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EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?
Switzerland is proudly neutral.Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)
It is common knowledge that Switzerland is a neutral country, but not everyone knows how this came about and what exactly “neutrality” means.

If you ask a random person to name a neutral country, chances are they won’t say “Turkmenistan”.

The reason is that many people may not even know that this central-Asian nation is indeed neutral, along with Finland, Malta, Ireland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Sweden, and Vatican City.

In most people’s minds, the word “neutrality” is synonymous with Switzerland, in much the same way as cheese, chocolate, and watches.

In this sense, Switzerland may well be the world’s most famous neutral nation, which means it must remain impartial, not take sides in any international conflicts, and its forces can only be used for self-defence and internal security.

At least this was the idea behind the country’s earliest move toward neutrality in the 16th century. Interestingly, it was not driven by any pacifist inclinations but by desire for self-preservation and survival.

This is what history tells us:

It may come as a surprise that in the Middle Ages Switzerland was a nation of warriors and mercenaries, who fought on the side of those who paid them the most.

In one such conflict, which took place in September of 1515,  Swiss soldiers fought and lost against France in the Battle of Marignano, in present-day Italy.

That was, of course, long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers fought with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

Nevertheless, the Swiss lost that battle, and decided to cut their losses and avoid further involvement in bloody wars.

They managed to stay out of trouble until 1798, when Napoleon invaded the country, making it part of the marauding French empire and compromising its neutrality.

However, after Napoleon was famously defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared at the Congress of Vienna the same year. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarreling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

Swiss Vatican guards started out as mercenaries hired to protect Pope Julius II in 1505. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

More history of Switzerland’s neutrality can be found in this government report (in English).

Has the policy of neutrality been good for Switzerland?

In many ways, it has been a double-edged sword: on one hand, it allowed Switzerland to stay out of armed conflicts that devastated much of Europe, including both world wars. But on the other, it created some incongruous situations.

For instance, in the 1990s, Switzerland has sent its troops on peacekeeping missions to conflict zones but, unlike soldiers from other nations serving in this capacity, the Swiss could not carry weapons (which is somewhat of a paradox, given that guns are as ubiquitous in Switzerland as chocolate and edelweiss).

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This was the case in Kosovo in 1999, where in the middle of an armed conflict Swiss troops were walking around empty-handed and had to be protected by their (armed) German and Austrian counterparts.

This situation proved to be an embarrassment to people back in Switzerland who in 2001 finally voted in a referendum to allow soldiers taking part in international peacekeeping missions to carry weapons.

Political neutrality had also kept Switzerland out of the United Nations for decades, even though a number of UN agencies are headquartered in Geneva and the country was one of the largest contributors to the UN budget —all that without having any say in the decision making process.

That too changed in 2002, when the Swiss voted at last to join the organisation.  

The United Nations building in Geneva. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Do the Swiss want to remain neutral?

For tiny Switzerland, remaining neutral in the 21st-century world of multilateralism is becoming more challenging, especially when surrounded on all sides by one of the largest international political alliances of all —the European Union.

Still, as various studies and surveys have consistently shown, for the vast majority of the people, neutrality is a source of national pride and identity, and it is strongly linked to their sense of independence self-determination.

For this reason it is unlikely that Switzerland will want to change the status quo, at least for the time being.

The Swiss just can’t remain neutral about that.


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