REVIEW: Article

The Case for a New Era of Person-to-Person Exchange

Since the end of the Second World War, the United States and Austria have enjoyed one of the most mutually beneficial and prosperous relationships in the world. Born from a shared desire for lasting peace and nourished by trade, education, and people-to-people exchanges, Austria and the United States share an intertwined past and interconnected future. Today, our shared democratic ideals and our willingness to work together to combat global threats serve as an example of collaboration on the world stage. But since the earliest days of the modern era, our common goals have been underwritten by a series of often-overlooked exchange programs that have exposed thousands of people to the significance of our shared values. The intimate human bonds built by exchange participants continue to weave an increasingly beautiful, intricate, and durable social fabric that strengthens our bilateral relationship.

Excellent diplomatic relations between Austria and the United States would not be possible without an enduring set of shared values and deeply held beliefs that have evolved over time. Nowhere are these values more apparent than in America’s determination to liberate Austria from Hitler’s dictatorship. The United States 3rd infantry division marched 3,200 miles from Casablanca to Salzburg in 1945. To reach Austria, the “Rock of the Marne” lost 34,000 of their brothers-in-arms to war, exhaustion, and disease—more than any other division in Europe. But they drove forward nonetheless. Carrying their fear and their sorrows, they endured the weight of grief with the knowledge that they might be all that stood between freedom and tyranny.

From the darkest depths of that grief came the birth of a new and democratic Austria, a strong and prosperous Europe, and a vibrant transatlantic community. That community began with the Marshall Plan. Even today, the Marshall Plan remains America’s lasting promise. It signaled our commitment to building a more peaceful, prosperous, and inter-reliant future. The United States and Austria emerged from WWII scarred by war but bound by a transatlantic future, thanks in part to the Marshall Plan. Together, we penned a new chapter, one that will be remembered for the prosperity it brought. This mutual prosperity is the foundation of the longest stretch of peace the world has ever seen.

Since the war, Austria has embodied that promise of peace, and proven itself to be an indispensable partner on a range of mutual interests. For evidence of that, I need look no farther than my residence here in Vienna. Each day as I come and go, I pass a set of unremarkable looking brass plaques. In truth, what they represent is quite astonishing. One plaque memorializes the meeting between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. They sat face-to-face in the parlor in 1961, where they discussed The Berlin Question, Laos, and the Bay of Pigs.

The second plaque marks President Jimmy Carter’s equally monumental visit to Vienna to meet Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. They met following the historic SALT II dialogue, which took place in the Chancery of United States Embassy Vienna in 1979. It is no coincidence that these historic meetings took place in Austria.

The importance of Austria in multilateral diplomacy has only increased since the Cold War. Perched on Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, the Palais Coburg is now recognized as the place where the Austrian Government hosted successive rounds of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in 2015. The result was an historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the promise of peacefully preventing a nuclear Iran.

Only months later, United States Secretary of State John Kerry would return, flanked by motorcades, ministers, and journalists who descended upon the Imperial Hotel to launch  the “Vienna Process.” Those meetings would birth and go on to host the first two rounds of what we now know as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). For the second time in only a few short months, Austria’s commitment to peace through dialogue had successfully changed the course of international events.

From the Marshall Plan to the ISSG, we have fortified our commitment to one another through peaceful dialogue and the exchange of ideas. But there can be no doubt, this exchange is most effective when it takes place face-to-face. Austria excels here as well. For example, Austria was one of the first countries to establish a binational Fulbright Commission in support of educational exchange.

Few may know of the extensive role that Vienna played in the very formation of the Fulbright Program. In the waning days of 1928, a young J. William Fulbright spent six months in Vienna after completing his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. He was often found in a packed corner booth at Café Louvre, a popular hangout for English and American journalists. Among others, Fulbright’s troupe included the Hungarian journalist Mike Fodor, who took Fulbright under his wing. Fodor mentored Fulbright on Central European politics and later took him on a tour of the Balkans. According to Fulbright’s most notable biographer, his experience in Vienna and the time he spent in the Balkans, “constituted an education in itself.” It was “his introduction to the real world of international politics.” In this way, the coffeehouses of Vienna were as much a classroom to Fulbright as the lecture halls of Oxford. Later, as a United States Senator considering how to spare the world from another devastating world war, he looked to educational exchange as a tool to build peace and friendship among nations.

That educational exchange is now an enduring element of the Austrian-American relationship. To date, nearly 6,000 Austrian and American students, teachers, professors, scholars, and scientists have the honor of calling themselves Fulbrighters. An additional 3,000 American teaching assistants have served at schools in Austria since 1961. Sixty-five years on, the Fulbright program continues to enrich the lives of thousands of students and teachers every day.

Building on this history and forging new personal relationships is a rewarding, if labor-intensive endeavor. Even with all of today’s remarkable technological advances, there is still nothing that replaces the bond that two humans make when they shake hands, sit, and talk together in person. This primal phenomenon is what Edward R. Murrow famously called “the last three feet.” The learning and sharing that happen when two people are in the same room remains at the heart of mutual understanding. Even today, covering “the last three feet” remains critical to the Austro-American relationship.

It is also essential to ensuring cooperation between law enforcement agencies and our militaries. Forty-nine Austrian officers have attended the FBI National Academy since 1962, where they have learned and trained alongside their American and international colleagues. Additionally, over the past 60 years, Austria has sent officers and technical experts to the United States to study alongside their American and international counterparts at war colleges, where they build relationships and gain experience that keep our citizens safer and enable our militaries to work side by side in battlefields and humanitarian relief efforts worldwide. These programs elevate expertise, encourage the exchange of best practices, and most importantly, build bonds of friendship that last for decades.

The benefits of economic, humanitarian, and security cooperation have endured because of the personal bonds built through international exchange. Just as the Marshall Plan enabled a transatlantic community, we must continue to develop new and evolving forms of exchange and cooperation that meet the needs of a rapidly evolving world.

The scope of modern economic exchange is massive. Transatlantic trade supports more than 13 million jobs in Europe and America; together, we generate $1 trillion in annual trade and $4 trillion in investment. Since 2013, the United States and the European Union have been working together on the next generation of European-American economic progress. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has the potential to expand trade and investment even further.

TTIP has been called an unprecedented effort. That is because it is an unprecedented opportunity. TTIP can align the shared values of the world’s two most important trading partners. Together, Europe and the United States account for nearly half of the world’s economic output. The United States and Europe are also the most innovative economies on the planet, creating new industries, new jobs, and new investments. Together, we will provide solutions to the world’s most daunting challenges. And as we address those challenges, we will strengthen the extraordinarily close relationship between Europe and the United States. 

But an agreement alone will not advance our goals. TTIP must usher in a genera­tion of transatlantic businesspeople, committed to exchanging their ideas and experiences in addition to their goods and services.

This year, I will lead a delegation to SelectUSA, including titans of Austrian industry as well as the next generation of Austrian innovators. The rapid rise of startups and startling success of Austria’s entrepreneurs are not anomalies. They are the result of years of hard work by Austrian innovators, supported by years of Austrian-American cooperation and community building. Innovations from Austrian entrepreneurs empower and enhance our most important industries and lead us into a safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable future.

We have inherited more than half a century of person-to-person exchange between Austria and the United States. Austrian universities house more than 180,000 students bursting with differing points of view, new ideas, and wildly diverse skills. It is the epitome of a great innovation culture. To help inspire these young people, the Embassy recently launched the “Austria to Austin” Student Startup Exchange. This new exchange program will fully fund 18 Austrian university students to spend two weeks in Texas. This summer the inaugural class will receive immersive training in entrepreneurship and ideation. They will learn entrepreneurial skills in an extreme hands-on environment, with a focus on the nuts and bolts of starting a business. In addition, they will attend a “Global Roundup,” where they will build relationships with hundreds of like-minded young entrepreneurs from around the world.

More than 700 students applied for the exchange, signaling the strength of the growing entrepreneurship culture in Austria. In addition to the exchange, we have committed to working with the entire community of aspiring Austrian entrepreneurs. A new slate of Austrian and American programs targeted at young people will assist them in leadership development and fostering professional skills. We will introduce them to the American culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and they will leave behind a wealth of experience that enriches the lives of Americans they meet. As the world progresses at a heretofore unknown pace, it is these young entrepreneurs who will keep up. It is our responsibility to raise them in a global community. That community begins with exchanges like Austria to Austin.

Today, we face tough competition in the global marketplace of ideas. Therefore, we have an obligation to highlight the values of democracy. We have to make the rule of law, humanitarian compassion, and the stewardship of our environment appealing to new audiences. For the Marshall Plan to achieve its 20th century goals, it had to support the economic growth and stability of the European continent. But in the 21st century, it is the fraternity, equality, and joint compassion for the human condition that these programs symbolize that is so vital to our progress. We continue to strive, as Senator Fulbright said, to transform “nations into peoples and to translate ideologies into human aspirations.” We must continue to share these values through a host of new forums and exchanges that meet the demands of an evolving economy and the rapidly expanding digital community.

Soon, all of the world’s people will be online. All the world’s knowledge will be available. And all of our actions will be on display. As billions of people are introduced to the global community, they will judge for themselves the actions of governments and their people. My hope is that they will look to us. I hope that they will see and understand the history of the United States and Europe, and how it brought peace to the western world. I hope they will see that building a global community of mutual peace and prosperity is hard work. I hope they will understand that it takes constant care and attention. But in the end, I hope that they see that it is possible. That striving for democracy is a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor. That we are all people. The more we meet, talk, and learn about one another, the more we recognize the sameness of our humanity. From there, together, we will overcome any obstacle that lies ahead.


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United States Ambassador to Austria