In a rapidly changing world, a small school in Vienna is teaching the next generation of diplomats the subtle art of diplomacy.
Thomas Row is fond of saying that all history is contemporary – you can’t teach diplomacy and international relations without it. “Analysis without any historical dimension is, by definition, shallow,” he tells his students sitting in the Festsaal, the main lecture hall of the Vienna School of International Studies (also known as the Vienna Diplomatic Academy), which is in the middle of an orientation week for a new batch of aspiring diplomats. “We don’t do history for its own sake. Understanding the living present is the reason why we study history.”
Every year during orientation week, Row introduces his students from around the world to Vienna by hosting a screening of The Third Man, a film with which there is an enduring fascination in the Austrian capital. The Burg Kino in the city centre still plays the 1949 film starring Orson Welles two or three times a week; there’s a dedicated museum and a walking tour and you can even climb down to the sewers where the final chase scenes were filmed. Row, an American, connects the film to Vienna’s cold-war-era history as a city of diplomats and spies. Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born, British-based co-producer of the film, comes from a family connected to the Habsburg monarchy. “You can’t understand the British film industry unless you understand the Habsburg monarchy and this world of Central and Eastern Europe,” says Row.
That said, visiting the Vienna School of International Studies as an outsider today isn’t a particularly filmic experience. The school teaches some 200 students every year and the inside of the building is plain; one professor describes its feel as resembling that of a small liberal-arts college. There’s a smattering of portraits of Austrian monarchs and colonial-era artefacts in glass cases (including a fetching military-style uniform worn in the 19th century) but it’s not ostentatious, especially by Viennese standards. However, make no mistake: this institution derives its power and reputation from Austria’s august past. From a city of spies to the capital of a colonial empire that once dominated Europe, it’s Vienna’s own history that explains the presence of the world’s oldest diplomatic academy.
Founded in Vienna in 1754 by empress Maria Theresa, an earlier iteration was opened in Constantinople to educate Austrian diplomats about their neighbouring rival, the Ottoman empire. “Students then had a very good time, didn’t study much and partied quite a lot, so they were relocated to Vienna,” says Markus Kornprobst, dean of the master’s programme in advanced international studies. After moving several times over the next few hundred years, the academy was revived in its current form in 1964, counting Henry Kissinger among its first professors. It now sits in what used to be Maria Theresa’s summer residence, a sprawling, imperial-looking complex on Favoritenstrasse in Vienna’s fourth district. The complex is home to a number of education institutions, including a school and a technical university.
Until 1996 the diplomatic academy was an arm of Austria’s foreign ministry that served as a feeding ground for foreign ministries and international organisations, such as the UN. Since then it has become an independent public institution, though a third of its funding comes from the Austrian government. That has allowed it to expand its programmes; it still offers a one-year diploma that serves as preparation for entering the foreign ministry but its flagship course is now a two-year master’s in advanced international studies, which welcomes a more international crowd.
Emil Brix, a former Austrian ambassador and current director of the academy, takes pride in this shift. While most diplomatic academies around the world serve, in effect, as HR departments for their own country, the Vienna School of International Studies has branched out and other academies are now visiting “to understand how we did it”, says Brix. Nowadays that means the student body is mixed: there’s still the odd aspiring diplomat but also the would-be lawyer, economist, private-sector worker and those who are still unsure of what they want to do but hope to receive a good education.
“The idea was to make it possible for students from different backgrounds to enter the diplomatic service, taking a little bit of the nobility away from diplomacy”
Despite expanding over the past two decades, it remains a small school that offers three programmes. It counts about 2,500 alumni from more than 120 countries, ranging from Kenya and India to the US. “I’ve never taught at a place that was as international as this one,” says Kornprobst, who came to the diplomatic academy from Oxford University. About two-thirds of those enrolled in the master’s programme are from outside of Austria; many hope to join the foreign services back home, while others focus on the presence of UN offices, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other international institutions in Vienna. “Become a diplomat,” John Galba, a self-assured 24-year-old student from Slovakia, says flatly when asked what he intends to do with his training. Galba notes that the school has a draw for Central and Eastern Europeans. It’s that vantage point that attracts other students too. “In the Netherlands we’re very focused on what is west of us – the Anglo-Saxon world,” says Dutch student Onno Dickhoff, who is also 24 years old. “So it’s interesting to see this more Central European perspective on international relations. Brexit has kind of forced us to look more to the European continent.”
