Research and Discussion

On the neutrality of Switzerland

8/13/2022 10:41:02 PM

Switzerland is one of the countries in Europe and in the world that adheres to a neutral defence policy. For many decades, it has brought about peace and stability for this country. However, in the context of military intervention and the huge impact of regional and global security and political developments, this policy can be adjusted to adapt to the new context and safeguard national interests.

Overview of neutrality policy

Although it has been mentioned among politicians and military strategists for a long time, neutrality policy has only been widely used since the 18th and 19th centuries. Neutrality in political science is the attitude and actions of a country towards a war or a conflict between other countries. Accordingly, a neutral country will not participate directly or indirectly under any circumstances. There are 2 kinds of neutral countries: temporarily neutral (a country that maintain its neutrality for a certain period of time or before a specific conflict); and permanently neutral (a country which declares its own neutrality, fulfills all the commitments and is recognised by other countries)

According to Hague Convention (1907), the rights and duties of neutral powers are regulated concentrated in a number of rights, such as: territorial inviolability; rejection of troop movements and convoys of either munitions or war supplies across of belligerents across the territory of a neutral power; free trade and freedom of movement with any belligerent or non-belligerent countries. At the same time, the duties of neutral countries are: Not directly participating in armed conflicts or provide forces, weapons or equipment for belligerents; Not permitting belligerents to use their territory for military purposes.

Some small countries in Europe, such as: Austria, Sweden, Finland, etc. have applied neutrality policy to stay away from binding alliances, and not to be drawn into fierce wars among major powers throughout history, especially the two World Wars. Apart from these countries, Switzerland is considered one of the best examples of neutrality, which prevents them from being dragged into conflicts in Europe for a long time.

The formation and development of Swiss neutrality

Switzerland is the country with the longest period of neutrality in Europe. The first milestone that marks the history of Swiss neutrality was in 1515 when the Swiss Confederation was defeated by the mighty France and had to sign the “Perpetual Peace” Treaty. According to this Treaty, the two countries pledged not to wage wars and not to ally with each other’s enemies. This treaty was well-observed until the French invasion of Switzerland in 1789 and ended its neutrality. In 1815, after his defeat, Napoleon had to sign the Treaty of Paris with some other European major powers. They recognised Switzerland’s independence and its neutrality, and this policy has been consistently applied to this day.

Although neutrality is the main feature of Switzerland’s defence policy, it has been proven in reality that this policy is quite flexible and is sometimes broken. The principles of Swiss neutrality are largely based on Hague Convention (1907) and the Swiss Government’s interpretation of neutrality is not entirely the same throughout different periods in history. In this country’s Constitution, neutrality is only mentioned in general without specific connotations, thus creating room for flexbile adjustments. Basically, this policy has two major characteristics: (1): Perpetuity: Switzerland is committed to neutrality in all conflicts, regardless of belligerents, locations and time; (2) Armament: Despite not participating in wars, Switzerland still builds up its own powerful army to defend itself against the aggression of other countries and to prevent territorial invasion and the activities contrary to the law of neutrality.

During World War I, Switzerland shared borders with major powers of two opposing factions: Germany and Austria – Hungary of the Central Powers; France and Italy of the Allies. Therefore, neutrality was the optimal choice of this country and it was well-maintained during the war. However, the country’s neutral stance was questioned when politician Robert Grimm, with the consent of Swiss Foreign Minister Arthur Hoffmann, secretly travelled to Russia to negotiate a separate peace treaty between Russia and Germany to end the war on the Eastern front.

After World War I, Switzerland joined the League of Nations (now the United Nations) in 1920 and its neutrality was recognised by this institution. However, Switzerland was forced to carry out a “conditional neutrality” policy, meaning that it did not have to participate in military activities but had to adhere to general economic sanctions. It was initially approved by Switzerland, however, by 1938, when tensions in economic and political relations among European countries heightened, Switzerland reverted to a “absolute neutrality” policy to secure its economic interests and this policy was maintained throughout World War II.

