Closer Ties to NATO Do Not Mean Giving Up Neutrality

The cases of Finland and Sweden demonstrate that for Switzerland, too, it is possible to maintain neutrality and intensify defensive cooperation with NATO.

Switzerland’s sanctions against the Russian aggressor have ignited a sham debate over neutrality. The fact that even participation in economic sanctions is being described by some commentators as a threat to neutrality attests to a strongly mythologized understanding of the term that does not represent historical realities. On the other side, former Swiss Ambassador Daniel Woker has argued that Switzerland would have defied its neutrality had it not implemented the sanctions.

Defense in Alliance

The real questions about neutrality can be derived from demands for Switzerland to intensify transnational military cooperation, as the think tank Avenir Suisse reported in late March in its study of security policy.

Persons affiliated with the Swiss Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sport (VBS) may not tire of emphasizing that Switzerland is already collaborating transnationally and is even considering expanding that cooperation. But collaboration with NATO, even if it is much more significant than collaboration with the EU, occupies less than 1% of current personnel and defense spending. Officially, VBS officials oppose joint defense exercises with NATO troops or participation in EU battle groups. But where is there a supposed contradiction with Switzerland’s neutrality?

It remains extremely unlikely that Switzerland will be subjected to an isolated attack on its territory. If Switzerland were indeed forced to defend itself, it is very probable that that would happen in an alliance with neighboring countries.

The F-35 fighter jet is also designed for an allied defense. According to the Hague Convention of 1907, a neutral country is obligated to provide for its own defense. If the possible threat scenarios make an allied defense likely, it is only logical to rehearse it. And as two (currently) neutral states that are not block members — Sweden and Finland — are currently demonstrating, it is possible to do so without a formal declaration of support and thus within the right to neutrality.

Sweden is participating in the NATO Response Force. In addition, the country has signed a memorandum of understanding that allows for logistical support of allied forces that are stationed in or pass through its territory during exercises or a crisis.

The Nordic Defense Cooperation — which includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — and various bilateral and regional defense agreements, including cooperation with NATO, push the limits of Sweden’s neutrality with respect to freedom from alliance without a formal declaration of support. Its defensive strategy thus orients Sweden toward transnational cooperation. That is what the Swedish Defense Research Agency wrote in a study published before the war in Ukraine: that precisely in the new context of multipolarity, with asymmetrical threats and global terrorism, defense policies automatically assume an international dimension and require transnational solutions.

Finland revised its understanding of neutrality after the end of the Cold War based on an updated threat assessment and, since then, has only described itself as free from alliances — even if Finland is still legally recognized as a neutral state.

Finland maintains extensive defensive cooperation with Sweden, including bilateral resource planning. Finland is also part of Nordefco, whose goal is to increase interoperability and to create legal and political foundations for cross-border transportation of military units and materials.

Furthermore, Finland is an active NATO partner. Basic elements of the Finnish military, such as marine and air force units, are being trained to meet NATO interoperability standards. Relations with NATO are also strengthened by bilateral cooperation with the U.S. and trilateral agreements with the U.S. and Sweden. In sum, Finland participates annually in some 70 international (NATO) military exercises. Finland also participates in NATO missions, such as in Iraq.

Great Potential for Switzerland

In reaction to Russian threats, Finland and likely Sweden are aiming to join NATO soon, which would still be compatible with duty of their legal commitment to neutrality. That is not under discussion for Switzerland.

But even the two Nordic countries’ transnational collaborations to date demonstrate how much potential there still is for Switzerland to cooperate defensively, even while maintaining its legal (self-)obligation to neutrality. The extent to which Switzerland wants to use this potential should be discussed under pragmatic consideration of geopolitical realities. That would be a worthwhile debate over Swiss policies of neutrality — in contrast to the sham debate over participation in sanctions against a one-sided aggressor.

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