Elephants in the Room

Donald Trump Is Watching Sebastian Kurz

Austria’s young chancellor has become a major player in Europe. The White House has taken notice.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the White House on Feb. 20. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the White House on Feb. 20. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Some 10 years ago, a bright student from the University of Vienna visited the United States, by one account dropping by Trump Tower for kicks during his stay in New York City. Last month, at the age of 32, Sebastian Kurz returned to the United States as the youngest head of government in the world, this time to meet with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

It has been a meteoric rise for Kurz, who went from law student to chancellor of Austria in less than a decade. It is no accident that his success has coincided with an era of political transition across the West. Kurz is ideologically nimble: As one seasoned Austrian journalist put it to me, “He has only two political identities: anti-left and pro-Israel.” This has freed him to pursue policies, especially in the area of immigration, that are less dogmatic than those of the Austrian establishment, which has long advocated openness and globalization. The upshot has been one victory after another for the young chancellor. Since taking power in December 2017, his People’s Party has gained in popularity, winning or surpassing expectations in every regional election.

Perfectly at ease in the age of social media, Kurz is the most talented communicator in recent Austrian political history, rivaled only by the late right-wing populist Jörg Haider. Kurz exudes the same youthful confidence as Haider, whose populist rebellion transfixed Europe for decades. His politics are decidedly different, however. Kurz is the protege of Wolfgang Schüssel, the conservative chancellor who cut Haider’s Freedom Party down to size in the early 2000s. Like Schüssel, Kurz has entered into a coalition with the Freedom Party with the same goal in mind. Aside from a few populist reforms, he has focused mostly on implementing economic orthodoxy in the all-important finance ministry, which his pro-business party has controlled since Schüssel’s day. Indeed, Kurz is more mainstream than populist. In September 2018, when Austria held the European Union presidency, he even publicly supported EU sanctions against Hungary’s President Viktor Orban. As one prominent German analyst said to me of Kurz, “He’s trying to save the system rather than destroy it.”

The Trump administration has taken note of Kurz’s success. In the larger session following the Oval Office meeting in February, the Americans surprised Kurz, whose delegation did not include a single cabinet minister, by assembling virtually the entire national leadership, from the vice president and secretary of state to the national security advisor and the secretary of energy. The signal was clear: Kurz, in the White House’s view, has distinguished himself sufficiently to merit special attention and represents the future of European politics.

As the Austrian foreign minister, Kurz was a major player in crafting the European response to the refugee crisis of 2015. During his campaign for chancellor, he rarely missed an opportunity to discuss his greatest accomplishment: the closing of the so-called Balkan refugee route. On account of its history, Vienna maintains strong links into the Balkans and across the Visegrad states of Central Europe. During his talks with Trump, for example, Kurz urged the United States to utilize its influence in Pristina to overcome ongoing problems between Kosovo and Serbia.

Austria is a small country, however. It cannot compete with Germany or even France on the world stage. From the start, therefore, Kurz has sought to turn this weakness into an opportunity. Apparently calculating that political equivocation by a small EU member state already outside of NATO will not materially weaken the West, Kurz has hedged between Russia and the United States in a way almost impossible for Berlin or Paris. In the past year alone, he has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin four times. Time and again, he has spoken of Austria as a bridge between east and west and denounced the formation of geopolitical blocs. On occasion, this has led Austria to issue half-hearted denunciations of Russian transgressions. After Russian assassins apparently poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Great Britain last year, for example, Vienna declined to join the majority of EU member states in withdrawing its ambassador from Moscow.

This posture serves both domestic and foreign-policy purposes. At home, it protects Kurz’s populist flank from his coalition partner, which has long advocated closer ties to Moscow. Sympathy for Russia runs wide and deep in Austria. In December 2016, the Freedom Party even signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. Abroad, Kurz’s hedge has elevated Austria as a neutral arbiter and diplomatic hub. The government is proud that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known in German as the “Vienna accord,” was negotiated in Austria, already the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency and OPEC. And it’s an open secret that Vienna also sought to host the first bilateral meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, eventually losing out to Helsinki. At the White House last month, the Austrians reiterated their offer to host future such diplomatic gatherings. For a small country, even hosting events that shape global affairs is considered a major success.

So how to explain the entire U.S. national leadership gathering in the Cabinet Room for Kurz’s visit? After all, immigration aside, Trump and Kurz are on opposite sides of virtually every trans-Atlantic issue. When it comes to the Iran deal, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the Paris climate accords, and trans-Atlantic trade, Kurz has adopted the German position. On military spending and nuclear weapons, he has gone even further, openly advocating for less of both.

For Trump, it may be that Kurz’s support for talks with Russia fortifies his attempts at engagement with Putin. But neither the Austrians nor the Americans emphasized Russia in their descriptions of the White House meeting. Instead, Kurz offered another answer in interviews with Austrian television after leaving the White House. The message he would take back to Brussels, he emphasized, was that Europe needs to pick up its pace in the trade talks with the United States. A strategy of delay would merely lead to the imposition of further tariffs, which would only hurt Austrian workers. Instead of blind hostility toward Trump or dilatory tactics on trade, then, Kurz has offered himself as a partner willing to work things through with the United States. In today’s trans-Atlantic environment, that is no small thing.

That flexible attitude extends to Europe, where Kurz represents a new kind of thinking. Whereas other leaders march to the beat of an ever-closer union, Kurz has adapted to the times, supporting what outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker describes as “Doing less more efficiently.” In particular, Kurz champions the principle of subsidiarity, which pushes decision-making to the national or subnational level whenever possible. As he put it while still foreign minister, “What we don’t need is a union that lays down detailed rules governing the color of chips. What we do need, however, is a union that is able to guarantee security for its citizens.”

This is music to the ears of the Trump administration.

Peter Rough, the former director of research in the office of George W. Bush, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.

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