Should Switzerland remain neutral about the Ukraine War? The ‘Maintaining Swiss Neutrality’ Initiative is a popular initiative by Swiss citizens to answer precisely this question. In a text titled, “Why The World Needs A Neutral Switzerland”, the message put out to Switzerland and the world is: “Swiss neutrality» must apply at all times and without exception”. When in doubt, stick to what the Constitution says – “Switzerland is neutral. Their neutrality is perpetual and armed.” ( Art. 54a Swiss neutrality)
TCE has translated the original text of the ‘Maintaining Swiss Neutrality’ Initiative.
History of Swiss neutrality
Over the past half millennium, Switzerland has developed an amazing ability to find a niche for its national existence in the shadow of rival great powers. The neutrality of our small state has very little to do with ideology or idealism, but a lot to do with the reality of life. If the older brother gets into a fight with someone of the same age in the playground, the smaller boy or sister with less physical strength will stay away from such arguments for their own benefit. At best, they’d get a bloody nose if they interfered.
Historically proven success model
In view of historical experience, nobody will seriously deny that Swiss neutrality is a successful model. The Confederation of Confederates would hardly have survived the early days if the towns had not decided to mutually “sit quietly” and mediate in the event of a crisis. Later, our religiously, ethnically and culturally divided country would not have been able to survive without neutrality in the face of religious wars and the merger of our neighboring countries into large nation states.
The first official declaration of neutrality in the Diet dates from March 28, 1674. After the French Revolution and in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Switzerland fell into the worst crisis of neutrality in its history. The French and the allied forces against them made the country a theater of war and an occupation zone. Interestingly, Swiss neutrality emerged stronger from this crisis: on November 20, 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, Switzerland achieved recognition of its neutrality under international law. In 1907, the law of neutrality, which is still valid today, was codified in a satisfactory manner under international law at the Hague Conference. In the two world wars, neutral Switzerland managed to get the belligerents to respect their borders – not, of course, without major military efforts, which placed an enormous burden on the state and its citizens.
Special aspects of Swiss neutrality
In the first three centuries, Swiss neutrality was primarily in the service of domestic policy, while in the last two centuries it was in the service of foreign policy. Switzerland did not invent neutrality, but gave it its very own character in various respects. Their neutrality status differs fundamentally from the neutrality of other states. Swiss neutrality is permanent; since 1815 there has been talk of “neutralité perpétuelle” under constitutional law. The tradition of Swiss neutrality can only retain its effect on the nations if it continues to have an uninterrupted effect and appears anew and intact on every occasion that arises. Swiss neutrality is non-aligned; neutral Switzerland is not permitted to form either defensive or offensive alliances with other states.
Swiss neutrality is armed. Our country is therefore committed to military defense and must guarantee at all times that no violence will emanate from its territory. Swiss neutrality is freely chosen and not the result of a dictate by foreign powers. In fact, in the Paris file of 1815, a centuries-old practice was reconfirmed at the request of the Swiss. And finally, at least until recently, Swiss neutrality was integral, i.e. complete. In the interwar period, our country temporarily participated in economic sanctions imposed by the international community by joining the League of Nations. In the 20th century, however, the principle of “courant normal” generally applied to economic cooperation with crisis regions, i.e. maintaining the volume of trade at the level of previous years. In the early 1990s, Switzerland participated in international economic sanctions for the first time. Oddly enough, these have hardly been questioned in this country. Is starving a people actually a more humane means of violence than using weapons? Why do we expect people affected by the war of hunger and job losses to still judge Switzerland as neutral if they participate?
Neutrality is peace policy
All current surveys prove it: over 90 percent of Swiss people rate our neutrality positively and see it as a very strong identity for our small state. Nevertheless, numerous leading personalities in politics, culture and society suffer from the fatelessness of our neutral small state. They long for a “mission”, for visions and spectacular deeds. Certainly, neutrality limits our government’s room for maneuver and foreign policy activities in a way that is annoying, even painful for it. Neutrality grants them few heroic deeds and seldom glamorous international appearances. But it also gives the nation no room for intoxicated triumphalism or for the fascination of war, which we cannot explain rationally but have to state as fact again and again. Neutrality protects us from indulgence in uncontrolled emotions, from reckless belligerence, and from neglecting cruelty and violence.
Neutrality is more than just non-participation in conflicts. It means the voluntary renunciation of external power politics. Seen in this way, Swiss neutrality definitely has the positive content of a fundamental peace policy. Switzerland also applies the peace principle on which it is based to its relationship with other states and peoples. If we assume that people and states are inherently violent and warlike, every state that stays out of fighting makes our world a little more peaceful. Neutrality also provides a better basis than partisanship against the threat of global terrorism. Because if you allow yourself to be drawn into a conflict, you will also become a target.
The performance of “good offices” is by no means the privilege of the neutral. Experience shows, however, that service recipients place particular trust in impartial neutrals who consciously eschew power politics with their many years of service experience. Conversely, the neutral also has an interest in not letting their standing on the sidelines in the conflicts of this world appear as shirking or fare dodging and thus to compensate for their neutrality-related reluctance: the granting of asylum to real refugees, the Red Cross, disaster relief, the perception of protecting power mandates, Switzerland as a location for international organizations should, according to factual criteria, refute the accusation of national egoism for Switzerland.
