Austrian-American Relations from Cold War to Post Cold War

by Guenter Bischof

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger

U.S. Secretary of State Hillarty Clinton and Austrian Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger at the United Nations Security Council in New York City, September 29, 2010. (C) BERNHARD J. HOLZNER © HOPI-MEDIA

During the Cold War, Austria was the superpowers’ “darling” of sorts and saw itself playing a “special role” (Sonderfall). As a Cold War neutral state, it played a crucial role as a mediator and “bridge builder” between East and West. Vienna was the site of important summit meetings (Kennedy- Khrushchev in 1961, Carter–Brezhnev in 1979) and long-running arms-control conferences (Conventional Force Reduction Talks), as well as the third host (with New York and Geneva) of important United Nations agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Austria was an important player among the Neutral & Non-Aligned states in the preparation and execution of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, culminating in the Helsinki meeting in 1975 that cemented European détente, and its follow-up meetings. Politically, Washington has respected Austrian neutrality since Foreign Minister and then Chancellor Bruno Kreisky defined his “active neutrality” policy as very pro-Western after the signing of the State Treaty in 1955.

Economically, Austria continued to profit from the counterpart funds left over from the Marshall Plan. In 1961, the American government handed over the entire counterpart account to the government of Julius Raab, who initiated the “ERP-Fonds” as an important permanent, long-term, low-interest investment vehicle for the Austrian economy. Austrians perceived their status as a “special case” during four-power occupation (1945-1955) and then as a Cold War neutral as a “Sonderfall” – call it “Austro-exceptionalism”. The U.S. tolerated Austria’s growing trade relationship with Eastern Europe in the 1970s but looked askance at Austrian high-tech exports to the Communist Bloc during the 1980s under Reagan. Culturally, widespread Americanization defined Austria’s young generation, which rendered the U.S. a quasi-“cultural superpower.” Austria made up its failure to integrate into the European Economic Community by closely aligning itself with the West German economy; while serving as a “secret ally” of the West during the occupation decade and beyond, it kept its defense expenditures to a minimum. Austrian defense spending during the Cold War never amounted to a credible defense of its neutral status in case of attack.

Austrian neutrality was incompatible with joining NATO and the transatlantic structures and networks emanating from it. The end of the Cold War (1989- 1991) dramatically changed both the U.S.’s and Austria’s international positions. The United States transmuted into a hegemonic giant (the French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine quipped the U.S. was a “hyperpower”), while Austria joined the European Union and remained a small player (in the EU and in the world at large). Since the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Austria has figured less significantly in U.S. geopolitics.

During the dramatic events of 1989/90, the Bush administration was riveted on and consumed by both the fall of communism in the Soviet satellites and German reunification and virtually ignored Austria. On the mental map of American policymakers, Austria moved from its Central European position to being perceived increasingly as a Western Europe nation (part and parcel of the European Economic Communities). Meanwhile formerly communist “Eastern Europe” became “Central Europe” – we are speaking here of the new post-communist countries of East Central Europe that were rushing towards NATO and the EU.

In 1989, when the Iron Curtain came down, Austria redirected its foreign policy both towards Central and Western Europe. It rebuilt traditional ties with its East Central European and Western Balkans neighbors, building stronger trading and banking ties and investing enormously in the new markets of formerly communist Eastern Europe while completing its economic integration into the European Economic Community. In 1995, Austria joined the European Union and both its developing “Common Foreign and Security Policy” and (later under the Lisbon Treaty) “European Security and Defense Policy.” Becoming part of the ever-deepening European political, military and economic integration process, Vienna realigned its foreign policy with Brussels and abandoned Washington’s embrace, which had been loosening since the Reagan years anyway.

Austria moved toward full political and economic integration with Western Europe. Yet, due to continuing popularity of neutrality among two-thirds of the population, Austria never became a member of NATO, and thus, never fully aligned its security policy with the Atlantic community; in this sense it never fully “arrived” in the West. On March 1, 2007, the Austrian Foreign Ministry was renamed “Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs.”

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Bruno Kreisky at The White House, February 3, 1983

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Bruno Kreisky at The White House, February 3, 1983

This name change reflects the growing importance of “EUropean [=EU-European] affairs” and the relative decline of all other foreign-policy priorities. It also reflects a fear of the conservative People’s Party to lose EU competencies to the Social Democratic Chancellor. Yet, after 1995, Austria aligned itself with EU foreign policy. This made Austria part and parcel of the transatlantic-structures-sans-NATO- membership, including the dramatic ups and downs of transatlantic relations during the Clinton and Bush II years. Once it embraced EU integration, Austria lost its “special” Cold War international standing, namely its East-West bridge-building function and its status of “Austro-exceptionalism.”

During the Cold War, the Austrian embassies in Washington and Moscow served as the most important diplomatic missions abroad. After 1995, the Brussels Representation received highest priority among foreign missions. Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty (2009) established the “European External Action Service,” which marks the beginning of a EUropean diplomatic service that is bound to further absorb Austrian foreign policy into the common EUropean foreign policy agenda.

