Can Switzerland craft a reliable security policy and maintain its famed neutrality in the 21st century? After Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Switzerland joined the West’s sanctions regime against Russia. In June 2022, Switzerland was elected to the UN Security Council. What do these developments mean for Switzerland’s historic neutrality? Many observers wonder if implementing sanctions is compatible with Switzerland’s neutrality, and whether Switzerland can play a neutral role as a member of the Security Council.
By Karina Rollins
Swiss Neutrality: Background
The early Swiss Confederacy was not a neutral power—the Swiss were known to be ferocious fighters and were hired as mercenaries by foreign armies. After the Swiss Confederacy’s major loss to the French at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, the confederacy began to avoid armed conflict for the purpose of self-preservation.
In 1798, France invaded Switzerland and made it a satellite state of Napoleon’s empire. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the major European powers decided that a neutral Switzerland would be a valuable buffer zone between France and Austria and signed a declaration at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 affirming Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality.”
Switzerland maintained its military neutrality in World War I—while mobilizing its defensive army and accepting refugees. In 1920, the new League of Nations officially recognized Swiss neutrality and established its headquarters in Geneva.
In World War II, encircled by Axis powers, Switzerland carried out a tricky balancing act—promising military retaliation if invaded, and continuing to trade with Germany. The latter was a decision that some historians later re-examined, questioning if Switzerland was truly neutral in the war.
Switzerland as Mediator. Since World War II, Switzerland has developed a stellar reputation for its services—“good offices”—that it offers to nations in conflict. The good offices range from providing neutral-ground negotiating venues in Switzerland to acting as an impartial mediator between opposing sides.
Swiss Defense and Partnerships. Switzerland has not joined NATO or the European Union, and it did not join the United Nations until 2002—a step that was not without controversy, with the main concern being that Switzerland would lose its neutrality. Neutrality or impartiality in military and international matters does not, however, mean that Switzerland is a pacifist or isolationist country. As Swiss President Ignazio Cassis told an audience at the World Economic Forum on May 24, 2022: “Neutrality does not mean indifference!”
Switzerland continues to maintain a strong army for self-defense, with a requirement that every male citizen serve in the military or—in the case of conscientious objectors—in civilian service. Women may serve in the military on a voluntary basis. Neutrality, defined as non-intervention in military conflicts between other nations, means that Switzerland cannot be a member of a defense alliance, such as NATO. Switzerland can, however, be a partner.
Collaboration with NATO
Just as Switzerland works closely with the European Union without being a member (see ASF’s briefing), the Swiss government collaborates with NATO without joining the alliance.
Switzerland’s ambassador to Belgium is also head of mission to NATO. The current ambassador, Philippe Brandt, says that “Switzerland’s relationship with the alliance is characterized by considerable trust, built up over 25 years of concrete collaboration.” He adds that “Swiss neutrality is one of the foundations of our partnership with NATO”—and that “so far” NATO membership “is not on the agenda.”
While Defense Minister Amherd called for a stronger army in March 2022, she also stated that NATO membership is “not an option.” “In that case we would be in a [military] alliance and would have to give up our neutrality,” she explained. Amherd argued that “as a sovereign and neutral country, we should primarily be capable of protecting ourselves. We can’t just rely on others.”
She further pointed out that, “like all other NATO members, we would have to invest 2% of annual GDP in defence”—the spending benchmark set by NATO. Swiss military investment is currently just below 1 percent of GDP per year, and the majority of the Swiss do not support an increase in defense spending.
In April 2022, the Swiss government approved an agreement to exchange classified information with NATO to protect sensitive digital information and boost cybersecurity.
Fighter Jets from the U.S.
In September 2020, Swiss voters (very narrowly) approved a referendum to spend nearly $6.5 billion on new fighter jets to replace the current fleet, which will go out of service in 2030. The same month, the U.S. Department of State approved the sale of two types of fighter jets and several Patriot missile defense systems to Switzerland.
In May 2021, Swiss Defense Minister Viola Amherd pledged to make the purchase of the new fighter jets transparent (two offers from U.S. companies were on the table, as well as one each from France and Germany). In November that year, the Swiss Federal Armament Office publicized information on the contracts with the U.S. for 36 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter jets and five Patriot batteries.