During the Cold War, Switzerland continued to interprete its neutrality policy as absolute and refused to to join any international organisations related to military or political affairs. At the same time, Switzerland sought to promote its role as a mediator such as hosting the Geneva Conference on Indochina (1954) and the historic meeting between President Reagan and President Gorbachev, which helped to break the ice in the relations between the US and the Soviet Union in 1985. Maintaining a neutrality policy has brought about a number of benefits to Switzerland, either avoiding losses from the two World Wars or creating an image of a peace-loving country capable of playing the role of a mediator. Its prestige has promoted arms sales because some countries want to seek suppliers from reliable neutral countries instead of major powers like the US and Russia.

After the Cold War, the role of neutral countries declined in importance due to changes in international context. The risk of war has been reduced while neutrality policy is strongly promoted during the occurrences of resource disputes and conflicts or power competition among great powers. The fact that countries are increasingly interdependent and interconnected makes a threat in a single country the common one for others; and the act of maintaining neutrality and non-intervention may affect the very interests of the countries applying this policy. Along with international cooperation, the role of international organisations such as the United Nations in conflict resolution has increased, which has overshadowed the role of neutral countries such as Switzerland and diminished the neutrality stance of these countries.

Adjusting Swiss neutrality policy in the current context

In the current complex security and political context, the interpretation and adjustment of the neutrality policy of Switzerland has captured the attention of domestic and foreign public opinion.

A growing number of opinions within the country believe that neutrality does not mean indifference and non-intervention in illegitimate activities of some countries that undermine common Western values. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Green Libeal Party (GLP) and Die Mitte of Switzerland support enhancing cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but do not encourage the country to join this organization. Swiss people also tend to support closer ties with NATO. The results of a public opinion survey in early 2022 showed that 27% of the respondents supported joining NATO, 33% supported being a member of NATO and 56% supported strengthening relations with this alliance. Recently, Switzerland has made some specific adjustments as follows:

First, enhancing cooperation with NATO and European countries. During a recent visit to the US, Swiss Defence Minister Amherd said: “The neutrality law allows us to cooperate more closely with both NATO and other European partners”. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in May, Swiss President Cassis referred to the new concept of “cooperative neutrality”. Swiss Defence Minister and NATO Secretary General have agreed to enhance mutual cooperation. Swiss Ministry of Defence is also drafting a report on new security options, including participation in joint exercises with NATO member countries, increased high-level and regular contact between commanders and politicians from both sides, as well as supplying weapons, ammunition to the countries involved. Switzerland has recently purchased F-35A fighters from the US like other NATO members to create a basis for cooperation.

Second, clearly showing its stance on the instability of regional security. In February 2022, Switzerland made an unprecedented decision in its neutral history, which was to join the EU in imposing economic sanctions on Russia and possibly closing its airspace to Russian planes or imposing financial sanctions on Russian leaders. However, military intervention remains a limit for Switzerland. Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) informed that it has rejected Germany’s request to re-export weapons and ammunition for military operations in the region.

Third, strengthening its national defence capability. Swiss Parliament is proposing to increase the military’s annual budget from $5.2 billion to $7.3 billion to speed up priorities in equipping the air force, ground troops and cybersecurity. Defence Minister Amherb assumed that his country still lags behind many other countries in digitisation and needs to boost its capability in responding to cyber attacks, especially the ones that are related to the crisis between Russian and Ukraine. Swiss Parliament has agreed to create a cyber command centre under the Ministry of Defence, with a view to upgrading and expanding its staff to 575 members in 2026 (twice more than the current structure).

Swiss neutrality policy has been beneficial and has become national identity and symbol, hence, it is unlikely to be abolished. However, the implementation of the policy has shown that neutrality is not a concrete concept and it can be interpreted and adopted flexibly in different situations. In the foreseeable future, Switzerland is expected to maintain its neutrality policy of not directly participating, not supplying weapons for belligerents; yet, it will seek to promote its role through increased cooperation and engagement into regional as well as international issues, and it is ready to host peace negotiations.