Vienna (9/3 – 60). In November 2020, the former ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch provided an op-ed about the confused Austrian foreign policy following the firing of Donald Trump much the chagrin of the ultra-conservative foreign policy elites in the Alpen republic.
Praised by the Austrian foreign policy elitists are the return to a “thought through” US foreign policy, with announcements of senior cabinet appointments of John Kerry and Tony Blinken. A signal by President Joe Biden the American politburo is back in the saddle.
The European old-style diplomats are more than happy to return to Business As Usual of shifting us mere mortals to a center, leftist policy of one-world concepts of multilateralism, climate change, the status quo on Jerusalem, the appeasement of Russia and China and the nutcases in the Middle East.
Never too shy to promote NATO its former Secretary General Jens Scholtenberg was quick to announce that the EU needs NATO and Europe cannot defend itself without NATO. Only one minor hick up. Austrian constitutional neutrality.
Many of the global elites are content things are back to the good old days. Less disruptive and more of the old-world order. NATO is NATO, the EU is the EU and well Austria is not relevant.
The current paralysis of Austrian domestic politics is gripping the republic and slowly spills over to the foreign policy of the republic. And no one should be surprised as the plot to unseat the right leaning FPÖ, successfully shows the shocking weakness of domestic Alpine politics. As the investigation what seems is a criminal extortion drags on Chancellor Kurz is fast becoming unpopular.
According to the leftist Guardian, under Strache, however, the FPÖ took its pro-Russian tendencies to new extremes, signing a formal cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
But even after the firing of Strache and company things have not gotten better. Critics strongly argue that the military controls the borders, criticism of the crisis management is forbidden. Demonstrators are called “hooligans”.
The far-left, the Greens are increasingly push for nonsensical policies that in the United States gave rise to Trump. Recent calls for “Kurz muss raus” (Kurz must get out) is the result of the high handed politics from Kurz and company. The foreign minister is a known hardline follower of the ‘Kurz movement.
With the right-wing Liberals emerging as victims of Viennese political intrigues making foreign policy even less relevant in the scheme of things. It poses the long overdue question. What do we need an Austrian Foreign Service for? After all, the country is according many and Petritsch fully integrated in the European Union.
In the meantime the Russian government appointment of Karin Kneissl, the former foreign minister, now on Putin’s nice list, joining the Supervisory Board of Rosneft one of the largest energy companies in Russia, raised eyebrows in many western capitals. But she is in good company. the Rosneft board includes the Europeans Matthias Warnig (a former Stasi officer), Bernard Looney (an Irish businessman), the German banker Hans-Jörg Rudloff and the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who has been CEO of Rosneft since 2017, has been appointed independent director.
Another foreign affairs flop was the Indonesian offer to buy the Eurojet squadron in lock, stock, and barrel from the Austrians. The defense minister bypassed the foreign minister which flexed its muscle to secure a sale of the jet fighters to Indonesia, a country mired in corruption, human rights abuse and well, more corruption.
But the U.S. online The War Zone pointed out the Typhoons offered by Austria currently lack the kind of air-to-ground capability that Indonesia might be required to counter the growing number of domestic terrorist groups, for example. Experts said this is mere fantasy fighting terrorism with a 4th Generation jet fighter.
Under a different regime both the Minister for Defence and the Foreign Minister would have resigned. Not so under the regime of Kurz and co. The foreign ministries irrelevancy is obvious.
Former foreign service officers and staff share this view. A common phrase in the ranks is, ‘we can’t do anything anyway’, reflects the resignation for many in ranks. Complaints about the lack of care for citizens overseas, job security, comfortable jobs an yet another old boy club of second and third generation diplomat families making the foreign service stagnant.
A recent intern law student seconded to an embassy was asked if he will sign on after his internship. He replied, ‘I don’t think so’ reflects the mood in the ranks. Entrance exams are not realistic according to one source. ‘Experience is given way to psycho dribble’, said another. Departures from the service still plague the foreign service.
