NATO Passé

The 60th anniversary resurrects the question of Austria’s neutrality

Scheffer, Obama, Sarkozy & Merkel

NATO Secretary General Hoop Scheffer, Obama, Sarkozy & Merkel | Photo: Getty Images

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), found cause to celebrate this year: On Apr. 4, 1949, the collective defense alliance was founded in Brussels on the eve of the Cold War. Sixty years later and now with 28 member states – Croatia and Albania were formally accepted this year – the organization set out to redefine its role after the collapse of communism 20 years ago.

For the first time, the annual NATO Summit was jointly hosted by two member states, France and Germany, whose “close partnership during the course of NATO’s history symbolizes a vision of a Europe whole and free,” according to the NATO website. Following the summit, member countries’ leaders called for a new doctrine, as the previous one of 1999 neither reflects the changes in Russia nor takes global terrorism – like the 9/11 – into account.

The 60th anniversary also marked the return of France to the allied command structure – a move hailed by members, though deeply controversial within France. French President Nicholas Sarkozy defended his decision by saying that now was time for change:

“Our strategy cannot remain stuck in the past,” he urged during a talk at France’s Strategic Research Foundation in mid-March, “when the conditions of our security have changed radically.” France, Sarkozy argued, will have more influence in NATO missions while the independence of the nuclear-equipped French military will remain untouched.

But all seems well without NATO for Austria, now surrounded by alliance members, except Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The dramatic NATO membership plea by news magazine profil journalists Gernot Bauer and Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof in the article “Holt uns da rein!” (“Get us in there!” Apr. 6 edition) did not, however, spark any further political debate. All political parties seem happy to remain neutral, including those who once argued for NATO membership.

Austria’s neutrality remains technical, however, as it joined NATO Partnership for Peace in February 1995, and has deployed troops to the NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996) and Kosovo (1999).

So wouldn’t it be beneficial for Austria to engage in a more fundamental debate on the issue? After all, the adaptation of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) of December 2003 was initially NATO’s European Security and Defence Identity. Although under jurisdiction of the EU, this development points in the direction that a strategic European security policy could develop.

When Austria joined the European Union in 1995, it chose to participate in all aspects of the European integration process, including the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), of which the ESDP is a key element.

Journalist Peter Michael Lingens, a current commentator for profil and strong supporter of Austria’s NATO membership, however, remained pessimistic concerning Austria’s course.

“I see no chance that Austria will join NATO. The (Austrian) population was always against it and still clings on to its utterly pointless neutrality.”

Lingens is also author of the book Wehrloses Österreich? Neutralität oder NATO – Alternativen in der Sicherheitspolitik (2000), in which he anticipates that the far-right government under Wolfgang Schüssel’s chancellorship (2000 – 2006) would take active steps for Austria’s accession to NATO.

Indeed, Austria adopted a new Security and Defence Doctrine in December 2001 that explicitly states a regular review of NATO membership. It also stresses active support and involvement in the European Union’s security considerations that envisioned a common European defense structure, and would allow Austria to be militarily involved in the framework of crisis management and peace-making operations. Austria seemed on track to NATO accession.

However, the political situation in Austria afterwards developed quite differently: The far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) – after the split with the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) and H.C. Strache assuming leadership in 2005 – performed a u-turn from its traditional pro-NATO position and demanded to uphold Austria’s neutrality. In addition, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have – while in opposition – dug themselves into defending Austria’s neutral status – a position they have maintained since.

“The SPÖ will by no means think about changing their role,” Lingens analysed. “The Social Democrats are seen by the people as more NATO-critical and nearer to neutrality, unlike the (Austrian People’s Party) ÖVP; and under no circumstances will the SPÖ sacrifice this advance in public opinion.”

Besides, since taking charge of the Defense Ministry by the SPÖ in 2007, the Defense Budget has dropped to an all-time low of 0.82% of GDP in 2008, one of the lowest across the board, which even threatens existing UN peacekeeping missions like Chad, and are certainly too little to maintain NATO military standards.

Of course, Austria does well being neutral, Lingens added with a sarcastic tone: The country “is able to reduce its defense expenditure to a minimum, and will not get into the situation of being asked by Obama for more troops for Afghanistan.”

However, there are plenty of security issues that are of concern to Europe, not least the relations to Russia, China or Iran, though none of them, according to Lingens, poses a powerful military threat to NATO.

Rather “peace-securing and peace-maintaining military activities, but also securing energy resources like oil or the defense against human catastrophes” will be the issues for NATO to combat. And of course, “the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons might occasionally require military pressure.”

However, Russia is evidently a special case, and “NATO must be in the position of putting Russia in its place,” simply because it is unclear whether the country might step back into totalitarian rule. However, Lingens believes that Russia perceives neither NATO Eastern accession – such as that of the Baltic States in 2004 – nor the proposed missile defense shield with facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland, as a serious threat.

“Putin and Medvedev use these arguments only for domestic political reasons,” Lingens said. An example of this is the widely discussed announcement of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Mar. 17 that a further expansion of NATO requires Russia to modernize its nuclear arsenal: “For the same reason one should not make a further NATO accession dependable on Russia, but rather show them that we are on their side by Western investments in the economy.” Nevertheless, he added, it is important to demonstrate to the Russian side that there are no spheres of influence like in Communist times.

Whatever the strategic implications, a review of the NATO option for Austria, or at least a public debate, would be desirable. Austrian politicians might reach the same conclusion as former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, who fiercely argued against his country rejoining NATO. In a television interview with France Info on Apr. 6, he called the alliance “passé,” and a relic of the Cold War, and questioned “why we need a system that was very integrated in order to live through the Soviet threat?”

Nevertheless, as the NATO member states seek to redefine the alliance’s doctrine, supported by the new U.S. Administration of President Barack Obama, NATO might yet outlive its critics.

In the opening chapter of his book Wehrloses Österreich? Lingens tells of a joke he used about 10 years ago, that Austria might become the first neutral member of NATO. It is an option for NATO, but is it also one for Austria?

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