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2004-06-23

Standing apart 

Since WWII, Austria has been neutral. The formula was designed for a Cold War world and enabled the country to regain its independence after the war. The population got used to it, was proud of thinking of Austria as a mediator on the world stage (particularly under chancellor Kreisky in the 70s), and there is still overwhelming popular support for maintaining the neutrality status.

Obviously, cold war is over, Austria is surrounded by EU member states. This changes the meaning of neutrality, and the last 15 years have seen tortured discussions on a possible re-interpretation of the concept. May I torture too, please?

Neutrality is no longer necessary, it has become a social choice. It means that Austria abstains from playing an active role in armed conflicts. In the modern scenery, this is convenient - no danger of Austrian soldiers being killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo, at least as long as open hostilities are not over (Austrian soldiers do take part in peace-keeping missions). In some of these conflicts - e.g. Kosovo - the Austrian governement as well as popular opinion clearly was in favour of an international military campaign, but due to neutrality, Austria itself abstained. Is this a morally awkward position, as it unloads the burden of the personal risk of soldiers on other countries?

Neutrality is not morally awkward for pacifists. But the dominant support for Austrian neutrality does not come from pacifism. And in principle, Austria professes to an armed neutrality (this is the only version known by international law), which includes a commitment to maintain armed forces for self-defense. This makes neutrality at least slightly odd even for radical pacifists.

Neutrality is not morally awkward if considered a historic duty of the countries whose populations participated in the nazi atrocities during WWII. This is an argument I used to support. But, as the German debate that was started several years ago by chancellor Schröder shows, there is a certain distance in time, combined with a certain maturity of the political system, that makes the imperatives of international solidarity look increasingly stronger in comparison to the obligations of historical remorse.

Neutrality that prevents the deployment of offensive military forces in campaigns supported by the neutral country can be morally acceptable if the country compensates by other support, e.g. financial and humanitarian support for reconstruction. This would have to be on a scale far higher than support given by countries who send soldiers. The Kosovo conflict may be a case in point, where Austria's contribution to reconstruction has been substantial. But in general, a formal commitment to provide outstanding support for reconstruction efforts is not an element of the Austrain neutrality doctrine. [On the international level, this kind of division of labor already exists, a striking example was certainly the first Iraq war, where America contributed the military and the rest of the world contributed the finances. As the second Iraq war has shown, the downside of this is that it is the military arm that makes the decisions. Yet even Britain, which chose to contribute military to the current conflict, has been rather unsuccessful in exercising control over the actions of the US military hegemony.]

In sum, I think that Austria's neutrality can still be defended, and should be accompanied by an exceedingly modest amount of military spending. It should be made clear however, not least to the Austrian electorate, that Austrian neutrality is no free lunch proposition - the money and risk saved on the military should be spent on reconstruction and, when major crises are absent, on greatly increased development aid.


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