'No and No Again' The Rocky US Relationship with Little Austria

Austria may be small, but according to US Embassy dispatches from Vienna, the country causes big headaches in Washington. Not only are Austrian leaders seen as disconnected from international affairs, the country's neutrality means it is willing to do business with America's enemies.


The tone used by the US envoys in their reports to Washington ranges from resigned to openly hostile. Is it possible, they ask in bewilderment, for a tiny Alpine republic only half the size of the US state of Washington to ignore the primary objectives of American foreign policy?

It would seem that it is. SPIEGEL has seen roughly 1,700 sent to the State Department by the US Embassy in Vienna over the last decade. Together, they suggest that, while the Austrian government has always listened attentively to the wishes of its American partners when it comes to issues such as Guantanamo, North Korea and sanctions against Iran, it has been primarily focused on its own interests.

Diplomats stationed at the US Embassy in Vienna were at times "frustrated and extremely disappointed," occasionally "increasingly concerned" and sometimes simply "unhappy" when the Austrians yet again broke promises or refused to go along -- when they continued doing business with Iran and North Korea; when they allowed a wanted leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to leave the country; when they refused to accept any detainees from Guantanamo.

The diplomats did have occasional words of praise for Austria's "professional" European Council presidency in 2006, as well as the "constructive" role it had played in the Kosovo conflict. But Washington's differences of opinion with Vienna were much deeper than those with Berlin -- and US diplomats were often much more forceful. The number of reports classified as "secret" or "confidential" coming out of the Austrian capital was sizeable.

Looking Out for Themselves

Vienna, according to the American diplomats, has two problems. The first is fundamental: "Austria's engagement with the world is slipping and narrowing for many reasons." Embassy personnel sees those in power in Vienna as being only interested in domestic affairs, such as promoting exports, sealing off Austria's labor and agricultural markets, and ensuring stability in the nearby Balkans. All things considered, the American diplomats count the Austrians among the "most euro-skeptical" citizens of any EU member state and describe them as "increasingly isolationist."

The second problem has to do with those in charge. The US reading of the powers-that-be in Vienna is both accurate and revealing.

Shortly after the inauguration of Chancellor Werner Faymann -- who had already earned a reputation for "cultivating excellent contacts with the media" while serving as the minister for transport, innovation and technology in 2007 -- the US Embassy wrote: "It has become clear that Faymann has no personal interest in foreign affairs." Cited as dependable sources for this devastating assessment are senior advisers to Faymann himself as well as veteran officials within Austria's Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, on the other hand, "seemed to focus largely" on promoting "Austrian economic penetration" of the Black Sea region and the Caucasus. His advocacy for the Nabucco gas pipeline was "of clear benefit to the US," according to the cables.

And then there was Defense Minister Norbert Darabos, the first "not to have served in the military" to hold the office in post-World War II Austria, as US diplomats pointed out. He was apparently just as "uninterested in foreign and international security affairs" as his chancellor, as well as being "openly hostile to deploying Austrian troops on dangerous missions abroad." What's more, the diplomats wrote in a cable to Washington, "military contacts complain that Darabos is unable, perhaps unwilling, to secure increased funding for the armed forces. He is widely perceived as an ambitious politician stuck against his will in one of Austria's less desirable cabinet posts."

The assessment of the administration prior to that of Faymann was more gracious when it came to competence, but less so when discussing the loyalty Austria showed to its allies. The Americans saw Alfred Gusenbauer, the Social Democrat who briefly served as Austria's chancellor between 2007 and 2008, as knowledgeable and open-minded, but also as a loose cannon. As one dispatch put it: "We would not be surprised … to see him indulge in confrontational rhetoric when it suits his needs." Gusenbauer had been clear on the issue of missile defense, saying, according to a dispatch, that "the US has to understand that they are not the only ones that are going to determine what is happening in the world."

'Not the 51st American State '

In their reports, the diplomats described in painstaking detail all the nuanced ways in which Austrian politicians have questioned the role of the superpower. Ahead of a visit to Vienna in 2007, then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was warned of the "increasingly populist rhetoric" of her Austrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). According to the cables, Plassnik had told the Austrian parliament: "Austria is not the 51st state of the US."

Wolfgang Schüssel, for his part, a man who served as Austria's chancellor between 2000 and 2007, was regarded somewhat suspiciously owing to his alliance with the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). From the American perspective, Schüssel was the lesser of two evils. He and his coalition partners "rarely went out of their way to poke the US in the eye." In fact, as long as he felt that there was no price to pay in terms of domestic politics, Schüssel "tended to seek ways to support the US."

On the other hand, US envoys sound piqued when reporting on Schüssel's leadership: "In recent years, our leverage over Austrian policy has been extremely limited by the reality that there were very few things Vienna wanted from Washington." To remedy this situation -- which was problematic from the Americans' point of view -- they recommended a "deft" approach: "Austrian officials should receive the message that odds of their obtaining our support will increase if the government (in Vienna) begins to show more concern over issues of top priority for the US."

From today's perspective, it seems clear that this strategy was a failure. As the Americans saw it, "the gap between Austria's self-proclaimed vision of itself in the world, and its increasingly limited performance" had not become any narrower, according to a cable from June 2009.

This is largely due to a lack of coordination in policy areas that, in January 2009, outgoing US Ambassador David F. Girard-diCarlo singled out as the most important on the American-Austrian agenda: Iran, Afghanistan, energy security and cooperation in fighting terrorism.


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