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Defending neutrality

US President Ronald Reagan (left) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, meet for the first time in 1985, at Versoix near Geneva Keystone Archive

A new book on Switzerland's defence and security policy rejects claims that the country was too close to the West during the Cold War.

The author, Stefanie Frey, maintains that Switzerland remained faithful to the principle of neutrality.

“Switzerland never violated neutrality and never intended to violate it,” Frey, the author of “Switzerland’s Defence and Security Policy during the Cold War”, told swissinfo.

She says Switzerland remained politically neutral even though the Soviet Union may have counted the Swiss military as being “among Nato forces”.

“We cooperated to a level some critics would say compromised our neutrality, but my book shows that the planning was done at a military level and not a political one,” she explains.

Frey maintains that neutrality was the best policy for the country to pursue after the Second World War, allowing it to act as a buffer zone and to provide a neutral meeting point for politicians from East and West.

“Switzerland was always faithful to its neutrality and did not plan to join Nato,” she said. “Nato membership would have made us more of a target.”

Wartime blemish

Jean-François Bergier, head of an independent commission set up to probe Switzerland’s wartime past, agrees that the principle of Swiss neutrality worked after the Second World War.

“Political neutrality gave Switzerland the chance to play an active role in the world,” he told swissinfo.

“When I think of Switzerland’s role in the negotiations between France and Algeria, it’s a good example of how the country’s good offices were helpful and very successful too.”

However, Bergier also points to failings by the Swiss government and private industry during the Nazi era.

“What surprised me [from the Commission’s findings] is that when it came to state or economic interests, the principle of neutrality was not always respected.

“For example buying Nazi gold or neglecting the control of the transit of merchandise between Germany and Italy.”

Bergier adds that while Switzerland may have remained politically neutral during the Cold War, it clearly belonged to the West in economic terms.

Historical hangover

Switzerland first gained the status of neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Its role within the community of European countries at the time was to provide a balance between the great powers such as Prussia, Russia, Austria and France, Bergier explains.

“The country served as an impartial territory where others could meet and discuss,” he said.

It is a role that Switzerland continued to play especially during the Cold War. And over time, says Frey, the concept of neutrality has become engrained in Swiss consciousness to such an extent that the country does not want to be in an alliance.

“It takes a long time for people and politicians to make up their minds about joining international organisations,” she said.

“If you look at the Council of Europe, it took us until 1963 to decide that it was not a political organisation and we could join.”

Changing role

Swiss foreign policy is rooted in the country’s tradition of neutrality and many believe that since the fall of the Berlin wall, Switzerland needs to re-evaluate the influence neutrality has on its relations with the rest of the world.

“Neutrality as a principle remains very valuable,” said Bergier. “But it has to be adapted to the new situation in the world – the new configuration of the world and particularly Europe.”

Clive Church, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent in England, agrees. He says a great failing of recent Swiss foreign policy has been the country’s dependence on neutrality as a guiding principle and the inability to define the national interest.

He says neutrality meant that the country did not become involved in conflicts and pursued policies of upholding human rights and defending international law to guarantee a more law-abiding and peaceful world.

But he maintains there has been a change in political thinking in Switzerland since the early 1990s.

“There has been a shift away from the old, rather limited and very neutral view [of foreign policy],” he told swissinfo.

“There are now more flexible changing attitudes to Europe, to the understanding of neutrality and to cutting the size of the army and giving it a new role.”

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Switzerland first gained the status of neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
May 1992: Switzerland joins the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
November 1996: Switzerland joins Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme.
September 2002: Switzerland becomes a member of the United Nations.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR