Why Switzerland Will Stick to Neutrality (2023)

Editor’s Note: Switzerland, famously, is a neutral country, but its response to the latest war in Ukraine is far from even-handed. Bern chose to join other European states and impose some economic penalties on Russia for its invasion. MarcelBerniof the Swiss Military Academy notes that despite this tilt, Switzerland still clings to the veneer of neutrality, which remains politically popular, even as the debate grows inside the country over whether Switzerland should shed its neutral status.

(Video) How Switzerland Stayed Neutral

Daniel Byman


The bloody war for Ukraine's future poses uncomfortable questions in many European capitals. In Switzerland, a traditionally neutral and peaceful nation, the war has renewed an old discussion about neutrality, weapons exports, and Swiss national security. In adopting sanctions targeting Russia, Switzerland has acted with more partisanship than it has in decades, but it has also been cautious in its approach and the principle of neutrality remains popular among the Swiss public. As Swiss diplomats prepare to chair the UN Security Council in May 2023, the Helvetic neutrality is at the crossroads.

Russian Aggression and Ambivalent Swiss Neutrality

Like other European countries, Switzerland was not prepared for the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, but it quickly joined the rest of Europe in applying various forms of economic pressure. Switzerland's executive body first reacted cautiously to the EU's economic sanctions. It was only due to domestic as well as foreign political pressure that the Swiss Federal Council decided on February 28, 2022, to fully adopt the EU's sanctions against Russia. Reluctantly, it adopted entry bans, a blocking of assets, a take-off and landing ban for military aircraft, as well as financial measures and a trade ban on certain goods.

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As the war in Ukraine continued, two domestic political debates took place in Switzerland. The first concerned neutrality and its applicability to wars in the 21st century, particularly to wars that violate international law. A second debate, closely connected to the first, centered on the rigid Federal Act on War Materiel, originally enacted in 1996 but tightened significantly on Oct. 1, 2021, before the Russian invasion. Under the law, buyers of Swiss arms are legally banned from reexporting them to war zones. Whereas the economic sanctions carry more weight, the blocking of exports of Swiss-made weapons has become a more contentious topic.

The long-standing concept of armed neutrality is instilled in every Swiss citizen almost from birth. Politically, it is largely uncontroversial and is endorsed by a consistently high proportion of the population. The Swiss militia army and a professional air force guarantee that the country's neutrality and independence can be enforced and also provide a certain deterrent effect. The seemingly positive experiences in the past have strengthened many Swiss in the belief that neutrality has helped their small country in the center of Europe over the past centuries to prosperity, stability, and peace. Switzerland survived the two world wars largely intact. Especially since World War II, neutrality has become a powerful myth, shared by a major part of the population, regardless of political ideology. Swiss voters of virtually all political views believe in a kind of neutrality dividend. Hence, it was surprising by historical standards how quickly the federal council adopted economic sanctions against Russia. Their extent as well as the unquestioning acceptance of the Western sanctions by Switzerland were in fact unprecedented.

Switzerland, with its good services in the field of international law, has repeatedly contributed diplomatically to mediate conflicts and organize humanitarian aid. Swiss diplomats have supported conflict resolution by helping to draft the two Minsk agreements in response to Russia's first aggression against Ukraine in 2014, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and the outbreak of civil war in the Donbas. The principle of foreign policy neutrality helped Swiss diplomats gain acceptance from both warring parties.

“Even Switzerland”

Both Ukraine and Russia question whether Switzerland is truly neutral. Moscow reacted with disappointment, denouncing Bern and explicitly questioning Switzerland's neutral stance when it signed on to the sanctions regime. The reaction was reversed in Washington, where Americans were pleased that Switzerland was willing to join the Western sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden was so delighted to have Switzerland on his side that he used it to underline the Western community’s moral justification during his State of the Union address, stating that “even Switzerland” had implemented economic sanctions on Russia.

