Book Review: Post Cold War Austria

With compelling contributions from two serving diplomats, Günter Bischof’s latest edited collection fills an important gap

TVR Books | Gregory Weeks | November 2013

Reviewing edited collections of essays is notoriously difficult. In this case, it is especially challenging because Austria’s International Position after the End of the Cold War not only covers Austria’s foreign and security policy since 1990 but also tackles "Eastern Europe and the Balkans" "The Rise and Decline and Rise of Austria’s Far Right," "Foreign Policy and Memory," and finishes with assorted book reviews on recent Austrian history and politics.

Compelling are the contributions by senior Austrian diplomats who played pivotal roles in the development and conduct of Austrian foreign policy at the time: Ursula Plassnik, Foreign Minister from 2004 to 2008, writes about "Austria’s Foreign Policy Agenda from the Cold War to the European Union" and Emil Brix, current Ambassador in London takes on "Austria’s Cultural and Public Diplomacy after the Cold War."


Politicians on their own history

It is extremely unusual for active politicians to discuss recent history, especially when they were directly involved, but that is exactly what has occurred here, with some revealing comments:

Plassnik notes that "building [foreign policy] is much harder than destroying [it]," and she points out that it took Austria twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to reposition itself and to move "closer to the implementing the original mission statement of the Austrian Second Republic" from April 27, 1955, "Austria wants to live its identity in unalloyed friendship with the people of the Danube region and work together with all its neighbors in peace and friendship, to the benefit of all."

Says Brix, it is a question of emphasis: "It is an obvious choice for Austria to concentrate its public diplomacy efforts on national assets which are either well known internationally or sought after in international relations."

Fittingly, he writes, "The self-understanding and perception of Austria as a Kulturgroßmacht (cultural superpower) will continue to serve as the core asset for public diplomacy.

With the end of the Cold War, Austria seized the chance to communicate its renewed Central European position by means of a strengthened cultural cooperation in the region."

Günter Bischof’s Introduction ("Of Dwarfs and Giants: From Cold War Mediator to Bad Boy of Europe. Austria and the US in the Transatlantic Arena, 1990-2013") sets the chronological boundaries for the collection and lays out the basic history:

After the end of the Cold War, the United States became a "hyperpower" while Austria became a "dwarf" in the international context. The Kosovo Conflict and NATO intevention between 1995 and 2000 challenged Austria’s traditional neutrality.

As Austrians embraced the European Union and joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace, they faced hard questions about how to be neutral while remaining on good terms with all of their neighbors and the United States.

The path to Austria’s current foreign policy was a winding one in those years, and Bischof sees Austria firmly rooting itself in "Old Europe" and by doing so, widening the transatlantic divide. Plassnik’s and Brix’s essays reinforce this view.

The remainder of the volume focuses on the mechanics of Austrian foreign and security policy as well as on Austrian neutrality and its relationships with its Eastern European and Balkan neighbors.

Erwin Schmidl writes on "Austrian Security Policy after the End of the Cold War" and Arnold Suppan on "Austria and Eastern Europe in the Post-Cold War Context".

James Sheehan writes on what it means for Austria to be neutral, and Hanspeter Neuhold focuses on the Austrian role in ending the Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990’s.

Finally, Andreas Resch dissects "Austrian Foreign Trade and Austrian Companies’ Economic Engagement in Eastern Europe (CEE) since 1989." All reflect Austria’s difficulties regarding its position in Europe and the world and the possible challenges it will face in the future.


Austria’s dual reality

Günter Bischof and Ferdinand Karlhofer have delivered a fascinating edited collection of essays about Austria’s international and inter-European foreign policy following the end of the Cold War, enlightening for anyone who wants to better understand the workings of recent Austrian foreign, security, and cultural policy, but in the end, Austria’s International Position after the End of the Cold War cannot fully answer the question posed in the title of this article: "Is Austria a Security Free Rider or a Keystone of Europe?"

Austria has essentially been both.

Austrian politicians have made a fine art out of the "special path," and Austrian diplomats have firmly rooted the country in its own Central European cultural, historical, diplomatic, and geographic context.

Austria, the "cultural superpower," is alive and well.


Austria’s International Position after the End of the Cold War

(Contemporary Austrian Studies, Vol. 22) 

Günter Bischof, Ferdinand Karlhofer, eds., 

UNO Press & Innsbruck Univ. Press, 2013 pp. 308 


Other articles from this issue: