NEW YORK -- After years of relying on diplomatic isolation as a tool to correct what it considers the bad behavior of such pariah states as Iran, North Korea and Cuba, the West has now decided that engagement and dialogue are more effective means to influence the conduct of such nations. It seems that Western nations had come to recognize the sharp limits of isolation in an ever-globalizing world.
So it's all the more ironic and illogical that these same policy makers should be attempting to isolate Austria as a way of showing their displeasure over the inclusion of a right-wing political party in that nation's government.
Last February, the European Union's member states, lead by France and Belgium, joined in freezing bilateral diplomatic relations with Vienna after it became evident that the conservative Christian Democrat People's Party would create a governing coalition by partnering with right-wing Freedom Party, until recently lead by Joerg Haider. The United States, for its part, showed its displeasure with the new Austrian government by recalling its ambassador for "consultations" and by barring certain meetings with Austrian officials.
Ironically, it was during this same period that the West began taking some major steps towards ending the isolation of such long-shunned nations as Cuba, North Korea and Iran.
Just last month, Congress voted to ease restrictions on travel and the sales of food and medicine to Cuba, even through Fidel Castro is still in power and Cuba by most measures remains an autocratic, Communist state. North Korea took a major step towards joining the community of nations when its reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, met last month with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae Jung. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with her North Korean counterpart -- the highest-level talks between these countries in half a century. And two decades after having its embassy in Teheran overrun and its citizens held hostage, recent U.S. policy towards Iran has been characterized by an easing of sanctions and further engagement.
And of course, throughout the post-Cold War period, the West has consistently used a policy of engagement toward larger, more important states that often don't abide by international norms, such as China and Russia.
Belatedly, the Europeans seem to have recognized their diplomatic misstep. Earlier this month, the EU dispatched three "wise men" -- all seasoned diplomats -- to Austria in an effort to seek a resolution to the standoff. These "wise men" are to determine whether Austria's government policies are actually in conflict with EU norms.
For their part, however, Austrian officials are unhappy that no firm timetable has been established for a decision on lifting the sanctions. Vienna has in effect established its own deadline by threatening to hold a non-binding referendum that would allow voters to express their disapproval of the sanctions.
All too often, policies based on imposing sanctions degenerate into a test of wills, where the target state's spine stiffens while countries imposing the regime are reluctant to step down from their position for fear of losing political face. It appears that the 14 EU countries that decided to freeze bilateral relations with Vienna forgot that lifting sanctions is considerably more difficult than imposing them.
As the normalization of relations with long-term problem states, such as North Korea, Iran and Cuba, delicately more forward, it seems that diplomats in Europe and Washington are finally beginning to learn this lesson. It's time that this wisdom also be applied towards relations with Austria.
Christopher Walker has worked for media assistance programs
in Eastern Europe and is currently a freelance writer in New York.