New Hurdles for Jet Purchase. Despite the 2020 referendum that approved the purchase of new fighter jets, the issue turned out not to be settled. The Stop F-35 initiative claims that the F-35A is an attack plane that is not suitable for Switzerland’s defense, calling it a “luxury toy for some army officers.” In May 2022, the initiative’s leaders announced that they had gathered the 100,000 signatures required to force a vote on the type of aircraft to be purchased.
Also in May 2022, the Swiss government said that, due to the deteriorating global security situation after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it wants to speed up its military modernization and finalize the purchase of the F-35A fighter jets within a year—without waiting for a public vote.
Switzerland Elected to UN Security Council
On June 9, 2022, Switzerland was elected to the UN Security Council for the first time. Switzerland’s two-year term starts on January 1, 2023. UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated through his spokesman that “Switzerland has always been a beacon in the international community for its principled approach to peace and multilateralism.”
Of course, Security Council membership brings with it a new challenge. As Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Program, says, when it comes to conflict situations, Switzerland will have to decide—“which side are you on?” At the same time, perhaps incongruently, Steiner believes that neutrality is compatible with Security Council membership, “because the UN is not a partisan organization. It has 193 member states today with many…regimes and ideologies. And just as Switzerland’s membership of the UN over the past 20 years has not called its neutrality into question, neither will its seat on the Security Council,” adding that Switzerland can also play a role as bridge builder.
The political reaction in Switzerland was mixed. The Green-Liberal Party welcomed the membership, rejoicing that “[w]ith its new task, Switzerland is taking on responsibility and can actively work for peace.” The Swiss People’s Party, on the other hand, worries that Switzerland can now be dragged into foreign conflicts, declaring: “With its seat on the UN Security Council, Switzerland is definitely a party [to] war.”
Can Sanctions Be Neutral?
With all the back and forth about how or whether Switzerland can remain neutral, has that question already been answered? For many observers, it seemed clear when Switzerland joined the European Union sanctions regime four days after Russia invaded Ukraine: “Neutral Swiss join EU sanctions against Russia in break with past,” is how Reuters headlined its report on the news.
Swissinfo.ch, the international unit of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, itself stated that “Switzerland took a historical step to impose economic sanctions against Russia to align them with Europe and the United States,” acknowledging Switzerland’s departure from its historic neutrality.
Ambassador Brandt, however, says that he sees no conflict between Swiss neutrality and Swiss sanctions against Russia:
Switzerland remains neutral; adopting the EU’s sanctions doesn’t change that at all. It’s not helping either warring party on a military level. In fact, Switzerland’s neutrality policy provides wide room for it to maneuver to accommodate extraordinary developments. Russia’s military attack on Ukraine and the serious violations of basic international law are unique in recent European history. Our neutrality is completely compatible with EU sanctions.
As for the Swiss population, 65 percent support full implementation of EU sanctions. Eighty-two percent would support Switzerland’s active role as mediator between Russia and Ukraine. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, however, states that:
In the current conflict, Switzerland currently has little room for maneuver. We are facing an extensive Russian military aggression on a sovereign, democratic state, an escalation without precedent in Europe since the Second World War. In the current circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect that Switzerland will be able to play a key role in de-escalating and finding a resolution to the conflict. That said, Switzerland of course explores, if in niches contributions in the area of good offices are possible. But this has to be done discreetly, otherwise there is no prospect of success from theoutset.
Switzerland had taken in roughly 50,000 Ukrainian refugees as of June. On July 4 and 5, Switzerland hosted the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, which President Ignazio Cassis called Switzerland’s contribution to stability in Europe.
From 1515 to 2022—half a millennium—Switzerland has undergone many changes, working hard to establish and preserve its neutrality, which has often required a careful balancing act.
While some have already called Switzerland’s neutrality into question, the Swiss government maintains that it remains neutral. Switzerland is clearly realistic about the changing global security environment, as well as about the need for self-defense and cooperation with security partners, very much including NATO and the United States.
What is in store for Switzerland’s security and neutrality? That question is sure to remain at the forefront of Swiss discussions for the foreseeable future.
“Questions and answers on Switzerland’s neutrality,” Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, May 18, 2022
“Analysis: Neutral Switzerland leans closer to NATO in Response to Russia,” by John Revill, Reuters, May 16, 2022
“Neutrality is only one means among many,” by Christoph Elhardt, ETH Zürich, May 9, 2022
“Is Switzerland moving towards a European security alliance?” by Sibilla Bondolfi, Swissinfo.ch, April 8, 2022
“Security Policy,” Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, February 10, 2022