By Cesar G. Soriano and Jordan Coughenour 

The sun is barely peeking over the Danube River, but downtown Vienna is already teeming with activity. The sounds of church bells tolling and clip-clops of horse-drawn carriages echo through the winding cobblestone alleys. Smartly-dressed workers scurry past St. Stephen’s Cathedral and baroque concert halls that once hosted Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, and Beethoven. 

Willkommen (welcome) to Vienna, the Austrian capital that is regularly ranked as the most livable city in the world. Strategically located in the heart of Europe, the alpine nation of Austria is surrounded by eight countries, making Vienna a crossroads between East and West.

The Royal Palace of Hofburg in Vienna. Photo by Georgios Tsichlis
Royal Palace of Hofburg in Vienna, Austria on February 20, 2018.

The culturally rich, diverse city of nearly 2 million is one of the four headquarters of the United Nations (U.N.). It hosts a number of international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Tri-Mission Vienna comprises the U.S. Embassy Austria (“The Bilat”); the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna (UNVIE); and the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). Together, the Tri-Mission employs hundreds of people and offers plenty of job opportunities for family members.

Tri-Mission community members pose in front of the Residenz Fountain in Salzburg, Austria. This fountain was a stop on the Sound of Music Bike Tour organized by the Community Liaison Office, August 2020. Photo by Elizabeth Rowe
Tri-Mission community members pose in front of the Residenz Fountain in Salzburg, Austria. This fountain was a stop on the Sound of Music Bike Tour organized by the Community Liaison Office, August 2020. Photo by Elizabeth Rowe

Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1838 when Henry Muhlenberg presented his credentials to the Austrian Empire as the first American minister to Vienna. Over the next 117 years, political relations fluctuated as Austrian empires came and went. By the end of World War I, more than 2.1 million immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire made their way to the United States. The majority of those immigrants originated from the neighboring province of Burgenland, settling primarily in Chicago.

Then came the dark days of World War II (WWII). In 1938, Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany, a date known as the “Anschluss.” Then-Chargé d’Affaires John C. Wiley reported from Vienna that “the visa section is in a state of siege.” The United States would close its legation to Austria one month later. From 1938 until the U.S. entry into the war, more than 29,000 Austrians emigrated to the United States—80 percent of whom were Jews. 

Many of the Austro-Hungarian emigres from the early half of the 20th century made significant cultural contributions to American culture. Some of these names are recognizable even today, including “Sunset Boulevard” director Billy Wilder, “Metropolis” director Fritz Lang, “Gone with the Wind” composer Max Steiner, political scientist Raul Hilberg, and actress/scientist Hedy Lamarr. 

Austria is a nation still impacted by WWII, a theme that is visible in modern art, culture, and politics. In 2019, Austria’s parliament unanimously offered dual citizenship to direct descendants of victims of the Nazi regime. Approximately 1,300 U.S. residents have already completed the application process through the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles.

After WWII, Austria and Vienna—like Germany and Berlin—were divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors. The war-torn city provided the dramatic backdrop for the 1949 Orson Wells classic film “The Third Man,” which still plays every Sunday in a local kino (cinema). Austria regained its sovereignty in 1955 when the four occupying powers signed the Austrian State Treaty—agreeing to withdraw forces in return for Austria’s commitment to neutrality. 

Out of the ashes of war, the United States took the lead in helping to rebuild Austria, beginning with President Truman’s European Recovery Program (ERP), better known as the Marshall Plan. It funded nearly $1 billion in food, machinery, and raw materials to Austria, making Austria the second-highest per capita recipient of aid after Norway. The ERP fund was turned over to Austria in 1961. With assets of $3.5 billion, the ERP fund remains one of the most important and dynamic instruments of Austrian structural and economic policy, providing investment loans to the Austrian industry. In 2007, portions of the fund were carved out to finance robust educational exchange programs with U.S. universities, among other activities. 

“[Today,] Austria boasts one of the highest standards of living and per capita income in the world and a free and stable democracy, driven in part by the strong U.S.-Austrian partnership,” said Charge d’Affaires Robin Dunnigan. 

The United States and Austria reaffirmed in 2019 their bilateral commitment to advancing joint interests through the U.S. Austria Strategic Dialogue, covering action on trade and investment, security, culture, technology, and regional issues like integrating the Western Balkans into trans-Atlantic institutions. 

