What do the Swiss Really Think of Their International Neutrality?

Bundeshaus in Bern

The Swiss ‘Bundeshaus’ in Berne. Photo: Lorenz Ammon/flickr.

Every year the Center for Security Studies and the Military Academy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH) conduct a survey to determine the Swiss electorate’s attitudes toward a variety of Swiss-specific foreign, security and defense policy issues. This year, 1,200 people were surveyed and the results are now available here. Those who are familiar with these types of surveys might wonder whether the Sicherheit 2013 is as potentially dry as other statistics-laden reports. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since Swiss democracy is a uniquely direct and fully consensual form of political self-organization, what the survey actually contains is high drama – i.e., the drama of a people struggling to define their beliefs, values and very identity over time. And although some of these intangibles may wax and wane in importance, others remain at the core of what it means to be a citizen and what obligations citizens owe their country and beyond. In the case of the Swiss, their attitudes toward neutrality, hard power and conscription are indeed at the center of their ‘Swissness’.  In today’s blog, we’d like to provide a thumbnail sketch of how the people of this small multi-lingual country have viewed one of these three areas over time.

Swiss Neutrality – A Very Quick History

Switzerland remains one of five neutral/non-aligned nations in Europe. Geography is one historical reason why this is so. Since the country sat atop a geopolitical fault line between France, the Habsburg Empire and Germany, emphasizing its neutrality permitted it to sidestep most of the religious, dynastic and nationalist wars that wracked the continent for centuries. Seen from this perspective, neutrality thus served as a familiar instrument of statecraft.

In the wake of World War II, however, the Swiss state and its people redefined their concept of neutrality. Instead of continuing to be just a preferred instrument of policy, it started to become an idealized national value. It also became synonymous with security, as illustrated by the 1954 Bindschedler Doctrine. This creed dovetailed values and security worries together to proclaim that neutral Switzerland couldn’t join ‘non-universal’ political organizations such as the UN or even Europe’s nascent economic union. The doctrine did so in the name of protecting the nation, although what it really did was start to unravel the original relationship between neutrality and its military foundations. Security now depended on embracing neutrality as a collective value just as much as perceiving it as a political instrument.

Fast forward then to 1991. With the demise of the Soviet Union, disagreements arose over how to both define and refine Swiss neutrality – so much so, in fact, that three schools of thought soon appeared.

  • First, there were the Traditionalists, as embodied by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party or SVP). Their familiar program was to continue maximizing national autonomy, if not pursue a late 20th century version of diplomatic withdrawal.
  • Second, there were the advocates of ‘Integral Neutrality’, which included Switzerland’s corporate community. They recognized the virtues of having wide-ranging access to growing EU markets, but they preferred to base such economic ‘integralism’ on bilateral treaties. The latter provided the same benefits as joining the EU, the argument went, but also preserved greater political-economic freedom of action for Swiss interests.
  • Finally, there were the advocates of what eventually became known as ‘Active Neutrality’. As a result of the wholesale transformations occurring both internationally and in Europe, they advocated greater external cooperation and less autonomy – i.e., they advocated greater participation by Switzerland in international institutions.

In the ensuing years, the traditionalists would repeatedly clash with the two ‘greater openness’ camps and they would do it with increasing acrimony. Initially, the Swiss Federal Council sided with the advocates of a more open Switzerland – so much so, in fact, that it spoke openly about Switzerland’s accession to the UN (which happened in September 2002) and to the EU.  EU membership, however, never materialized and remains a bridge too far because the Swiss people soon sided with the traditionalists. That then led the Council to act predictably – i.e., it waffled when it came to the issue of neutrality and it continued to do so for years to come. It pursued bilateral talks with the EU, it permitted Swiss accession to the UN to become a decade-long task, and it turned a cold eye when it came to cooperating on security policy issues outside its borders.