On their stopovers in Europe these days, American presidents visit Prague and Warsaw rather than Vienna. While bilateral economic and cultural relations are holding their own, political relations are weakening between Austria and the U.S. During the first half of the Cold War, Washington regularly posted topnotch professional foreign-service officers such as Llewelyn “Tommy” Thompson and H. Freeman Mathews as ambassadors to Vienna.

On Washington’s foreign policy priority list small nations like Austria have become less important. American presidents since Richard Nixon have dispatched political appointees to Vienna. After the end of the Cold War, all U.S. ambassadors to Austria have been wealthy political appointees who received ambassadorial appointments as a result of their big campaign contributors and “bundlers” in successful presidential campaigns.

Ambassadorial appointments have been important indicators of Austria’s relative standing on the Washington totem pole of global significance. Meanwhile, the Austrian governments have consistently been posting top diplomats as ambassadors to Washington, signaling the continued importance of Washington for Austria.

Frauen-Power asserted itself in both foreign ministries, the Ballhausplatz/ Minoritenplatz in Vienna and in Washington’s Foggy Bottom. For the first time in history, women became principal diplomatic actors on both sides of the U.S.–Austrian relationship. Prominent women ambassadors were appointed by the Austrian and American governments (Eva Nowotny, Swanee Hunt, Susan Rasinski McCaw) as were the first female secretaries of state/ foreign ministers. President Bill Clinton promoted Madeleine Albright, his U.N. Ambassador (1993-1997), to become the first female Secretary of State (1997-2001). President George W. Bush appointed his NSC-Adviser Condoleezza Rice (2001- 2005) as his Secretary of State (2005-2009) during his second term. President Obama made his rival in the 2008 campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton, his Secretary of State (2009-2013). Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel promoted two career diplomats to the position of Foreign Minister: Benita Ferrero- Waldner (2000-2004) and his former Chief-of-Staff Ursula Plassnik (2004-2008).

However, foreign policies did not markedly change or soften under female leadership, maybe because the foreign ministry staffs continued to remain largely male bastions of power. Particularly Albright and Rice were as militant in their conduct of U.S. foreign policy as their male counterparts, if not more so. Ferrero-Waldner and Plassnik were often overshadowed by Schüssel’s dominant role in foreign policy, especially in EU policies.

The U.S.–Austrian relationship, a small cog in the wheels of EUropean– American relations, became part of the growing transatlantic turmoil. U.S.–European relations since the end of the Cold War were a story of divergence, disagreement, and at times overt hostility. The everyday flow of bilateral U.S.–Austrian relations during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush, William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton and George W. Bush were rocked by significant international crises that reoriented and redefined the Austrian-American bilateral relationship too. As American foreign policy turned more unilateral after the end of the Cold War, it also became more imperial.

These, then, were the significant markers and turning points that contributed to a steady deterioration of transatlantic relations: 1) the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain from 1989 to 1991; 2) the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian crisis from 1991 to 1995 and the Kosovo war in 1999; 3) the formation of the Schüssel coalition government with the right-wing FPÖ in January 2000 and the subsequent international isolation of Austria; 4) the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington and the subsequent in Europe unpopular “wars of preemption” against Afghanistan and Iraq. “Bush’s wars” in the Middle East produced the worst transatlantic discord since the Vietnam War and split Europe into U.S.-critical “old” and U.S.-friendly “new” Europe and unleashed a global wave of anti-Americanism, spilling over into Austria as well.

While Barack Obama’s election aroused great expectations in Austria, the Obama administration has been paying little attention to Austria. As President Obama has been “pivoting” his foreign policy from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the entire transatlantic partnership has lost its former significance. While writing about very recent contemporary history can be treacherous terrain for historians used to digging up the primary records in archives, a “first draft of history” is possible. Online newspaper archives and other online sources such as the homepages of Presidential Libraries and the extensive treasure trove of Wikileaks cables are available.

Peter Moser, the former Austrian Ambassador to the United States (1999-2003), published his memoirs and donated his personal papers to Center- Austria at the University of New Orleans. American politicians and diplomats have a strong democratic sense of obligation towards the attentive public and regularly explain their politics and world views in voluminous memoirs. Austrian politicians and diplomats rarely do so. Looking at the memoirs/autobiographies by Presidents William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush, along with key cabinet members such as Madeleine Albright,Warren Christopher, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, Richard Holbrooke and George Tenet, one is left with the impression that Austria is but a small blip on Washington’s radar. Thousands of pages of memoirs contain only three meager references to “Austria.” There is considerable secondary literature both on Austrian and American foreign policy during the post- Cold-War era in general but hardly any on U.S.–Austrian relations in particular.


Günter Bischof, a native of Austria, is Marshall Plan Professor of History and Director of CenterAustria at the University of New Orleans.