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The sanctions adopted by Switzerland differed slightly from those of other European states. Russian diplomats, for example, were not expelled and Russian broadcasters were not blocked. In the absence of a binding decision by the UN Security Council, the Swiss Federal Council strictly applied the law of neutrality. Consequently, it banned overflights by military aircraft from both parties to the Ukraine war. Much more serious was the ban imposed by the Swiss Confederation on the export of Swiss-made weapons, weapon components, and ammunition to either of the warring countries. This tightening of the Swiss neutrality dogma has since led to repeated headshaking abroad and a complete embargo on Swiss arms sales to Ukraine and Russia.

The controversy culminated with the question of whether a small number of Swiss-made 35mm rounds could be delivered from Germany to Ukraine. Twice Switzerland forbade Germany to deliver the ammunition for use in German Gerard anti-aircraft tanks. Switzerland was equally restrictive when Denmark wanted to pass on Swiss-made Piranha armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine.

Diplomatic and Humanitarian Initiatives

Sanctions on Russia and often-misunderstood restrictions on military goods have been accompanied by Swiss peace demands and diplomatic initiatives. Various demonstrations in major Swiss cities called for an immediate end to the war and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. These demands culminated in a rally in Bern on March 22, 2022, where Swiss President Ignazio Cassis expressed solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This show of unity demonstrated that Switzerland had indeed picked a side, at least symbolically. In fact, since the first days of the war, a pro-Ukraine feeling has persisted in Switzerland.

Like in other European countries, the consequences of the war and economic sanctions have manifested in higher energy prices and worsening inflation. Nevertheless, Switzerland quickly took in Ukrainian war refugees and provided financial and moral support to Kyiv. In early July, Switzerland and Ukraine even organized a conference in Lugano to discuss the reconstruction of the country. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining additionally trained Ukrainian sappers to support the demining of liberated areas.

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Politicians and military leaders in Ukraine, as well as in Russia, seem aware that the end of the war will be negotiated at some point. But even if the war continues indefinitely, Switzerland could still be a negotiating venue accepted by both sides in the medium term. However, Russia would first need to accept Switzerland as a neutral mediator again. After all, Switzerland's diplomatic efforts to date, such as an offer to assume a diplomatic protection mandate for Ukraine in Moscow, have been appreciated by Kyiv but were rejected by Moscow. The good services traditionally offered by Switzerland have so far not been accepted. Until now, negotiations on possible cease-fires have taken place not in Switzerland, but in Belarus and Turkey.

Breaking the Neutrality Taboo?

In Switzerland, the war in Ukraine has thus relaunched debates on the costs and benefits of neutrality. Indeed, in Switzerland, there was no immediate surge of enthusiasm for joining NATO. The mountain republic is not like Finland or Sweden, geographically exposed to the Russian threat; it is protected by nonneutral neighbors like France, Germany, and Italy. Officially, Switzerland continues to interpret its neutrality strictly and is guided by the Hague Convention of 1907, an agreement from a time of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, and social Darwinism. When the Hague Convention was signed and entered into law three years later, the world was very different from today: At that time, war was not yet prohibited under international law, as it is today. Additionally, in 1907, UN Article 51, which explicitly forbids wars of aggression, did not yet exist. Nevertheless, the Swiss Federal Council still insists on the enshrined, rigid neutrality, as in 1907. The Swiss government gives greater weight to the neutrality provisions of the Hague Regulations of 1907 than to the UN Charter. One could even claim that Switzerland is currently sabotaging Article 51 of the UN Charter by blocking the delivery of military aid to Ukraine in its war of self-defense.

Perhaps the ongoing domestic political debate and the upcoming national election campaign are the reasons why the national conservative Swiss People's Party has announced the launch of a popular initiative to write integral neutrality into the Swiss constitution and thus further strictly dictate the interpretation of neutrality policy to the Federal Council. It would constitute a true turning point in Swiss politics—a “Zeitenwende,” but backward.

The war in Ukraine has brought the countries of Europe closer together and strengthened the European Union and NATO and, at the same time, weakened the United Nations by demonstrating its inability to stop the military aggression of a permanent member of the Security Council against its neighbor. History illustrates the fact that neutrality has helped Switzerland at times when other European countries were at war. During the Cold War, it was already difficult to maintain this notion, but since then Switzerland has found it even more difficult to plausibly justify the taboo it has established. Despite the war in Ukraine, no country threatens Switzerland's territorial integrity in the current geopolitical environment. Clinging to neutrality is no longer necessary in the absence of continental threats; doing so leaves Switzerland constantly having to explain itself with thinner and thinner justifications. It’s time for Switzerland to abandon its strict neutrality, which is no longer understood abroad. During a clear breach of international law by an aggressor, the current ambivalent use of neutrality is the wrong instrument.