According to Addendum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has its own entrance test with the Préalable, a service examination. There, too, no one failed 15 exam dates since 2010. Only eleven candidates had to undergo a re-examination, while 74 graduated with honors. This is particularly amazing since the answers in some of the tests allow only for 20 second responses. In any case, the main purpose of the Austrian service examinations does not seem to be to ensure quality in the administration.
The Alpen republics foreign service lacks innovation but babbles the fade of the day, like gender politics, climate change or EU integration. It lacks purpose or color except being a faithful ministry of the conservative party of the chancellor and old boy club rules.
A whistle blower that triggered the domestic intelligence service scandal enjoy the diplomatic protection of her husband at a plum posting. The inner machinery of the foreign service has not much changed. The foreign service does not explain the high turn-over of staff, seasoned staff leaving the service and joining the European Union diplomatic service or entering the lucrative private sector.
With the smallest budget of the republics opaque civil service, the former special representative to Bosnia has one valid point. The Austrian foreign service has pushed itself in the corner of irrelevancy.
But the former ambassadors argument of Kurz, Alexander Schallenberg, and Co. are in the same pot than populistic governments of Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria is unfound. These governments in fact play a vital role in NATO’s southern flank and frontline to the Russians. In this context the Alpine republic is irrelevant.
The chancellor foreign service is also costly. According to main papers Die Presse the foreign ministry is the third most expensive resort in the republic. The foreign ministry core of 31 posts, although more personnel are employed by the ministry, costs the taxpayer 2.87 million euros, that is a whopping 92,581 euros per year or 7,715 euros per month. Expenses, and per diem not included. Only the army is more poorly paid despite it has more staff.
Unclear is also what are the benefits for the missions overseas. The routine replies by the government gets only yawns by old timers. The solution? Get rid of it.
Close the embassies, integrate staff and diplomats into the EU service, and if they are useless or the EU has no use for them, let them join the mere mortals to work for a living. Who needs an embassy in Cote d ’Ivory, or the Ukraine or Indonesia? What are they actual doing?
The explanation that they serve the economic or political functions is just another tale of past yester-years. Consular services are often a lip-service. Most embassies of the Alpine republic have no clear purpose. Bi-lateral agreements are, as seen in the euro jet deal, bypassed. So what do we need the embassies? Ever heard about email or Telegram?
For example a small embassy is only staffed by four staff, what depth to the political reporting can be provided we can’t read in the press. Ambassadorial gossip at best, unconfirmed analysis often and regurgitated press reports from the locals at worst. A 100 euro subscription would get the same impact.
Since Petritsch argues that the Austrians are part of the EU than let them be part of the EU.
Hand over the foreign affairs to the Europeans and save the money wasted on maintaining embassies that serve no clear purpose and have no clear mission. A view repeatedly expressed by many inside and outside the ministry. Calls for radical reforms gain popularity.
Recent claims in the media also showed the foreign service is not immune from waste, corruption, and abuse of power. But violations are seldom prosecuted regardless of the lip service. A most common complaint was in the past the movers know who gets posted before the to be deployed.
The fundamental problem with the Austrian foreign and military service is its history and constitutional neutrality it adopted because two world wars. And rightly so, one might add. Both the role of the Austrians in the Wehrmacht and the SS, which are considerable uncomfortable in the psyche of the Austrians as well as its political history in the Balkans play a role in the institutions. The ghosts of the Habsburgs today still roam the corridors of the ministry.
In Vienna, according to the local folklore the Balkan starts, diplomacy rides on the coat tails of history of emperor Franz Josef I., Metternich, and the Habsburgs colonial policies in the Balkan are viewed as some sort of qualifying expertise. What is forgotten it was the army who rang the alarm bells of the pending crisis in the former Yugoslavia, not the foreign ministry.