Bilateral trade and investment continue to be robust, despite the challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. ranks as Austria’s second-largest export market, after Germany. Austrian investment in the United States reached $6.3 billion in 2019. More than 400 Austrian companies have a presence in the United States, including well-known brands Red Bull, Glock, and Swarovski. 

The embassy’s Foreign Commercial Service and economic section support the increase of U.S. exports to Austria and Austrian investment in the United States. To tap into the startup spirit of Silicon Valley, the Austrian Foreign Ministry in 2016 cut the ribbon on a new San Francisco consulate called Open Austria. The innovative center seeks to promote the investment potential of Austria as an ideal springboard into Central and Eastern Europe. 

A nighttime, old-fashioned tram ride through Vienna, a city that has an extensive train and bus network. Photo by Travelview
A nighttime, old-fashioned tram ride through Vienna, a city that has an extensive train and bus network. Photo by Travelview

The COVID-19 pandemic crushed one of Austria’s most important industries—tourism. Nearly 32 million tourists visited Austria in 2019, including about 900,000 U.S. citizens. When Austria closed its borders in March 2020, thousands of visitors suddenly found themselves stuck. The embassy’s consular section worked long hours to assist U.S. citizens to self-evacuate. Another 15,000 U.S. citizens permanently reside in Austria.  

Traditionally a German-speaking, Catholic country, Austria has transformed in recent decades, and not without controversy. In 2020, nearly 31 percent of Viennese were born abroad. On trams, you’re likely to hear Turkish, Arabic, and Dari alongside the Austrian German dialect. This shift in demographics has triggered more hard-line immigration policies among some in Austria. 

To strengthen American and Austrian relationships after WWII, the United States built a series of Amerika Häuser (America Houses) across Germany and Austria where citizens could learn more about American culture and politics and engage in discussion and debate on the trans-Atlantic relationship. People-to-people ties continued with the Fulbright program, which has provided grants to more than 2,300 Americans and 3,500 Austrians since the early 1950s. IES Abroad, by now the largest facilitator of study abroad programs for American students worldwide, was founded as the Institute of European Studies in Vienna in 1950. Every year, approximately 1,000 Austrians study at universities in the U.S., and some 2,700 Americans study in Austria through programs developed by Austrian and American educational institutions. Additionally, more than 1,000 Austrians have participated in International Visitor Leadership Programs for professional exchanges under embassy auspices over the past eight decades. 

Robert F. Jefferson, Jr. discusses how prominent black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Barack Obama have provided a unique window into understanding the rich complexities of the African American experience and its impact on the international stage, at a school in Neunkirchen, Lower Austria, Feb. 27, 2020. Photo by Alexander Slabihoud
Robert F. Jefferson, Jr. discusses how prominent black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Barack Obama have provided a unique window into understanding the rich complexities of the African American experience and its impact on the international stage, at a school in Neunkirchen, Lower Austria, Feb. 27, 2020. Photo by Alexander Slabihoud

The public affairs section (PAS) is actively engaged in expanding the relationship between the people and institutions of the United States and Austria. A premier initiative is the embassy’s Austria to Austin youth exchange program. In its fifth year, this program sends young Austrians to the United States to build entrepreneurial and leadership skills. The American entrepreneurship zeitgeist remains an important cultural diplomacy export. PAS maintains close contact with this large alumni group, and is crucial to supporting a strong bilateral economic relationship.  

In the post-war period, sitting less than 40 miles from the Iron Curtain, Vienna served as neutral ground for meetings between world powers and eventually became home to nearly two-dozen international organizations, several of which are U.N.-family organizations covered by UNVIE, whose portfolio is as diverse as the organizations themselves. Vienna was spotlighted in 2015 as the stage for talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program verified and monitored by the IAEA, and began hosting renewed talks in April 2021. On any given day, UNVIE officers are also partnering with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime to combat illicit trade in opioids, safeguarding the long-term sustainability of outer space exploration through the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, or advancing U.S. priorities on dozens of other scientific and technical issues. 

For UNVIE Chargé d’Affaires Louis Bono, it’s a combination of the city’s diplomatic history and cultural diversity that keeps bringing international negotiators back to Vienna since 1814 or the Congress of Vienna.

“People feel comfortable hashing out some of the world’s biggest challenges here, due in part to the wonderful backdrop the city offers to any visitor,” said Bono. “But national and local authorities are undeniably experts at playing gracious and impartial host to difficult and often tense negotiations, a skill they’ve perfected over centuries.”

Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ambassadors meet with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsihanouskaya (center in red shirt) hosted by U.S. Mission to the OSCE, April 26. Photo by Mike Snyder
Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ambassadors meet with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsihanouskaya (center in red shirt) hosted by U.S. Mission to the OSCE, April 26. Photo by Mike Snyder

Because of Austria’s strategic location and entry point to Eastern Europe, the U.S. and Austria partner to counter Russian and Chinese political and economic influence in the region. The embassy’s Department of Defense representatives continue to strengthen our security cooperation with Austria to facilitate U.S. military and NATO transits and to strengthen exchanges, including the U.S. National Guard State Partnership Program, the first time a European country has been selected for this program in more than 10 years. In September 2020, a memorandum of understating was signed, creating an exchange program between the U.S. Naval Academy and Austria’s Theresian Military Academy, which already had a similar program with West Point. 

Austria’s neutrality makes it an ideal home for the OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organization, stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE approach to security is comprehensive and cooperative: comprehensive in dealing with a wide range of security-related issues including arms control, preventive diplomacy, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, democratization, election monitoring, and economic and environmental security; cooperative in the sense that all OSCE participating states have equal status. Decisions are taken by consensus on a politically but not legally binding basis. 

“OSCE’s unique approach to security gives officers from a wide variety of backgrounds—traditional security, economics, environmental protection, and human rights—all an opportunity to help advance U.S. goals in Eurasia,” said USOSCE Chargé d’Affaires Courtney Austrian.

Austria boasts nine entries on the UNESCO World Heritage list, including the entire historic center of Vienna with its diverse preservation of architecture, including St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a Romanesque cathedral consecrated in 1147. Photo by TTstudios

USOSCE’s main goal remains to help resolve the protracted conflicts in Eastern Europe, with the prime focus on Ukraine. With the Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea as the primary threats to European security, USOSCE remains vigilant to help prevent the conflict from escalating, as seemed likely in spring 2021. Additionally, the United States remains focused on helping solve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the occupied territories of Georgia, and the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova. As new threats to European security and violations of the OSCE’s fundamental commitments arise—as they did in August 2020 when Belarus conducted a fraudulent election that fell short of international norms—the OSCE provides an ideal forum for voicing U.S. concerns as well as mechanisms to address the issues.

Austria boasts nine entries on the UNESCO World Heritage list, including the entire historic center of Vienna with its diverse preservation of architecture, including St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a Romanesque cathedral consecrated in 1147. UNESCO also lists Vienna’s Coffeehouse Culture as an “intangible” part of Austria’s cultural heritage.

The Bilat embassy building is located in a classical baroque-style mansion with its own rich history. It was built in 1902 to train diplomats—Austria’s version of the Foreign Service Institute. The U.S. government purchased the building in 1947 in a deal struck by Foreign Service Economic Officer Eleanor Dulles—sister of future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. UNVIE and USOSCE, meanwhile, are located in a modern office tower on the left bank of the Danube adjacent to U.N. and IAEA headquarters.

For potential bidders, Austria’s natural beauty and relaxed lifestyle earn it high marks for quality of life for locals and mission personnel alike. Vienna and Austria are an outdoor lovers’ paradise. The city is ringed by the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) with its hiking trails through wineries and rolling hills. On sunny days, Viennese flock to the city’s many parks, beer gardens, and “beach bars” along the Danube River and canals. Skiing and hiking are Austria’s national pastimes. A few hours’ drive or train ride West brings you to the Austrian Alps, dotted with more than 400 ski resorts that are popular in all seasons. Every summer, thousands of tourists flock to the castle-topped city of Salzburg to attend its 101-year-old music festival dramatized in “The Sound of Music” or visit the movie’s film locations—much to the chagrin of locals.

Hallstatt, Austria. Lake Hallstattersee with calm blue water among austrian Alps mountains. Embankment of antique picturesque town. View to old houses on coast and chapel of church.

“Americans and Austrians are two of a kind: adventurous, industrious, hard-working, and fun-loving,” said Dunnigan. “The close ties between the United States and Austria are the result of more than just policy and politics. It’s about our shared values and relationships on a personal level.”

Cesar G. Soriano is deputy consular chief and Jordan Coughenour is a consular/political officer at Embassy Vienna. 

Map of Austria is produced by the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues.
Previous articleCeremony celebrates new consulate in Mexico
Next articleSpecial Envoy for Holocaust Issues