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What the 68-year-old Austria treaty could tell us about Ukraine today

What the 68-year-old Austria treaty could tell us about Ukraine today

Ignoring history, Western allies have consistently rejected neutrality in favor of an open NATO door for Kyiv.

Analysis | Europe

Monday May 15th marks 68 years since the signing of one of the least heralded but most important agreements of the 40-year Cold War. 

The State Treaty for the Re-Establishment of an Independent and Democratic Austria, otherwise known as the Austrian State Treaty, was signed by representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain in Vienna on May 15, 1955.

The Treaty ended Austria’s 17 years of foreign occupation (first, by the Nazis from 1938-1945, and then, the Big Four from 1945-1955) and set the stage for its independence and neutral status.

In his message to the U.S. Senate requesting ratification of the treaty, President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that “The Austrian State Treaty represents the culmination of an effort by the Western Powers extending over a period of more than eight years to bring about Soviet agreement to grant Austria its freedom.”

It should be noted that those eight years were among the most fraught of the first Cold War. Yet, only a handful of years after Stalin’s brutal consolidation of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe; the Soviet Union’s detonation of a hydrogen bomb; the Korean War; and only a year before the brutal Soviet crackdown in Budapest, Austria’s occupying powers were able to come to a peaceful modus vivendi over the status of Austria, setting the stage for Austria’s successful postwar transformation. 

In the years preceding the Treaty’s signing, one of the principal obstacles that needed to be overcome (along with the issue of Soviet compensation) was the issue of Austrian neutrality. In a bid to win Soviet approval of the Treaty, the Austrian foreign minister sent a message to Moscow via neutral India, that Austria would refrain from joining any military bloc — East or West. Eisenhower initially objected, worrying that the West Germans would follow suit and scuttle American plans for its rearmament and incorporation into NATO. This issue, however, was put to bed in October 1954 with the signing of the Protocol to the North Atlantic Treaty on the Accession of the Federal Republic of Germany. 

The Treaty and the accompanying declaration of neutrality was unquestionably good for Austria. As the late historian of Europe Tony Judt pointed out 40 years after the Treaty’s signing, Austria’s Cold War was marked by a “remarkable political continuity.” Upon declaring itself “permanently neutral” Austria transformed into “a stable and prosperous country at the center of Europe.” 

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in February 2022, nuclear experts Thomas Shea and Kateryna Pavlova observed that the Treaty “has proved remarkably successful. Today, Vienna hosts well-respected international organizations like the United Nations and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The city was deemed the “most livable” for 10 years running on a survey that compared world cities on political, social and economic climate, medical care, education, and infrastructure conditions.”

Puzzlingly, Washington and its hawkish allies in Europe have again and again rejected the eminently sensible idea of neutrality in favor of a dogmatic insistence on NATO membership for Ukraine. Though interestingly, according to the journalist Ben Aris, negotiators representing Ukraine in a round of diplomacy conducted in April 2022 were willing to concede to Moscow’s demand to keep out of NATO in exchange for “bi-lateral security agreements with all its Western partners —something the Russian delegates accepted.”

And whatever one thinks of the motives, leadership and domestic political arrangements of Russia, Austria’s revitalization in the decades following the signing of the Treaty suggests there was (and is) a good deal of merit to the idea of Ukrainian neutrality. As The Quincy Institute’s own Anatol Lieven has observed:

A declaration of neutrality has generally been treated, both in the West and in Ukraine itself, as a colossal and dangerous sacrifice by Ukraine. But modern European history does not altogether bear this out. Being drawn into great-power rivalry may not be such a wonderful thing as the U.S. foreign and security establishment — safely isolated from any resulting horrors — tends to imagine. And if sufficient guarantees are in place, neutrality can be a great boon for a nation.

As the war in Ukraine drags on into its second year with little end in sight, the Biden administration and its Western partners could do worse than familiarize themselves with this too often overlooked success story from the first Cold War. 

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