Neutrality guarantees freedom of expression
Our neutrality is not an end in itself or mere habit. Rather, it secures our independence – in addition to political freedom, above all the intellectual and moral freedom of independent judgement. Our state is not an institution of morals, but of law creation and law enforcement. It is a purely functional association and under no circumstances a moral guardian, neither of the citizens nor of the international community. Forming and realizing ideals is a matter for the people, the families, the churches, the clubs, but never for the state. Last but not least, the purpose of political neutrality is to guarantee the independence of our judgement. The state does not have the right to bind us citizens to a certain moral line. The increasingly frequent moralizing statements from the Federal Republic of Berne on all sorts of international problems are questionable and unacceptable. We Swiss oblige the government, diplomacy and administration to “sit still” so that they do not speak on our behalf when they should remain silent. So that they don’t drag us into conflicts that the citizens then have to pay for out of their wallets or even with their lives.
New meaning of neutrality
In the recent past, attempts have been made with great optimism to organize this world through multinational organizations and institutions. Neutrality appeared to many as an outdated relic and an isolationist shackle. The reputation of Swiss neutrality with the world powers, which was somewhat in doubt after the Second World War, was restored for the time being through the performance of good offices. In the course of European integration, however, our state maxim is being called into question again. In fact, our neutrality has historically evolved in the face of tensions between our neighbors, and it has had to prove itself primarily to those neighbors.
However, Swiss neutrality has acquired a new meaning since its origins: the much-mentioned globalization has led to a shrinking of the world, so that each state no longer has to determine its policy in relation to its neighbors alone, but to all countries in the world. Our fundamental peace policy, together with worldwide trading partnership and good offices, offers an excellent basis for this. If we give our neutrality this broader, contemporary meaning today, it will remain justified for a long time to come.
Our small, neutral country has often been harassed by claims to power from outside. Today it is less an aggressive force than an overly loud and moralistic ideology of the large-scale that challenges us. If we are able to withstand this pressure, thanks to its neutrality, our small state will not be destroyed, but will shine anew and strengthened.
Differential – Active – Cooperative – Flexible
In 1917, the liberal Arthur Hoffmann, a strong man in the Bundesrat, tried to bring about a separate peace between Russia and Germany with the help of the SP politician Robert Grimm. When this became known among the Entente states, a severe diplomatic crisis of neutrality ensued, forcing Hoffmann to resign. The Catholic-conservative Foreign Minister Giuseppe Motta led Switzerland into the League of Nations in 1920 by means of a hotly contested referendum. This was linked to a “differential neutrality” that prompted the country to support economic sanctions but not military intervention. After Italy occupied Abyssinia, which would have entailed dangerous sanctions against the fascist neighbor to the south, the Federal Council was able to return Switzerland to integral neutrality in 1938.
In the post-war period, all heads of the foreign department followed a more or less internationalist course. While Max Petitpierre associated neutrality with “universality” and “solidarity”, Micheline Calmy-Rey (SP) coined “active neutrality” in 2006. Their failed “Geneva Initiative” for a Middle East peace was the result of an attempt to play an “active” role on the world stage. The term “active neutrality” is the product of undisciplined thinking, because it is a contradiction in terms: neutrality is always a passive attitude. Nevertheless, the tried-and-tested Swiss “role model diplomacy” is increasingly being replaced by “finger-wagging diplomacy”. The results of this “activation” are not confidence-inspiring.
Today, Switzerland is increasingly succumbing to a policy of phrases that simply repeats what is currently customary internationally. It is a politics of merely swimming along in the chorus of untruthfulness, hypocrisy, scapegoating and the smug distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys.” In doing so, we offend other countries, annoy trading partners and even create hostilities.
Recently – invented by Ignazio Cassis (FDP) – “cooperative neutrality” with unconditional acceptance of EU sanctions has also been added. «Flexible neutrality» will probably also be discovered in the near future.
Fatigue with neutrality, which historically has been contained time and again for the good of the country, has meanwhile arrived in official Swiss politics.
The world needs Swiss neutrality
Neutrality means that you don’t start wars and don’t take part in wars – not even economic wars – unless you yourself are attacked. Neutrality means not participating in military and political alliances that can draw our country into foreign conflicts. Abandoning its “complete”, “absolute” neutrality would plunge Switzerland into the maelstrom of conflicts and disputes. This statesmanlike wisdom is largely missing in the Federal Palace today.
Neutrality requires strength and firmness. Participation is more convenient. The neutral state distrusts quick judgements, refuses to divide the world into simple good and evil. Of course, neutrality does not oblige the Swiss to keep their mouths shut or to be morally indifferent to the injustice of a war of aggression. But it obliges the state, the Federal Council and the Federal Assembly to exercise humility and restraint. As the historian Edgar Bonjour put it, neutrality is a product of reasons of state. Set out in Articles 173 and 185 of our constitution, it serves Switzerland’s internal and external security.
Swiss neutrality is the white spot in the world, a universally recognized place where the war and conflict parties can meet and talk to each other without weapons. As long as there is a neutral Switzerland, peace has a chance.
Switzerland needs its neutrality – the world needs a neutral Switzerland.