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How Truly Neutral Is Switzerland?

Neutrality in Switzerland is almost as old as the country itself, and it has evolved into an important part of Swiss identity. It has become one of the most well-known symbols of international relations due to its unique historical and geographical circumstances, serving as a widely desired but nearly unattainable model for others. Before recognizing the distinguishing characteristics that made Swiss neutrality effective and sustained it for so long, the historical stages of its development must be identified. These elements—armed deterrence, systemic potential benefits, and appreciation of neutrality as the norm—have so far ensured Swiss neutrality's survival and provided an almost infallible formula for those vying for the same status—a concept that is becoming increasingly important as the Russo-Ukrainian War drags on.

Swiss diplomacy and neutrality

Swiss neutrality is regarded as the "gold standard" in international affairs, owing to its status as both the most successful model and the most difficult exception among the few states that have attempted to achieve effective diplomatic neutrality. The majority of these nations sought neutrality throughout (and as a result of) the turbulent twentieth century; however, Switzerland has a rich history that is deeply ingrained in the minds of all European nations. This, along with a variety of carefully considered diplomatic and security measures, is the key to its incredible success and whether it can be used as a model for the twenty-first century—a question that is becoming increasingly important as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine doesn’t comes to an end.

The Evolution Of Global Order And The Context For Swiss Neutrality

The Swiss received formal recognition from the rest of the world for their neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Switzerland was eager to declare and maintain its neutrality in the face of the Great Powers after having to deal with Napoleon's attentions in the early nineteenth century. To maintain Switzerland's independence, the cantons agreed to form a rotating government. "France will recognize and guarantee jointly with the allied Powers the political organization which Switzerland will give itself under the auspices of the aforesaid Powers and on the agreed-upon bases," the full phrase reads. In this declaration, the Great Powers recognized the Swiss Confederation as a legitimate government.

More saliently, the Congress of Vienna approved a resolution preserving Swiss neutrality on March 20, 1815. According to Gordon Sherman, the Great Powers' guarantees of Switzerland's indefinite neutrality provided the country with a distinct international identity. Switzerland's permanent neutrality was a European first, enshrining a principle that the cantons had been working to uphold since the 16th century. The outcomes of the Vienna conference show that European society and law now recognise Switzerland as a neutral state, a reality that will be critical to how Switzerland and the rest of the continent interact over the next two centuries.

Is Neutrality A Mere Mirage?

When deciding how to organise their neutrality, neutrals place a strong emphasis on historical precedent and learning theories. States can choose between positive and negative neutrality based on structural considerations and prior experience. Even though Great Powers may guarantee Switzerland's neutrality, the French "guardianship" of Switzerland in the 18th century and the German threat during World War II highlighted the need for some kind of armed deterrence. The French period began with Napoleon's rise to power and the end of the French Revolution.

Napoleon was especially interested in Switzerland and put pressure on the cantons to become more united. He also joined forces with France, enlisting Swiss battalions in the ‘Grand Armee’. The Treaty of Vienna was received with even greater enthusiasm in Switzerland than the allied victory in 1813. The French occupation of Switzerland taught us the value of having an army and a border that can be defended on the battlefield.

After World War I, some people believed that neutrality needed to be guaranteed in ways that went beyond what international law and convention had established. Clearly, hostile powers regarded the Hague Agreements (1907) as ineffective. The preservation of neutrals was based on the Great Powers interest in maintaining their sovereignty and terminating their neutrality on the eve of World War II, as it had been in 1914. Numerous European neutrals, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, who relied on international law and convention in 1939-1940, suffered a similar outcome. It had been done in 1914.

What Exactly Does The Term "Neutrality" Imply?

Oxford says “the state of not supporting either side in a disagreement, competition or war” is neutrality. This fundamental concept hasn't changed much over time; the rule of neutrality still requires states to refrain from participating in military conflicts, either directly or indirectly. Because neutral states are required to treat all parties equally in a war, they are prohibited from allowing overflights or arming one side without also assisting the other, even through intermediaries.

Beyond being a legal concept, neutrality has an impact on Switzerland's reputation. Neutrality is central to Switzerland's identity, and it should not be taken lightly. Thus, Switzerland pursues a flexible and voluntary "neutrality policy," aiming to persuade other countries that it would refrain from fighting if one erupted.

Benefits From Its Neutrality

Switzerland benefits greatly from neutrality in general. Contrary to popular belief, neutrality promotes the sale of firearms. Some states would rather rely on trustworthy, neutral nations than form alliances with superpowers such as the United States or Russia in order to acquire their armaments from them. Switzerland benefits from its neutrality as a host country and mediator because impartial mediators are regarded as more trustworthy.

Switzerland and Europe

Switzerland has attempted to mediate the Ukrainian conflict, but has been unsuccessful thus far. However, whether Switzerland should act as Ukraine's protector and advocate for Kiev's interests in Moscow is currently being debated.

Switzerland is currently planning to use the Ukraine Reform Conference, which is scheduled for July in Lugano, to gain a key role in Ukraine's reconstruction. It is in competition with the EU, which has vowed to take the lead.


Switzerland's neutrality has been called into question on several occasions, including its involvement in World War II and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the stolen Nazi gold (and later during Operation Gladio), its financial ties to the South African apartheid regime, and, most recently, the Russo-Ukrainian case.

Switzerland takes a pragmatic approach. Given its strategic location in Europe, Switzerland is unlikely to be the sole target of a military strike. The chances of multiple European countries being attacked at the same time and banding together to defend themselves are much higher. Switzerland will be able to fight alongside its Western allies in an emergency if it participates in military exercises and maintains forces with the necessary equipment in good times.