak cables indicated the deep dissatisfaction in Washington about the limited interest Austria’s chancellor and foreign minister have in foreign relations. For example,  the country mostly  ignored  its relations with its closest neighbors in the historic eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO, as an article in the Review of International Affairs , recently stated:

It was large but also small and medium-sized Austrian companies that seized the opportunities of the rapidly growing economies of the transformation countries in Central and Eastern Europe. But in foreign policy, Austria for the most part neglected the neighboring states.

Foreign policy has always been sort of a joke for most Austrian politicians. In his memoirs Offengelegt (Unfolded), former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel describes the negotiations with his socialist coalition partner, Viktor Klima, on Austria’s international and security strategy in March 1998 – an important subject one would think. However, after a couple of hours of tough negotiations on the possibility of Austria’s accession to NATO, and the inclusion of a  “NATO option” in the government declaration- a document outlining the official policies of the government -Viktor Klima excused himself; he had to attend the launch party of a new radio station in Vienna. Schuessel, left behind waiting, phoned Klima repeatedly during the night. At about 2:30 am in the morning, he finally gave up on his coalition partner and walked home. In his memoirs he states :

In this grotesque manner the debate over Austria’s national security was concluded.

Austria today, is governed by opportunistic professional party apparatchiks, with neither the capacity for long term strategic planning, nor any appreciation of Austria’s historical role in European diplomacy. Take the silly notion of Austria’s sacrosanct founding myth of “perpetual neutrality”. Neutrality has lead Austria into disaster in the past (granted, it was a different Austria back then). One of the biggest diplomatic blunders of the last 200 years was Austria’s decision to neutrality in the Crimean War. The war had broken out in 1854 between the Russian Empire , a staunch ally of Austria, and Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. For various political reasons Austria chose neutrality at the beginning of the conflict followed by a mobilization of troops and ultimatum to the Czar to withdraw Russian troops from Moldavia and Wallachia – which some historians argue was one of the deciding factors in determining the outcome of the Crimean War. Russia never forgave Austria for this indignity which –after the dissolution of an alliance based on conservative unity carefully nurtured by Count Metternich-  jettisoned its Pro-Austrian for an Anti-Austrian Pan-Slavic foreign policy, culminating in the disastrous clash of Austrian and Russian interests on the Balkan at the beginning of the 20th century. We all know the results. In the 20th century neutrality, next to its small size and the pusillanimous attitude of Austrian politicians, lead Austria to international irrelevance as the article in the Review of International Affairs states :

When the first enlargement of NATO after the end of the Cold War took place, Austria was not among the acceding states – thus proving that Austria’s neighbors would not need the good offices of the Austrians  to integrate into one of the most important Western institutions.

As the article goes on to explain Austria, was regarded as a beacon of liberty in the Communist neighboring states during the Cold War. But the country oriented itself towards Western Europe just when the Iron Curtain fell. As an EU member state Austria could never really find close partners. The reasons for that were domestic quarrels among the political elites and a public opinion (spearheaded by the “Kronen Zeitung”) that expressed negative attitudes towards some neighbors. The government program of the current SPOE-OEVP coalition states that:

Within the European Union Austria is committed to strengthening the EU’s role as a successful international player and therefore supports all steps directed at deepening the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), promoting external relations and developing the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP)

A very non-committal statement. The only bright light in all of this may be certain aspects of Austria’s Balkan policy and the work of Valentin Inzko, the incumbent High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Review of International Affairs article, however, soberly concludes:

When one asks Austrian officials about close partners of the country, the answer is usually that this depends on the issue area or that the partners change on a case by case basis. After close questioning, most of them will admit that Austria has close cooperation partners in the EU. The hope of the Austrian decision-makers in the early 1990s for their country to prove useful for their neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe through Austria’s EU membership was not fulfilled. After Austria joined the EU, its politicians were too constrained domestically by the difficulties of the grand coalition government to adjust to adjust to EU membership. In relation to its neighbors, issues like the nuclear power plants popped up, which strained the contacts and the EU accession negotiations, in particular with the Czech Republic.

If you still don’t believe me about Austria’s bizarre inability to conduct a proper foreign policy, read Armin Thurnher’s piece ’Waltzing Past the Graveyard’ in Foreign Policy Magazine. Austrian Foreign Policy is hopeless, but not serious, to paraphrase an old saying.



Franz-Stefan Gady

Franz-Stefan Gady is a foreign policy analyst and world affairs commentator. Franz-Stefan has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy Magazine, Foreign Policy Journal, Der Standard, American Diplomacy Quarterly, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and New Europe. Follow him on Twitter:!/hoanssolo