The international arena of diplomacy: Vienna as a bridge builder
Vienna was the home of several heads of state, kings, diplomats and delegations for more than six months. During the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the great powers restored the European order. The capital of the Habsburg monarchy was once known as the playing field for Europe’s greatest politicians and diplomats. The then Austrian Foreign Minister, later State Chancellor and Henry Kissinger’s ideological idol Klemens von Metternich – a realist and Machiavellist – can be seen as one of the forefathers of modern European diplomacy. Nevertheless, Vienna is more than the congress, “which once danced”. While the glory of the Habsburg monarchy has faded, Vienna’s role remains undisputed to this day.
The stabilizing role in and the conservative conscience of Europe: the Habsburgs
The Habsburg monarchy played until the collapse of the empire a stabilizing role in a balanced Europe. Characterized by its central location, economic and geographical importance, the Habsburg Empire connected the West with the East, the South with Central Europe. The comparatively militarily passive empire has not only become the leading power thanks to marriage policy – but also thanks to diplomacy and the important role in the German Confederation. For centuries, the Habsburgs influenced politics throughout Central Europe – up to 1866, when Austria had to cede to the Prussian supremacy after the Austro-Prussian War. Austria became the centre of European politics, especially in the Napoleonic era, when the European reorganization was re-dictated at the Congress of Vienna. Not only because the Congress took place in Vienna, but also due to the brilliant role of Austrian diplomacy, which has remained the symbol of modern diplomacy to this day. 1814/1815 Austria became the centre of the political and cultural world. In addition to intrigue, a spy network and a rich cultural program, alliances were forged in Vienna, the borders were redrawn and the basis laid for decades of more or less successful stability.
The Habsburg monarchy, especially Metternich, was the conservative conscience of Europe.
Although Europe was dominated militarily by France, Great Britain, Russia and now emerging Prussia, Austria was a heavy-weight in terms of economic and political power. The Austrian presence was decisive for a balanced Europe. In Central Europe, the Habsburgs acted as a counterweight to Prussia due to their dominant presence in the German Confederation until 1866. How effective the Holy Alliance (formed in 1815) was, can be seen from the fact that, among other things, Russian regiments intervened at Austria’s request in 1848. On the other hand, it must be mentioned that it was primarily an alliance of convenience. An alliance of conservatives against nationalist and liberal tendencies that simmered all over Europe. The Habsburg monarchy, especially Metternich, was the conservative conscience of Europe. The conservative conscience, that originally developed as a counter-reaction to the French Revolution, could not offer any solutions to nationalist tendencies in the nineteenth century. Especially in the multi-ethnic state of the Habsburgs, the nationalist efforts hardly calmed down until the collapse – one could even say that they were decisive and jointly responsible for the collapse.
Austria as a negotiating platform and bridge builder
After the Second World War, Austria got into a symbol of bridge building policy, not only between East and West, despite or primarily because of its central location and diplomatic tradition. Vienna returned to the international arena after the Second World War, where it still plays a defining role. The traditionally good relations, historical ties with the Western powers, but also with Russia, are not the only factors. Above all, there is one major difference between Austria and other “neutral countries”: cultural influences from Eastern and South-eastern Europe due to the Habsburg monarchy. Centuries of coexistence with the West and South Slavs allows Austria to be one of the few “western” countries credibly fulfilling the bridge-building function. In other words: Austria maintains good historical, cultural relations to both Western and Eastern Europe and demonstrated it several times during the history.
Vienna returned to the international arena after the Second World War, where it still plays a defining role.
During the Congress of Vienna Austria orchestrated the so-called Viennese Concert. But also during the Cold War, when Austria assumed the role of bridge builder as the centre of several international organizations. Austria did not only become the platform of a propaganda battle between the two worlds, the spying hotspot of the two giants (USA and USSR). No, it also became the symbol of a negotiating platform – as at the the summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961. The country also played an important – albeit passive – role during the Prague Spring and the Hungarian Uprising, when it on the one hand became the home of many refugees, but also led an active reporting policy on the events. Austrian mediation policy is almost unprecedented in history, because the foreign policy role was not only limited to the European continent, but also allowed Austria to participate in the Middle East conflict.
The new self-confidence and an opportunity for Europe
Even after joining the European Union – a clear western orientation of the country – Austria still enjoys good relations with Washington, Moscow, Jerusalem or Brussels. The mediation function that once shaped Austrian foreign policy has never disappeared from the screen. But the foreign policy is experiencing a revival. Austria is regaining importance in a partly politically divided Europe. Moreover, Austrian foreign policy has gained more self-confidence in the past ten years. The Ballhausplatz (government district) develops its own foreign policy positions, provides a political counterweight and uses the traditionally good relationships with its neighbours.
But the Austrian foreign policy is experiencing a revival.
In today’s Europe, Austria increasingly acts as an agenda setter, whether in migration or fiscal policy. 200 years after the Congress of Vienna and 75 years after the Second World War, the constant of Austrian foreign policy remains the same: Austria can work with both the Scandinavian northern countries and the Visegrad countries. Nevertheless, Austria now has a more active foreign policy role – especially in the Balkans. Despite the complicated relationship, many Balkan countries – whether direct or indirect – have a kind of trust, a love-hate relationship with Austria. This is not least reflected in the fact that the ex-Yugoslav communities, primarily Croatians, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins – mostly well integrated – are an important group of voters. This can be seen, among other things, in how Austrian parties are fighting for those votes through foreign policy positions and identity policy.
The ongoing influence in and understanding of Eastern and South Eastern Europe can be very valuable for Europe. Without falling into boundless optimism, Austria’s special position, the diplomatic tradition, can be seen as an opportunity for Europe. An opportunity not to deepen the formation of blocks, but to create a common basis. An opportunity to strengthen relations with the Balkans and not to leave South Eastern Europe entirely to Russian, Chinese, partly Turkish and Saudi Arabian influence. 200 years after the Congress, Vienna is one of the headquarters of the United Nations, the OSCE, the atomic organization IAEA and the OPEC. Henry Kissinger described Austria as the former symbol of political Europe. The former symbol is again on the international stage of diplomacy.