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At a press conference in June 1956, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a brief history lesson: «We were a young country once» he recalled, adding that «our whole policy for the first hundred years was, or more, 150, we were neutral. We constantly asserted we were neutral in the wars of the world.» Neutrality, he further asserted, was perfectly logical and acceptable, depending on a country’s geopolitical position in any given moment in time. That position, though, was open to change as with the case of the United States in the mid-20th century.
By the mid-1950s, neutrality had become an integral part of the Cold War division of Europe. Geopolitically, in between NATO and the Warsaw Pact lay two neutral zones: The Nordic neutrals (Finland and Sweden) and the Alpine neutrals (Austria and Switzerland). Six-and-a-half decades later, the equilibrium is about to change. The Nordic neutrals will soon be member states of NATO, while the Alpine ones still cling to neutrality. Let’s try to explain this difference in strategy by analysing a member of each block: Finland and Switzerland.
From Finlandization to NATO Membership
Due to its geographic position– a borderland of the Soviet Union – and its political system as representative democracy, the case of Finland is a peculiar one. Throughout the Cold War era, successive Finnish governments found it hard to convince much of the outside world of the country’s neutrality. This was due to a clause in the 1948 Finno-Soviet treaty that called for consultations between Helsinki and Moscow, should there be any sign of a potential use of Finnish territory as a base for an attack against the USSR.
This gave rise to the concept of Finlandization. While the Soviet Union did not have a direct veto over the direction of Finnish foreign and security policy, the concern that Moscow would interpret any sign of cooperation between Finland and NATO as a preparatory move towards anti-Soviet action had a profound impact on Finnish behaviour on the international scene. Open criticism of the USSR was not a possibility. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did not prompt a formal Finnish protest. The persecution of dissidents and other human rights abuses inside the USSR were officially brushed over as an internal Soviet matter. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union remained influential in Finnish internal politics, cultivating numerous top-level leaders of various parties. The long-term president, Urho Kekkonen, was repeatedly described as an agent of Soviet influence.
The shadow of the Soviet Union limited neutral Finland’s freedom of movement for the remainder of the Cold War. Even participation in European economic integration was limited to special bilateral agreements until Finland joined the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) in 1987 – an early sign that with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin, Soviet foreign policy was changing and opening new opportunities not only for Warsaw Pact nations but others – like Finland – whose policies were significantly influenced by the direction of the USSR.
The post-Cold era saw a rapid evolution in Finnish foreign policy. The 1948 treaty with the Soviet Union became moot and was replaced with a «normal» diplomatic relationship with the Russian Federation. In 1995 Finland joined the European Union, a task made easier as most other European neutrals (Switzerland excepted) did the same. Finland seemed to be enjoying the best of both worlds: a neutral position in security policy and a member state of the world’s richest trading bloc.
The only catch was that geographically, Finland remained where it had always been: the only conceivable security threat came from the East. Hence, while officially clinging to non-alignment, Finland began to a gradually more intensive cooperation with NATO and purchasing military hardware almost exclusively from the West. This became particularly pronounced after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Still, it was not until after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that joining the alliance became an overt goal across the Finnish political spectrum – before then, it had been championed mainly by the Conservative party. Although the direction of travel in Finnish security policy had for decades been away from neutrality and towards NATO, its logical culmination – membership application – was politically only possible following the brutal catalyst provided by the Russian «special military operation».
Switzerland: Western neutral par excellence
The Swiss case is very different. For one, the roots of neutrality go far deeper in history and the ability to stay at least formally neutral during the two world wars undoubtedly confirmed the wisdom of the ages. If anything, the onset of the Cold War and the emergence of a divided Europe anchored in the existence of two military alliances strengthened the belief in non-alignment as the only possible security policy choice for the Swiss confederation.
Geopolitics alone made reconsidering neutrality a matter of limited consequence. Simply put: Switzerland was surrounded by NATO, with the exception of a shared border with neutral Austria. The likelihood of a military conflict in Switzerland’s immediate security perimeter during the Cold War was extremely limited. Consequently, the need for additional security guarantees in the form of membership in a military alliance did not feature as an item in Swiss external or domestic policy.
