Nowhere to run to? Austria’s defence policy searching for new paradigms

Nowhere to run to? Austria’s defence policy searching for new paradigms

At the Europaforum Austria on November 8, 2013, a general discussion board on European integration and defence policy, the Austrian Minister of Defence Gerald Klug surprised the public when announcing the launch of a Centre of Excellence for Africa and further Austrian military engagement on the continent southwards of Europe. The move might be somehow surprising for external observers. Austria does not have political, economic or security interests at stake in Africa. However, considering domestic and especially bureaucratic politics, this step could be easily explained.

Despite being on the front-line of the Cold War, Austria paid little attention to national defence during this period – at least compared to other neutral states in a similar position like Switzerland, Finland or Sweden. The general attitude of both the public as well as the political elite was that a great-power confrontation was beyond control and scope of both Austria’s foreign as well as defence policy. So if it occurred, there would not be much to do about it, anyway. The crisis in 1991, when the disintegration of Yugoslavia brought war to the Austrian borders, set an end to these lethargies – at least temporarily. Unusual for Austria, there was a rather broad consensus amongst its elites about its foreign-policy goals: firstly, to stabilise the newly independent states on the Balkans and to stop the bloodshed; secondly, to secure the reshaping of the European order both in Central/Eastern Europe as well as in the Balkans by expanding the European Union and NATO. The achievement of these goals was not in the range of Austria’s means alone, but at least it tried to support their realisation by other actors.

The year 2004 was again a turning point for Austrian foreign and security policy. The double-expansion of NATO and the EU marked the end of Austria being a frontier state. Furthermore, the American invasion of Iraq sparked a wave of anti-Americanism and scepticism amongst Austria’s public opinion. The parties in favour of joining NATO revoked their position for a more neutralist or isolationist opinion. Austria’s insistence on the “Irish-clause” in the new Lisbon treaty was a strong signal that the once held openness to European defence integration had suddenly crumbled.

The double-enlargement has revoked the necessity and Iraq has revoked the appetite to conduct foreign policy. The return to a great coalition government in 2006 (joining Social Democrats and Conservatives) – effectively exercising power by mutual blockade – marked the end of Austrian foreign policy as such. There were no topics left, both parties could agree upon or were enthusiastic about. While on the Balkans the bureaucratic processes of established missions and diplomatic consultations kept Austrian presence alive, it disappeared elsewhere.

However, the international military presence on the Western Balkans will not last forever. And this causes concern, primarily within the defence establishment. What to do next? There is no foreign-policy to support or to supplement. The hope for quick and deep defence integration within the EU has not yet materialised. Operationally, the CSDP has made little progress since St. Malo and none since Lisbon. The frequent participations in EU Battlegroups will not keep the armed forces alive forever. In fact, having excluded common defence (in terms of the full implementation of the Mutual Defence Clause Art.42(7) of the Treaty on European Union) for the reason of neutrality, Austria cannot fall back on mutual defence as a reason for being of its military. On the other hand, the discussion previous to the referendum on conscription (January 2013) revealed that the ruling class could, indeed, be willing to sacrifice the Army for domestic politics. In fact, it could probably transform it into a heavy fire brigade stripped of all military capabilities if the armed forces are not able to prove its value or fulfilment of missions. Something had to be done somewhere.

Considering the new National Security Strategy of Austria as well as the current White Books on Defence, Austria has exclusively dedicated itself to international crisis management abroad (besides domestic tasks like disaster relive or assistance to the police). However, considering the situation in Afghanistan, the expeditionary agenda is questioned in many capitals across Europe. Are the results worth the means invested? To many governments, the answer is no. Indeed, the chances that a new mission will start in the near future – especially within the CFSP framework – are thin.

Even worse, Austria did no favour to its political declarations when prematurely withdrawing its UN contingent from the Golan Heights in June 2013. Although some of arguments that the Austrian government brought forward (the inadequacy of the mandate, the inadequate regulations regarding equipment and protective measures for troops and the inability to change these regulations within the UN framework) were valid, the way how this decision was made and communicated was nothing but a disaster for Austria’s foreign and security policy. It severely damaged Austria’s reputation in the Middle East for decades to come. And more importantly: it showed to the international audience that Austria’s security policy is a purely bureaucratic one and that the political elite would abandon any undertaking the very moment poses a threat to domestic politics. This will make any future foreign policy extremely difficult, regardless the region, partners, organisational framework, etc.

Imitating Germany was the preferred Austrian strategy since the mid 90s. After all, Austrian and German interest on the Balkans were overlapping and by supporting Germany Austria could hope to have an open German ear for issues in this region in the future. However, due to the financial crisis, German attention is now elsewhere and the Balkans are far off the list of Germany’s priorities. Furthermore, given the reluctance of other states accepting German leadership and Germany’s reluctance to use military means as a tool of foreign policy, Berlin will rather throw its political weight into issues of financial and budgetary concerns, or on institutional reform within Europe, than foreign or worse security policy. It would be illusive to expect a new expeditionary agenda emerging from the Kanzleramt.

Reinforcing Austria’s military presence on the Balkans would be a logical choice. After all, it is the only region where – in case of a re-emergence of Austrian foreign policy – political consensus could be achieved about possible aims and strategies. The recent events in Kosovo showed that the European expectations and assumptions regarding regional stability and reconciliation were overly optimistic and that the presence of robust military forces in both Bosnia and Kosovo will be needed for the time being. However, the rest of Europe is weary of the Balkans. Amongst the states still interested in this region, Italy could be a regional leader if it were not hindered by domestic and financial issues. Hungary is politically isolated. An Austrian initiative for the region reversing the trend of retreat and de-militarisation of European Balkan-politicies would demand political courage and leadership – something the Austrian political elite is unable to provide.

