The VIC at Thirty

The United Nations and Vienna reflect on 30 years of cooperation, part of the city’s return as a center of international life

News | Lauren Brassaw, Ingrid Salazar | September 2009

The third of four UN headquarters in the world celebrated its 30-year anniversary on Aug. 28 in Vienna, with a special ceremony led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who, as a former-South Korean Ambassador to Austria, told guests he had left half of his heart in Vienna. The event, however, was also a chance to bolster some public diplomacy for Ban Ki-Moon, who had been discredited earlier in the month by figures in the Norwegian government, as well as for the representatives of the Austrian government, who have recently been shown in the light of Austria’s xenophobia and the rise of support for far-right politics.

Among the nearly 1,000 guests present at the ceremony was Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs, Michael Spindlegger, President of the Austrian Parliament Barbara Prammer, and the Mayor of Vienna Michael Häupl, as well as ambassadors from a handful of countries, all of whom enjoyed the Secretary-General’s praise for Vienna’s role in supporting the United Nations through Viennese resources, manpower and ideas.

"When this Centre opened its doors in 1979, it was a bridge between East and West during the Cold War. Now it is a twenty-first century hub for addressing human security issues at the heart of a united Europe," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said. "Continuing to act together is self-evident."

Addressing the variety of Vienna-based UN organizations, Ban Ki-Moon described what he saw as a wide range of important work: "From outer space to the human heart, this Vienna International Centre has done far more than witness history; it has brought great progress to our world," he said.

When the UN was established in 1979, the motives were bred in a geopolitical context when terms like defense policy, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War were a daily part of Austria’s political vocabulary.

In order to convince the Austrian public, who saw the creation of a UN city in Vienna as unnecessary and costly, the then Chancellor Bruno Kreisky cited the added security it would bring the country, positioning Austria in its neutrality on a par with Switzerland, where the small, lakeside town of Geneva had been host to the United Nations since its founding in 1945.

Kreisky also had, of course, his eye on the very real revenue potential for his small capital of such an institution and the buying power of its entire staff.

Thirty years later, the international structure has changed. The Iron Curtain has fallen, and in retrospect one can see that the United Nations did not necessarily bring more security to Austria in the sense that Dr. Kreisky had predicted.

Yet, undeniably, the City of Vienna has benefited: The number of embassies (117) and English speakers (approx. 250,000) are certainly testaments to Vienna’s evolving position as an international center of politics and culture and of its world-wide reputation for a high standard of living.

Ironically, the United Nations headquarters in Vienna probably does more for the City of Vienna rather than the other way around. According to the UN Office of Vienna, the four large UN organizations employ over 4,000 people, where many permanent positions are held by Austrian and European citizens.

During the press conference held after the ceremony, Austrian President Fischer told reporters that "the City of Vienna profits from having the Vienna International Centre here, by about €400 million per year."

These facts, however, are sometimes easy to overlook and hard to appreciate on the city streets. The UN Vienna headquarters, a soaring, concrete pile of post-war modernism in the twenty-second district – a design many now see as misguided – is not as integrated into the city as, for example, the UN is in New York. The UN professionals and their families often form their own international communities, connected by the English language and a style of life away from the local bars, restaurants and public school system.

The international elite has not penetrated the Viennese society as Kreisky might have hoped. Internationalists like leading attorney Gabriel Lansky devote enormous energy working to bridge what often feels like a cavernous divide between these two communities. The Austrian and international media, segregated by language, seem often to be reporting on entirely different worlds.

But is this an issue of the international community or of Vienna itself? In the times of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Vienna embodied a cosmopolitan city, embracing multilingualism and multiculturalism.

This changed after the breakdown of the empire and two World Wars when Vienna sat in mothballs at the edge of the economic west.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the establishment of the UN in 1979 and Austria’s integration into the EU in 1995, Vienna has had its chance to become what it once was.

Yet, Vienna has not yet reached its full potential as an international cosmopolitan city, and is not sure it even wants to go there. Incidents of racism and xenophobia, fueled perhaps by the suadas of right-wing politicians, appear all too often in the headlines in the daily newspapers.

Despite this, the quality of life that Vienna offers is now top in international comparisons, and will continue to draw both diplomats and other professionals from abroad.

Whether they will become an integrated part of the city, giving it the international flair that some say it lacks, is not a matter of the number of international organizations, but rather a question of time, when Vienna decides to open her arms to change.

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