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But this will not happen in the foreseeable future. The current national interpretation of strict neutrality is simply too popular, and neutrality has become a petrified element of Swiss identity. For most Swiss, neutrality has historically had more benefits than costs, becoming a sacred cow. It will take more than a hot war in Eastern Europe to get the Swiss to abandon such a cherished and glorified practice.


Why does Switzerland stay neutral? ›

Swiss neutrality is one of the main principles of Switzerland's foreign policy which dictates that Switzerland is not to be involved in armed or political conflicts between other states. This policy is self-imposed and designed to ensure external security and promote peace.

Has Switzerland always been neutral? ›

Swiss neutrality dates back to 1515 when the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Marignano and the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which drew a line under the Thirty Years' War. However, Swiss neutrality was only formally recognised by the international community in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna.

Was Switzerland neutral in the Cold War? ›

As a small and open economy, Switzerland was and is dependent on access to foreign markets. At the same time, during the Cold War it pursued a policy of strict neutrality between the two blocs, although it considered itself part of the West in economic, political and cultural terms.

What is permanent neutrality in international law? ›

A permanently neutral State is forbidden from entering into alliances or treaties of guarantee that may involve it in war not involving defence of its own territory. Meanwhile, the doctrine of recognition of belligerency was the means by which the law of neutrality was applicable to non-international conflicts.

How does Switzerland manage to stay neutral? ›

Switzerland was able to remain independent through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion.

When did Switzerland become neutral? ›

The country has in effect been neutral since 1515, a status guaranteed by the great powers of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Switzerland's neutrality thus has deeper roots than any of Europe's other neutral states: Sweden (1815), Ireland (1921), Finland (1948), and Austria (1955).

What makes a country neutral? ›

A neutral country does not take sides with belligerents during times of war. In contrast to many countries which are currently at war, many neutral countries managed to remain so even during World War II.

Why is Switzerland so rich? ›

The economy of Switzerland is one of the world's most advanced and highly-developed mixed economy. The service sector and Political stability and Economic stability has come to play a significant economic role, particularly the Swiss banking industry and tourism.

Who is neutral like Switzerland or Sweden? ›

Sweden and Switzerland are independently of each other famed for their armed neutralities, which they maintained throughout both World War I and World War II. The Swiss and the Swedes each have a long history of neutrality: they have not been in a state of war internationally since 1815 and 1814, respectively.

What is Switzerland proud of? ›

Nature. If there is one thing that Switzerland is known for, it's their nature. The lakes and the mountains are Switzerland's greatest pride.

Does Switzerland have an army? ›

Switzerland has mandatory military service for all able-bodied male citizens, who are conscripted when they reach the age of majority, though women may volunteer for any position.

What happens if Switzerland is attacked? ›

Military response: Switzerland has a well-trained and equipped military that is capable of defending the country against external threats. If the attack were military in nature, Switzerland's armed forces would likely respond with force to defend the country.

What is the U.S. treaty of neutrality? ›

After a fierce debate in Congress, in November of 1939, a final Neutrality Act passed. This Act lifted the arms embargo and put all trade with belligerent nations under the terms of “cash-and-carry.” The ban on loans remained in effect, and American ships were barred from transporting goods to belligerent ports.

What is the U.S. neutrality law? ›

Between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed three "Neutrality Acts" that tried to keep the United States out of war, by making it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms, or other war materials to belligerent nations.

When neutrality ends in law? ›

A state's neutrality ends in one of three ways: when the neutral enters the IAC as a belligerent; when a belligerent attacks the neutral, or when a belligerent declares that it and the neutral are engaged in an IAC.

Could Switzerland defend itself? ›

Switzerland may be neutral, but it's ready to defend itself. Nearly every house has a fallout shelter and every man is considered part of the national guard. Giant guns hide in nondescript barns and military bases are cut deep into the mountains. To see one up close, we visit Fortress Fürigen.