The other region of interest for Austria would be Eastern Europe (eastwards of EU/NATO borders) and the Black Sea region. Austria has a strong financial and economic presence in the region. Furthermore, a lot of Austrian business in “new Central Europe” is linked to or dependent on a stable border to the east. But for military missions the region is tricky, too. For the defence bureaucracy, the EU missions in Georgia and Moldova are not useful to promote defence modernisation. As long as Austria refrains from touching collective defence, it will have difficulties addressing or even understanding the security issues of this region. The foreign-policy bureaucracy too had its troubles when coordinating its efforts with interested partners. At times Austrian diplomats rather acted like the representatives of the dual monarchy than of post-1918 Austria, estranging representatives of other nations that themselves claim the role of regional leadership – especially Poland. On the other hand, there are still some reservations within the administrations of some CEE countries – most notably the Czech Republic and Poland – to multilaterally coordinate issues concerning security and defence within the structures of the Union. This makes it difficult for Austria to align itself with those states. Last but not least, any engagement in the region poses considerable risks in terms of Austrian domestic politics. There is no consensus amongst the political fractions where to put Russia in the big picture. Beside the right-wing Freedom Party (which is overwhelmingly pro-Russian) every major party is divided on the issue whether to regard Russia as friend and partner or spoiler and challenger. There is a certain risk that in case of Russian interference the political elite could again abandon its commitments to the region, “golanising” Austrian politics towards Eastern Europe. Given the Austrian interests in the region, such behaviour would probably do more harm than doing nothing in the first place.

The last option then to consider is “follow the French”. For the Austrian bureaucracy France is a very suitable partner. France is able to lead and has clear visions what to do and how to communicate them within the EU framework. Moreover, it considers the European Union the primary arbitrator of the Common Security and Defence Policy, which makes it easier to sell French interests (disguised as European interests) to the Austrian public. Additionally, France has an ambitious and robust expeditionary agenda, therefore, the French example may be used to drive Austrian defence modernisation without having to refer either to collective defence or to American led missions. The Austrian Armed Forces, like many smaller armies in Central Europe, lag behind in terms of network-integration, smart weapons and precision strike, joint operations and expeditionary warfare. They also need international partners to train their troops, cooperate internationally and act next to or with capabilities they cannot afford on their own. To “follow France” engaging in Africa is unavoidable. The last rather robust military mission, Austria committed itself to was, indeed, the EU’s mission to Chad. While politically a hard ride (the then Minister faced fierce opposition from populist parties and tabloids), the Armed Forces learned valuable lessons conducting a robust mission in a demanding military and logistical environment. French assistance and guidance for such missions is helpful – and could probably be extended if Austria is willing to take more risk. Last but not least, the consequences of interferences by domestic politics are negligible. Remember, in Africa Austria has neither interests to defend nor a reputation to loose. Even if the ruling class screws it all up again and “golanises” Austria’s Africa policy it will not do much harm to Austrian interests abroad.

Only time will tell whether this alignment with Paris can bare fruits. Domestic politics, the indecisiveness of the political class as well as inadequate allocations of resources (in terms of manpower and programme funding) may soon pose severe obstacles to Austria’s African endeavours. Additionally, the re-allocation of resources towards Africa will increase the strategic rift between Austria and its Central European neighbours (i.e., the deepening of cooperation with Austria’s neighbours within the pooling and sharing framework was another issue minister Gerald Klug mentioned in his speech mentioned above). Committed to NATO, including Article 5, Austria’s neighbours will not look at Vienna for defence matters. And they will hardly pool and share to follow Paris into the Sahel. Amongst the Austrian defence establishment, the issue of pooling and sharing is debated beyond technical and bureaucratic terms. It is rather seen as threat or means of survival, depending on respective individual point of view. Some within the defence establishment regard deep-defence-integration as infeasible and contradictory to sovereignty. Others regard it as the only mean of survival for any kind of Armed Forces in Austria. Given budgetary restraints they fear that any army capable of combined arms manoeuvre will be too expensive to be maintained in Austria. On the long run, if a deep integration of the armed forces in Europe should ever become reality, a cross-border integration of neighbouring countries seems to be more feasible than integration of countries located further apart. In the case of France, the language barrier and geographic distance might pose some limitations on the actual cooperation between the armed forces. Therefore, only two alternatives might be considered somewhat realistic for Austria: cross-border integration with our neighbours in Central Europe or becoming de-facto a branch of the German Bundeswehr. During the last decade, the Austrian Armed Forces have relied heavily on German assistance for conducting and supplying international missions, becoming increasingly dependent on German structures. Now that Germany seems to withdraw from the Balkans, this dependence is questioned. However, besides political speeches, there are hardly any tangible plans to move on either defence integration or defence-cooperation and modernisation with neighbouring countries or France. Austria’s declared goals and strategies are contradictory in many ways, but unless Austrian foreign and security policy becomes something more than declaratory policy, nobody will probably notice.

Gustav C. Gressel studied political science at Salzburg University, worked as Research Assistant to the Commissioner for Strategic Studies in the Austrian Ministry of Defence from 2003 to 2006, and since then as a Desk Officer for Strategy and International Security Policy in the same ministry. In 2007 he additionally worked as a Research Fellow in the International Institute for Liberal Politics Vienna and is about to finish his Ph.D. in Strategic Studies at Zrinyi Miklos National University of Public Service (Budapest). He is author of numerous publications on strategic and security policy issues.

Zdjęcie: 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command