Defence / National Security Policy for Austria

An interesting snippet came into my sight in the process of compiling yet again a list of German Milblogs: The idea that Austria is too small for an independent security policy and thus needs to invest its political energy into influencing security in Europe instead.

(c) user "NuclearVacuum", see Wikimedia Commons
Well, Austria has the potential to defend itself against all but one (GER) of its neighbours thanks to its relative size and geography. The neighbours are indeed no problem, although the most serious episode for Austrian defence in the last two decades has been the violation of its air space by Yugoslavian combat aircraft on attack runs against Slovenian separatists sometime in the very early 90s.

Austria's ability to influence its national security with military might is nevertheless marginal. It's a raft almost without propulsion on a fast stream.

- - - - -

The other approach - to influence the future of the continent - seems paradoxical, though: It requires that the tail wags the dog, and that's difficult to pull off to say the least.

- - - - -

Their national security challenge is refreshingly different to the idea of national security policy or strategy cherished by anglophone sources. Austria has accomplished to be perceived as no threat by anyone, and it's enemy of no-one (a refreshing change after 1914!).

Now what's left to do for them is to avoid getting into trouble because of others' actions (especially aggressiveness).

Germany isn't at such a favourable point (any more), we're too involved in distant conflicts and have managed to needlessly irritate foreigners with deployed troops. That doesn't yield a significant problem (other than the occasional death or mutilation among said troops) so far, but it still means that we fell behind Austria in the pursuit of an efficient policy for peace and security.

Now back to Austria; how can a small country exercise influence on -at times distant- events despite the rule of thumb that small ≠ influential?

There are certain influences that are not proportional to size. The voting power in the UN General Assembly and in the EU, for example. The availability of "honest mediator" diplomats doesn't seem to be dependent on the country's size (or its foreign office's budget) either. Furthermore, international or multinational organisations often have their headquarters in a neutral and small -unimportant- country. Artists, international news organisations and philosophers aren't proportional to a countries' size either. They can exert influence and make offences against a (their) country less acceptable.

Austria could furthermore seek to identify levers in international affairs and weak spots in dangerous movements that could be exploited for great effect with little influence.

It can as well join other small powers in an effort to influence  foreign politics in Europe towards small power interests. So far foreign policy in Europe has been dominated by the larger (great) powers instead - but those larger powers cannot stay on their course if the small powers stem against it (together). Great power games might fall out of favour if small power governments do joint small power foreign policy.

- - - - -

For Austria, security policy looks in my opinion like a cultural challenge and seems to create very non-mainstream demands for intelligence service and politicians. The "shall we spend these billions, shall we bomb them, shall we deploy troops there" strain of national security policy that grabs the headlines and originates in bigger countries (which nevertheless complain often about being overburdened by their national security efforts) looks brute, superficial and unsuccessful by comparison.

Isn't it strange that nevertheless many people deride the security policy of small powers in favour of the might displayed by large powers? It's like boasting that you've paid more for less.

Related: "Foreign Policy" article on Qatar.


P.S.: I still don't get how the Lisbon Treaty's collective defence obligations and Austria's supposed neutrality fit together. Austria ratified the treaty. Maybe I missed an exception paragraph?


  1. Ah! Austria. LOL. Security and defence policy based in la-la land, denial region, ignorance city.

    Of course the European path is the only viable way to go, the only one answering real, perceived and potential threats.

    The only - slightly - positive aspect is that there is a little more going on in out-of-area ops on the military level than is generally published in Kronen Zeitung. But if the political-military disconnect is already huge in the U.S. and the EU it's like the Grand Canyon in Austria.

    Even with Austria's diminutive defence budget there would be more possible. But on the political level total ignorance and mulishness rules: As demonstrated by e.g. the unwillingness to participate in the EAG/EACC (or HAW).

    Austria's homebase is Europe. Nationally there is no need for more than a militia (with strong CIMIC portfolio for collective out-of-area ops other than war; a militia is also a core element for a Republic), a few battalions of light/mot/air/mtn infantry SOCOM style supported by two handful of helicopters (as the primary collective security & defence contribution for combat tasks), and a ASCOD based mech brigade as territorial-focused rapid reaction force, and an air policing group. All in all max 15.000 men. The rest is on European level: Long range/strat airlift, strat ISR, intelligence and soft influence, BMD &c&c. And then there is a lot that could be done in the police/paramil area like with FRONTEX and anti-OrgCrime organizations.

    The only logical Austrian "foreign" policy is to promote European integration, a robust *defence* of European soil and sky, and then also the *offensive* excercise of European interests abroad. Anything else is pointless and a waste of resources. Even as a small country is could set topics and be a leader in the "arena of ideas". Right now Austria totally fails in everything related to security and defence.

  2. I don't think that interventionism /military adventures are components of national defence - at all.

  3. Just commenting on your blog. This is the first time that I am reading it, and I am impressed. You are covering areas that I wish I had the time to cover. Keep it up.

  4. I am kind of sure that you've read it before, for you've linked to it for ages. :)

  5. DemolitionMan5 May 2011 at 16:53

    "Germany isn't at such a favourable point (any more), we're too involved in distant conflicts and have managed to needlessly irritate foreigners with deployed troops. That doesn't yield a significant problem (other than the occasional death or mutilation among said troops) so far, but it still means that we fell behind Austria in the pursuit of an efficient policy for peace and security."

    Apples and Pears Sven. Since 1945 totally different developments in their respective foreign policies. Please stick to comparisons that make sense.

  6. The difference doesn't matter, though. Taking different paths - especially post-'90 - is an action, and it's totally valid to point out that different actions led to different situations.

  7. DemolitionMan5 May 2011 at 19:06

    By blending out their backgrounds? By treating Austria and Germany as equal in influence, commitments and obligations? Nope, that's not valid. Austria chose EU membership specifically to tuck itself in a made bed, and didn't saw this compromising their neutrality, as they had taken part in UN actions before. Just another multinational participation in their view. But one that combined with their specific path in history after 1945 needs to be known to judge and understand their policies of today.

  8. Obligations aren't even relevant to my point, but they're even less relevant for your point. Sovereign nations can cancel obligations by leaving treaties.

    The prejudices and experiences of individuals and people don't change the fact that different actions led to different results. Sovereignty = freedom of action.

    Germany could declare itself neutral today and leave NATO. By late summer we could be a more neutral nation than Switzerland.

    Your fatalism is not appropriate.