Being formally neutral – even opting out of membership in the United Nations – was one thing; being neutral «in thought» something quite different. Indeed, Switzerland was, by most accounts, the most anti-communist country in Western Europe. This may be explained by the perceived dividends that the Swiss enjoyed from having stayed outside of the two world wars. Switzerland was economically prosperous, politically stable, and culturally conservative. Revolutionary Marxism was an anathema in a country that paradoxically combined extensive use of direct democracy with a highly backward attitude towards gender equality.
Swiss neutrality was hardly absolute. In World War II, Swiss authorities had treated allied violations of the country’s airspace as «accidents». During the Cold War, Switzerland indirectly and unofficially participated in Western trade embargoes against the Soviet bloc. Yet, while the content of Swiss foreign policy changed relatively little during the Cold War era, there was some new profiling and even activism. Being neutral did, after all, carry a certain usefulness in the Cold War context.
For the Swiss, being a neutral meeting place came naturally. In this regard, one city had become a global brand. Ever since the League of Nations had been located to Geneva, the Swiss city had become firmly associated with international summits and meetings, agreements and institutions. The Geneva Accords, the Geneva Conventions and the Spirit of Geneva were all features of the first post-war decade. What is often referred to as «international Geneva» emerged not only as a shorthand for multilateral diplomacy and humanitarianism, but as a symbolic reference point of impartial Swiss neutrality.
Cooperation yes, accession no
The end of the Cold War did call into question Switzerland’s long-standing foreign and security policies. To a large extent, the Swiss have resisted the pressure of change. In 1992, the country voted against joining the European Economic Area. Thirty years later, the decision stands. Indeed, Switzerland remains the only Cold War neutral not to join the European Union. Even membership in the United Nations, confirmed by a referendum in 2002, met stiff resistance with 45 percent voting against joining.
While it is difficult to see a major transformation in Swiss policy vis-à-vis European integration, the end of the Cold War has made Switzerland more cooperative with the remaining military alliance. There are few signs that, even in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Swiss would be eager to join NATO. But the last thirty years have seen a clear trend towards increased collaboration. Always a «Western neutral», Switzerland is even more so today than during the Cold War.
The trend started in the 1990s when Switzerland joined both the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. In 1995 the Swiss allowed the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) carry out missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina using Swiss airspace Over the years Switzerland has contributed to the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and, in 2004-2007, the Swiss integrated to the ISAF (NATO’s mission in Afghanistan). Switzerland has also become a country willing to participate in sanctions regimes, usually on the same side as most NATO countries. The most obvious case being, of course, the sanctions imposed against Russia after February 2022.
The increased collaboration with NATO is partly driven by the Swiss military, which views it as a way of strengthening national defense – particularly against hybrid (such as cyber) threats. There has also been a shift in Swiss public opinion in favour of further links: In some polls, more than 50 percent view collaboration with NATO favorably in 2022. Simultaneously, there has clearly been an elevated interest on the part of NATO to include Switzerland more closely into its network partnerships to improve operational and logistical capacity as well as, since 2014, to underline the threat that Russian actions pose to the stability of the Eurasian security system.
No need to rethink
While it is widely acknowledged that Switzerland became more closely connected to NATO since the Cold War, it is difficult to imagine, even in the context of the Russia-Ukraine War, that Switzerland will abandon neutrality and become a full member to the alliance. If anything, the repeated invocation of Article 5, NATO’s collective defence clause, has a calming effect on internal Swiss debate in 2022. What to Finns is an attractive guarantee of future security against a nearby military threat, is to the Swiss a risk of getting dragged into a war far away from one’s own borders.
The Finnish and the Swiss have not lived through the same experiences. For the Finns, decades of increased cooperation with NATO did not prompt them to apply for NATO membership. But the reality of war waged by a powerful neighbour was a tipping point that brought about the end of Finnish neutrality. The case is different for Switzerland: Like the United States – safe behind two oceans for their first 150 years, the Swiss can afford to wait before seriously entertaining the idea of joining a permanent military alliance with a collective defence clause. At least for now.