Franz Cede: The Post-Imperial Blues: A Letter from Vienna

Roundup: Talking About History

Franz Cede is docent at the Andrassy University in Budapest. A career diplomat, he has served as Austrian Ambassador to Zaire, Russia, and both Belgium and NATO.

There is a field of academic theory called realism, more popular in America than here in Europe, which holds that states are, for practical purposes, like billiard balls: Given certain power realities, geographical positions and other material criteria, all states will behave identically under similar circumstances without regard to domestic political culture, distinct histories or the idiosyncrasies of leaders. As academic realists see it, neither emotion nor happenstance has anything to do with the choices leaders make. 

I have never known a statesman, let alone a neuroscientist, who takes the strong expression of this theory seriously. When professional diplomats consider their subject matter, they invariably combine objective knowledge with what, for lack of a better term, is a feel for the situation that they have acquired from experience. A unique psychological interplay defines any given diplomatic engagement. It matters, for example, if a state’s leadership thinks that the national honor of the nation has been recently violated and requires redress; the emotional substrata of a revisionist—or revanchist, to use the classical French term of art—state is a reality ignored at one’s peril. 

For example, no one who deals today with the Russian leadership and its coterie of diplomats thinks that the country’s traumatic recent history makes no difference to how it acts. At the end of the Cold War, Russia lost not only its artificial 20th century name but also many territories it had controlled since the time of Catherine the Great. Russia plunged from superpower to the uncertain status of a country with a dysfunctional economy, a murky multiethnic and ideological identity, and lots of nuclear weapons for which no practical purpose could be identified. Many claimed that Russians did not lose the Cold War, but rather that they had liberated their country from communism. This is not, however, what the situation actually felt like, either for those within the country or for those outside it. Dealing with Russia became in short order for Europeans and Americans alike bound up with Russia’s wounded pride. Diplomats sensed that their Russian counterparts were particularly sensitive to slights of respect, and that a certain deference was necessary to do business with them. There was a price to be paid for not at least pretending to take the Russians seriously; the U.S. government, in fact, has paid that price several times in recent years. 

Russia’s collective state of mind over the past two decades is singular, but hardy unique. The post-World War I transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Republic of Turkey and the Hapsburg Empire into Austria are other examples of vast and long-standing imperial domains being suddenly shorn away, leaving a rump remainder of uncertain status and self-understanding. At that time Russia was also convulsed by revolution, civil war and the loss of territory. In such circumstances context is critical, and it is never the same from case to case. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder if there are not some similarities amid the contextual differences, with lessons to learn from them. The thought often crossed my mind when I served as the Austrian Ambassador to Russia from 1999 to 2003, and it has returned to visit now and again ever since. What follows is a belated attempt to interrogate the post-Hapsburg and post-Soviet cases together, to see what insights the comparison may yield.

The differences between the Habsburg and Soviet episodes of imperial collapse and national political reconsolidation are of course many and obvious. Not least among them is the fact that they are separated in time by 71 rather eventful years, during which norms, technology and more besides changed significantly. But other differences may be more germane; of these, five stand out. 

First, although both empires lost considerable territory, post-Hapsburg Austria ended up a small, landlocked country while the post-Soviet Russian Federation has remained the largest country in the world and a purveyor of enormous natural resource wealth....

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