This ‘not too hot, not too cold’ approach then lasted until approximately the mid-2000s, at which point a high-riding EU and other pre-financial crisis currents reinvigorated the Active Neutrality movement within the Swiss government. Its proponents, interestingly enough, then used neutrality to justify a proactive foreign policy rather than thwart it. Neutrality, they argued, bestowed a mantel of legitimacy that almost begged Switzerland to not only help promote international law and human rights, but also to assume UN-supported peacekeeping roles. As the CSS’s Dani Mökli observed later, being neutral at this point somehow made you exceptionally qualified to be non-neutral in your behavior.

Until just prior to the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, both the Swiss government and people therefore expanded their understanding of what neutrality should and could mean, but they remained ambivalent about which of its aspects deserved pride of place. Most people now saw neutrality as a sacrosanct national value rather than an instrument of policy, but they were divided about its integrationist or activist nature, whether it should be decoupled from its original military roots, and whether it justified actions that seemed to turn its intentions on their head. Needless to say, with the arrival of the recent ‘age of financial austerity’, these conflicting interpretations and impulses remain unresolved at the policy level, although the Active Neutrality School has introduced beliefs and practices over the last five years which are now part of Swiss foreign policy. Fair enough, but what do the Swiss people currently think about neutrality and its ancillary issues? Let’s turn to that now.

 Swiss Neutrality – How it’s seen Today

To not mince words, here in abbreviated form is what a representative sample of the Swiss electorate thinks, much of which echoes the thumbnail history we just provided.

  • Since neutrality is now woven into the very fabric of being Swiss – i.e., it is an unquestioned source of national solidarity and identity, and not a mere means to other ends – 94% of the Swiss population supports it.
  • Neutrality remains intimately tied to autonomy – 81% of the Swiss population believe they should remain as economically and politically autonomous as possible, although the majority of them believe that Switzerland is unable to provide for its own defense.
  • In keeping with their at least partial Integral Neutrality legacy, a majority of the Swiss population does not think that neutrality restricts Switzerland’s freedom to act in the international arena.
  • In the case of participating in the UN, 65% of the respondents believe it supports Swiss and global interests, although a lower 54% of them support deploying Swiss peacekeeping forces abroad. The more highly supported areas of interest include dialoguing, mediation, and humanitarian support, and development aid.
  • In the case of the EU, however, only 36% of the Swiss population favor closer political ties with Brussels, even if 80% believe in increased economic ties.
  • Finally, the Swiss population remains skeptical about NATO and its role as a security and political alliance. Only 36% of them want closer ties with the organization, and only 19% believe Switzerland should join it.

What are the above numbers telling us? They seem to be telling us that our previous claim – i.e., that both the Swiss government and people had expanded their understanding of what neutrality should and does mean, but they remained ambivalent about which of its aspects deserved pride of place – still applies. The several redefinitions of neutrality that we discussed earlier are represented in the responses, as are the several schools of thought we talked about. Yes, indeed, neutrality to the Swiss people is still a living, breathing thing. As portrayed in the Sicherheit 2013, it is an organic concept that continues to evolve.


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Sicherheit 2013: Aussen-, Sicherheits- und Verteidigungspolitische Meinungsbildung im Trend

Global Economic Governance from the Perspective of a ‘Small State’ – The Case of Switzerland

Aussenpolitischer Bericht 2012


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

One Response to “What do the Swiss Really Think of Their International Neutrality?”

  1. Dear Peter
    I echo every sentiment of what’s written above or what you refer as idealized national value “Neutrality”. I lived and worked in CH for seven years and it has been a life changing and enriching experience of values integration for me. I owe it with sincere gratitude to every Swiss national who respected me and gave me a feeling of first rated citizen of the country. An English speaking person like me was even elected on the Board where in hard core Bernese federal set up, every member helped me pick up German and finally I attended Board meetings held in German. Ever since I returned to India, I always say that I am half Indian, half Swiss. This can only be realized when a country breathes neutrality and is so adaptable to diverse cultures. Neutrality in all walks of life is not an easy phenomenon. Can only be achieved if every citizen contributes his/her share. This is achievable…And Switzerland demonstrates it time and again.

    Brilliant article…
    Regards