Why is there a neutral policy

Background current

Switzerland is seen as a pioneer in neutral foreign policy. Eighty years ago, the members of the League of Nations agreed to Switzerland's full neutrality. What is considered neutral is still a matter of interpretation to this day.

In 1938, Switzerland's application for integral neutrality was approved at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. (& copy picture-alliance, KEYSTONE)

On May 14, 1938, the members of the League Council approved Switzerland's motion for "integral neutrality". The League of Nations was an international community that was founded in 1920 at the suggestion of the then American President Wilson to secure international peace.

The Swiss change to "integral" or also absolute neutrality was controversial in the Council of the League of Nations because it reduced the foreign policy influence of the already weakened community of states. Until then, Switzerland's neutrality had a so-called differential character: the country did not have to take part in military steps, but it did have to support some of the political and economic measures of the international community. That should change now. The background: Japan, Germany and Italy had left the League of Nations in previous years. As a result, the Council of the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions on the apostates. However, Switzerland did not want to support this - not least in order not to lose its important trading partner Italy despite all the political divergences.

Neutrality - a question of interpretation

The Swiss Confederation, the official name of Switzerland, was created in 1815 when Europe was reorganizing itself at the Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Switzerland's neutrality was first recognized by the major European powers. The Federal Treaty of 1815, the founding charter of Switzerland, stipulated that Switzerland could also defend its neutrality militarily.
After the start of World War II, the Swiss fortified the border with Germany. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

In fact, all male Swiss citizens should be trained to use weapons in the event that the borders and thus neutrality were attacked. Most recently, the Swiss fortified and guarded their national borders during the Second World War. But they never really had to defend it.

Source text


Neutral states at war

In international law, which regulates relations between states, there is also the concept of neutrality. It says that a neutral state may not take part in a war or any other conflict between other states. The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 defined more precisely what behavior is expected of neutral states. According to this, a neutral state may not support warring countries militarily, politically or economically. It is important that neutral states strictly adhere to this obligation, otherwise they run the risk that the other states will not recognize their neutrality and involve them in a war.

Mediation through neutral states

Neutral states often offer to mediate in a conflict between different states. They can then help resolve crises through their impartial policies. The parties to the conflict do not regard the neutral states as opponents or threats. That is an advantage for the negotiations.

Permanent and temporary neutrality

A distinction must be made between permanent neutrality and neutrality in a certain situation. Switzerland, for example, is a permanently neutral state. Other states are only neutral in some situations; in other situations they take sides. The USA was neutral at the beginning of the two world wars of the 20th century. They later supported the Western powers Great Britain and France in the war, then had given up their neutrality.

Source: Gerd Schneider / Christiane Toyka-Seid: The young politics encyclopedia from www.hanisauland.de, Bonn: Federal Agency for Civic Education 2018.



Only long after the emergence of a de facto neutral Switzerland was the right to neutrality formally enshrined in international law, in 1907 with the "Agreement on the Rights and Obligations of Neutral Powers and Persons in the Event of a National War", or the "Hague Agreement" for short. There it says that neutral states are obliged to be impartial, should not contribute to the outbreak of a conflict and should not stir up conflicts in peacetime. The agreement also states that neutral states should not suffer from an interstate conflict. Therefore, they are free to act at their own discretion to avert harm. The policy of neutrality remained a matter of interpretation - and it still is today.

Source text

"Hague Agreement"

Excerpts from the original text from 1907

"I. Chapter:

Rights and duties of the neutral powers

Art. 1
The territory of the neutral powers is inviolable.

Art. 2
The belligerents are forbidden to lead troops or ammunition or food columns through the territory of a neutral power.

Art. 3
It is equally forbidden to belligerents:
a) To set up a radio telegraphic station on the territory of a neutral power or any other facility which is intended to mediate communication with the warring land or naval forces;
b) to use any device of this kind which they established before the war in the area of ​​neutral power for an exclusively military purpose and which has not been released for the public intelligence service.

Art. 4
In the sphere of a neutral power, combatants' corps may not be formed for the benefit of the belligerents, and advertising agencies may not be opened.

Art. 5
A neutral power may not tolerate any of the acts referred to in Articles 2-4 in its field. It is only obliged to punish acts that run counter to neutrality if these acts were committed on its own territory.

Art. 6
A neutral power is not responsible for people individually crossing the line to enter the service of a belligerent.

Art. 7
A neutral power is not obliged to prevent the export or transit of weapons, ammunition and anything else that may be useful for an army or a navy, taking place on behalf of one or the other belligerent.

Art. 8
A neutral power is not obliged to prohibit or restrict the use of telegraph or telephone lines or wireless telegraphy equipment by belligerents, regardless of whether they belong to itself or to companies or individuals.

Art. 9
All restrictions or prohibitions which are imposed by a neutral power with regard to the objects mentioned in Articles 7 and 8 are to be applied equally by it to the belligerents. The neutral power has to ensure that the same obligation is observed by the companies or individuals who own telegraph or telephone lines or wireless telegraphic equipment.

Art. 10
The fact that a neutral power even violently rejects a violation of its neutrality cannot be viewed as a hostile act. "

quoted from: Bundesrat - The portal of the Swiss government https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/19070029/191007110000/0.515.21.pdf



Neutrality and foreign policy

For Switzerland, neutrality is a foreign policy tool that it tries to adapt to the respective global political situation. In the recent history of Swiss foreign policy, there has always been a discussion about which foreign policy action, for example in the areas of international security policy, is still compatible with Swiss law of neutrality. In one of its publications, the Swiss Department of Defense names the limits quite clearly in general terms: the limits of one's own neutrality would be exceeded "if the neutral person enters into an obligation to provide assistance in the event of war through his commitment." [1] For this reason NATO membership is not possible for Switzerland.

Examples of neutral foreign policy

Switzerland interprets its foreign policy role as a neutral state in a practical way. Again and again it does so-called "good offices", thus acting as an arbitrator or mediator and intervening diplomatically or humanitarian, for example during the Korean War at the beginning of the 1950s. Swiss observers were sent to the armistice border in Korea in 1953 with the consent of all warring parties.

During the Cold War, Switzerland maintained its course of integral neutrality: it did not carry any international economic sanctions and it established trade relations across all blocs.

That changed at the beginning of the First Gulf War in the early 1990s. The Swiss Federal Council declared at the time that it was compatible with Switzerland's neutrality if it supported the UN economic sanctions against Iraq. The situation was different when the United Nations (UN) asked for Swiss airspace to be released for overflights for military purposes. Switzerland refused this overflight right on the grounds of its neutrality. The decision met with international criticism. It was only during the Bosnian War in 1995 that Switzerland first opened its airspace for military overflights for a UN peace operation. Since then this has been the norm.


Neutral and non-aligned states in Europe

In addition to Switzerland, there are four other countries in Europe that see themselves as neutral or at least without alliances:

  • Sweden (EU member): neutral since 1855, sees itself as an alliance-free state, no NATO membership
  • Finland (EU member): neutral since 1955, also sees itself as free of alliances, no NATO membership
  • Austria (EU member): neutral since 1955 (following the example of Switzerland), sees itself as a non-alliance since 2001, NATO membership is conceivable
  • Ireland (EU member): neutral since 1938, no NATO membership
  • Switzerland (no EU member): neutral since 1815, no NATO membership

More on the subject:

  • "Neutrality" in: The young politics lexicon
  • Arne Ruth: Myths of Neutrality