Bones near the battlefield of Marignano, Italy: The defeat there marks the birth of Swiss neutrality. Keystone/Christian Beutler

Switzerland doesn’t take sides in a war. Thanks to its neutrality, it has been able to stay out of conflicts for a long time. Today Switzerland practises a more active neutrality, which sometimes raises questions. 

This content was published on November 23, 2017 - 11:00

One point should be made clear at the start – Switzerland did not invent neutrality. Examples of neutrality can be found as far back as the Old Testament and antiquity. In addition to Switzerland, Malta, Costa Rica and Cambodia are permanently neutral; Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria are unaligned states. But Switzerland has practised neutrality longer than anyone else in the world, and it adheres to its neutrality staunchly. 

This is not surprising because Swiss neutralityExternal link has proven a successful model. As a small state whose population is linguistically, religiously and culturally mixed, the country has succeeded in safeguarding its existence despite being surrounded by conflicting great powers, and has kept out of many wars and clashes.  For that reason, neutrality is a feature of the national identity for the population. 

It started with a massacre 

But how did Swiss neutrality come into being? In medieval times, the Swiss were far from neutral and peace-loving. For centuries, more than a million Swiss mercenaries fought in foreign armies. No country provided as many mercenaries as Switzerland. In the case of an attack on Switzerland, these Swiss troops could have been called home. For that reason, no country engaged in war and employing Swiss mercenaries had any interest in attacking Switzerland. Loaning soldiers to all countries in equal measure was paradoxically the first step towards Swiss neutrality. 

At the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, Swiss neutrality was recognized under international law. Hulton Archive via Getty Images

After Switzerland suffered defeat and a high death toll at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, it became clear that expansionist policies could only lead to ruin. In its actions, Switzerland effectively became a neutral country from then on. This tradition took hold and Switzerland explicitly described itself as neutral as early as 1674. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814/1815, Swiss neutrality was recognised under international law.

Relative neutrality 

After the Cold War ended, Swiss neutrality lost significance because its defensive function was obsolete. In addition, Switzerland began taking an increasingly active role in international politics. Switzerland has for many years viewed its humanitarian engagement and the good offices of diplomacy as a legitimate complement to its neutrality. Suddenly, even membership of the UN was viewed as compatible with neutrality; the Swiss government wrote in its application in 2002 that Switzerland would remain neutral, even as a member of the UN. 

Despite relaxing its interpretation of neutrality and its loss of relevance, the Swiss government, parliament, parties and population still in essence stand by it. But in practice, there are regular debates about what is compatible with neutrality and what isn’t. Arms exports, for example, are an important source of revenue for Switzerland, but they are frequently perceived as a violation of neutrality. Since 1953, Switzerland has taken part in peace missions, but Swiss military personnel may not participate in combat because of neutrality. The question of whether they were allowed to be armed for self-defence remained unanswered until a referendum in 2001.

The most recent dispute involves the procurement of surveillance drones from Israel. Swiss employees of the Federal Office for Armaments (Armasuisse) travelled to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights where the drones were being tested. This violated Switzerland’s policy of neutrality.

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