If anything, the Austrian foreign affairs historical record is one of failure. The congress of Vienna aside, the Habsburgs foreign minister at the time of the assassination in Sarajevo caused the first world war. Not necessary a plus putting this on the foreign service resume of long failures. Petritsch points out the obvious. Current policies are unclear, ambiguous and well, irrelevant.
This disconnect of reality can be seen by the recent video produced by the foreign ministry (or was it the army) showing an atomic bomb going off in Vienna. Fearmongering seems the new trend by many in government. But did not go down well with the public.
Neither did an auditing report that showed wasteful practices of external “experts” on what could have managed by domestic expertise. Question about the London School of Economic projects were raised.
On the foreign affairs front in August last year Iran put the Austrian ambassador in his place. Regardless of the denial by the press secretary of the foreign ministry the Iranians were clear about its view on the Austrians no longer enjoy the harmonious relationship with the Iranian Mullahs. Well maybe they do as states only have interests but it makes no difference to the relevancy to the Austrian way of life.
In a recent informal discussion group of policy professionals, academics, and experts in Salzburg the group discussed the role of the Austrian foreign service in an off-record free-for-all round table. The comments were not encouraging. ‘Increasingly populist politics of the elitists of diplomats show the lack of focus in the ministry’, said one observer. ‘What is the ministry for?’, said another. ‘If you need help the officials are reluctant to help. You are better off if you help yourself. So why are we wasting money on the foreign ministry?’, said another.
In recent years, the constitutional neutrality of the republic was consistently eroded. A recent military cooperation program with the United States is a borderline violation of the republics neutrality. The U.S. for years wanted us to be more “pro-NATO” and less Switzerland. The socialists wanted a professional army. Thank God that was a miserable flop. But than domestically the split from the right coalition with the FPÖ was an equal disaster. Petritsch present the question on who are the Austrians?
Is the Alpine republic a friendlier version of Bavarians? Well, Napoleon had a bit of a negative experience with the indomitable Tyrolian guerrillas, or are Austrians Europeans, or true to the local tale part of the Balkan with the uncomfortable Slavic mix of Hungarians, Czech, Slovaks, Slovenians, Serbs and Bosnians? Or is it about time to stop messing around with living in the shadow and being, well, Austrians for once in the confused history.
The recent Strache affair of the former coalition partner shows the lack of political cohesiveness is not unlike the US and European dilemma. The foreign ministry was not much of a commentator of the affair other than a silent chuckle of a payback for liberals unseated the conservative in inter-ministerial elections. A more conservative prevalent political landscape is agitated by a far left all in one, latte slurping narrative embraced by the far-left agenda of LQBT, climate change, immigration, Covid hysterias of the day.
The power of ink, which according to Mark Twain should never be challenged as he who buys ink and paper by the ton, has contributed to questionable foreign emotional driven policies. Social media platforms, and the rupture in the media culture has given rise to the unchallenged and unfettered power of the digital pen.
The Strache affair, by now a textbook operation on how to topple a democratic elected government coalition slowly unravels and shows the entire affair was known to Kurz and company. It is, so a source, a black bag job with good old criminal blackmail.
In both instances diplomacy and intelligence of the republic was mum. It was the Swiss head of intelligence who argued this could have been a foreign hand operation. Not much glory on this front for the diplomats. So here the question, if the Swiss head of intelligence makes foreign policy statements what do the Austrians need a foreign service for?
What is the Austrian identity? Is it European, is it NATO, or German, or Switzerland or are the diplomats dreaming to return to Habsburgian royalty? And where is its neutrality?
Informal surveys among older Austrians indicate a clear no to Austrians under NATO. Many shudders on the thought of a deployment under EU or NATO command.
But a strategic paper of the army command outlined that the security arrangement of the EU or NATO cannot be guaranteed by the pact. This poses the question for any political, current, and future, leaders what is the diplomatic mission of the Minoritenplatz? Is the foreign policy in fact still relevant?
And if not, why is the Austrian citizen paying for a bunch of lawyers on the taxpayer’s expense? “Get rid of them”, say I.