The student body ranges from people from wealthier families to those of more modest backgrounds. The school’s annual fee of more than €13,000 isn’t cheap but financial aid and scholarships are available. Miriam Gruber, president of the academy’s students association, insists that most people she meets here are supremely talented – “geniuses” in one field or another – but she adds rather delicately that they sometimes lack the social skills to match. That might be where the academy’s training comes in. There are courses in how to behave as a diplomat.
Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who remade the academy after the Second World War, said that the goal was to create diplomats “who will know how to pick up a knife and fork”. However, there was also something meritocratic about Kreisky’s reinvention: his objective was to bring more ordinary Austrians into the foreign service.
“The idea of Kreisky was to make it possible for students from different backgrounds to enter the diplomatic service, taking a little bit of the nobility away from diplomacy,” Kornprobst says. “That’s important.” It meant, for example, introducing an entrance exam to join the Austrian foreign ministry, rather than having to rely on connections. The diplomatic academy in those early postwar days existed to prepare students from all walks of life to take that entrance exam.
At that time diplomatic training included lessons in how to behave. You would be expected to wear a suit to meals and an administrator would monitor your comportment. These days the school and its dress code have become less formal and Brix says that much of the education involves teaching “public diplomacy” and instilling more public self-assuredness. While diplomats used to operate behind the scenes, Brix says they are now more front-facing than ever. “When they enter the foreign service, they can be more self-confident,” says Brix. Sometimes that means going against governments and politicians; Brix notes that his academy teaches “the value of open borders at a time when many governments around the world, including our own, advocate closed borders”.
In other words, the game of diplomacy is changing and the teaching too. Today, diplomacy is less about competing ideologies and more about competing values – less cold-war-era spying and more of a public role in the domestic political affairs of other nations. Though diplomats are technically bound by conventions of non-interference, they are more likely today to “link up with the civil society of an opposing state and hope that there will be enough pressure from the bottom” to change policy, says Kornprobst.
Diplomacy today is also about “flexibility”, adds Patrick Müller, professor of European studies. With many governments shifting away from multilateralism and universal values, even in Western societies, diplomats often have to decide how much of a change they can accept – what their red lines are in terms of values, both in negotiations with other nations and even within their own governments. Müller points to the professional diplomatic services in Poland and Hungary, which are ardently pro-European and have been quietly acting as a bulwark against their more nationalist governments.
Austria’s historic connection to Central and Eastern Europe also remains a focus here. Towards the end of students’ second year the school organises a study trip to the western Balkans, where they have the opportunity to meet with senior political officials. The school also has a steady flow of guests and speakers from the region. Kosovo’s president visited the school earlier this year and, after a particularly spirited exchange, invited the students to Kosovo for their next trip.
And while the colonial legacy of some European countries engenders negative ties with their former occupiers, “It doesn’t feel the same with Austria,” says Madalina Dobrescu, a Romanian postdoctoral fellow of European studies at the school. “Somehow Austria has emerged out of this imperial past in a much more uncontroversial position. Austria really has managed to consolidate its position, also in terms of perceptions as a neutral country and as a potential mediator and bridge between the East and West.”
Beyond those international connections and contacts, ask most students here what drew them to the Vienna School and they are likely to bring up its “multidisciplinary approach” – the term that everyone seems to use to refer to its breadth. Thomas Row’s history course is one of four core disciplines taught at the academy; the other three are international law, political science and international economics. In effect you get four degrees in one here. Kornprobst says that students here get slightly less depth in exchange for more breadth – but then the idea is that diplomacy isn’t about any one discipline. To negotiate a UN treaty it helps to have knowledge of legal texts; to mediate a diplomatic conflict it helps to understand the economic undercurrents. “But it’s not always easy,” Kornprobst says. “An international lawyer runs a class differently from a political scientist.”
As the role of diplomats changes, so does the role of the academy. In addition to its master’s in international studies, there’s a master’s in environmental technology and international affairs; Brix notes that climate change is one of the biggest diplomatic challenges of our time. There are also plans for a master’s in digital diplomacy. With the latter, perhaps Vienna will come full circle. After all, spies these days operate in cyberspace rather than in the back alleys of the Austrian capital.