How did Sweden and Switzerland stay neutral? ›

Each of the countries which remained neutral after June 1940 was able to assuage the belligerents' political intransigence and maintain friendly relations by exporting various material goods to each of the belligerent groups: from Sweden, iron ore and ball-bearings; from Switzerland, watches, metal goods, and machinery ...

What is Switzerland known for? ›

Switzerland is famous for its mountains, clocks and its food – especially cheese and chocolates. It's a fantastic place for winter sports. The British Royals love to snowboard in Klosters while skiing in Zermatt gives you fantastic views of the iconic Matterhorn mountain.

Why didn t Germany take Switzerland? ›

For reasons that are still uncertain, Hitler never ordered the invasion. One theory is that a neutral Switzerland would have been useful to hide Nazi gold and to serve as a refuge for war criminals in case of defeat. This may also explain Germany's continued recognition of Switzerland's neutrality.

Why is everything so expensive in Switzerland? ›

A known reason for some price differences is geographically discriminatory wholesale pricing, a scenario where product owners charge Swiss retailers higher wholesale prices than those they charge retailers in other markets. Sometimes this is done via local wholesalers that are given exclusivity to sell in Switzerland.

Why Switzerland is not in EU? ›

6 December 1992: joining the European Economic Area is rejected by 50.3% of voters. This vote strongly highlighted the cultural divide between the German- and the French-speaking cantons, the Röstigraben.

What are the rules of neutrality? ›

A neutral State must never assist a party to the armed conflict, in par- ticular it must not supply warships, ammunition or other war materials directly or indirectly to a belligerent power, but otherwise its trade with the belligerent States remains unaffected.

What is an example of neutrality? ›

If you refuse to take sides in an argument over whether Batman or Superman is the greatest superhero, then you are practicing neutrality. Whether you admire both equally or you simply don't care, you are a neutral party.

What is an example of being neutral? ›

Adjective He remained neutral while his brothers argued. She tries to be a fair and neutral journalist. The battle took place in neutral waters. The duel will be held on neutral ground.

Is Switzerland richer than the US? ›

Switzerland is one of the world's wealthiest countries, with a GDP per capita that outstrips that of other major economies, like the U.S., Japan and Germany.

Why is Switzerland No 1 in the world? ›

An exceptional quality of life

In terms of quality of life, Switzerland consistently ranks high in international rankings. For example, according to the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI), which measures health, living standards and education, Switzerland ranks first.

Why is Switzerland best quality of life? ›

The alpine nation's place on the podium was secured by its strong purchasing power, low pollution and good safety scores. In fact, the country placed in the top 10 in purchasing power (fourth), safety (seventh), and pollution (sixth) categories.

Is it better to live in Switzerland or Sweden? ›

Which country has a higher standard of living: Sweden or Switzerland? Both countries have high standards of living, but Switzerland ranks higher in some measures such as GDP per capita and average income.

What are Switzerland citizens called? ›

The Swiss people (German: die Schweizer, French: les Suisses, Italian: gli Svizzeri, Romansh: ils Svizzers) are the citizens of Switzerland or people of Swiss ancestry. Swiss people. Schweizer / Suisses / Svizzeri / Svizzers.

Why does Sweden want to be neutral? ›

During the early Cold War, Sweden's neutrality policy was maintained even though its leaders understood that neutrality would probably fail in a third world war. The aim of the policy was to avoid the violent initial nuclear exchange between the superpowers.

What is a typical Swiss mentality? ›

Politeness and Friendliness

One typical Swiss characteristic is that they consider greeting people they meet in public spaces polite. However, they respect discretion and privacy, and strangers are not usually expected to talk to each other. However, when it comes to friendliness, the same rules do not apply.

What do the Swiss value the most? ›

Key societal principles include cleanliness, a strong work ethic and honesty. The Swiss value thrift, tolerance, punctuality and discretion regarding one's financial situation. The Swiss are known to take punctuality to the point of obsession, which makes it vitally important to arrive on time for an appointment.

Can an American join the Swiss Army? ›

Foreigners are exempt. Swiss living abroad are also basically free from being recruited and serving in the military during times of peace as long as they remain abroad. Some limitations apply to those living in border zones close to Switzerland.

How many fighter jets does Switzerland have? ›

Currently the Swiss air force has a peacetime strength of 1,600 career military and about 20,000 reservists on call. Its air defence consists of 30 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets and 53 Northrop F-5 Tiger IIs (110 purchased in 1978–85).

What is the biggest threat to Switzerland? ›

The most significant threat facing travelers to Switzerland is from petty crime such as pickpocketing and bag-snatching, particularly in the main cities of Bern, Zurich and Geneva. The country does not face any conflict risk.

Is Switzerland protected by NATO? ›

Switzerland is not a member of NATO but cooperates with the defense alliance within the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, where it can voice concerns on foreign policy and security issues.

Is Switzerland doing anything against Russia? ›

Switzerland slaps more sanctions on Russia

After some initial hesitation following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Switzerland has followed the EU and introduced a series of sanctions against Russia.

Why did the United States abandon its neutrality? ›

Germany's resumption of submarine attacks on passenger and merchant ships in 1917 became the primary motivation behind Wilson's decision to lead the United States into World War I.

Has the US ever broken a treaty? ›

From 1778 to 1871, the United States government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; all of these treaties have since been violated in some way or outright broken by the U.S. government, with Native Americans and First Nations peoples still fighting for their treaty rights in federal ...

Was it possible for the US to maintain neutrality in World War I? ›

US President Woodrow Wilson sought to maintain US neutrality but was ultimately unable to keep the United States out of the war, largely because of escalating German aggression.

Which president replaced America's neutrality policy? ›

Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the Progressive Movement, was the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921). After a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War I, Wilson led America into war in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Was the Neutrality Act good or bad? ›

The legacy of the Neutrality Acts is widely regarded as having been generally negative since they made no distinction between aggressor and victim, treated both equally as belligerents, and limited the US government's ability to aid Britain and France against Nazi Germany.

Is the Neutrality Act still in force? ›

The Neutrality Act of 1794 was repealed, reenacted, and amended several times since and its successor remains in force as 18 U.S.C. § 960.

Why Swiss is neutral? ›

Swiss neutrality is one of the main principles of Switzerland's foreign policy which dictates that Switzerland is not to be involved in armed or political conflicts between other states. This policy is self-imposed and designed to ensure external security and promote peace.

How long has Switzerland been neutral? ›

The international community officially recognised Switzerland's neutrality in 1815. Swiss neutrality dates back to 1515 when the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Marignano and the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which drew a line under the Thirty Years' War.

When did the US claim neutrality? ›

As World War I erupts in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson formally proclaims the neutrality of the United States, a position that a vast majority of Americans favored, on August 4, 1914.

Why is Switzerland not a member of the EU? ›

Chronology of the Swiss votes

6 December 1992: joining the European Economic Area is rejected by 50.3% of voters. This vote strongly highlighted the cultural divide between the German- and the French-speaking cantons, the Röstigraben.

Why are Switzerland and Austria not in NATO? ›

Austria is bound to neutrality by the 1955 Austrian State Treaty and its constitution, which prohibits entry into military alliances and the establishment of foreign military bases on Austrian territory. Austrian neutrality is actually an enforced neutrality.

How powerful is Switzerland's military? ›

The nation holds a PwrIndx* score of 0.7191 (a score of 0.0000 is considered 'perfect'). This entry last reviewed on 01/01/2023.

What country has never fought a war? ›

Switzerland has never been in any war in the last 150 years.

Why did the US remain neutral? ›

When war broke out in Europe in 1914 President Wilson declared that the United States would follow a strict policy of neutrality. This was a product of a longstanding idea at the heart of American foreign policy that the United States would not entangle itself with alliances with other nations.

Is it tax free in Switzerland? ›

All tax-resident individuals are taxed on their worldwide income and wealth. Non tax-resident individuals are only taxed on Swiss sources of income and wealth.

Is Switzerland a good place to live in? ›

In 2021, the OECD Better Life Index found that Switzerland is above average for OECD countries in subjective well-being, jobs and earnings, income and wealth, health status, social connections, environmental quality, education and skills, work-life balance, housing, and personal security.


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