Armed neutrality: Why does Switzerland try to stay neutral in conflicts?
Switzerland has the oldest policy of military neutrality of any country in the world and often receives much praise (and criticism) for its stance on conflict. But why is Switzerland neutral, what would happen if the country were to be directly attacked by another country and how would the military react?
Why is Switzerland neutral?
The origins of Swiss neutrality date back to the 1500s. Previously, the Swiss government had pursued a policy of expansionism, with successive successful wars against its neighbours between 1291 and 1515.
Swiss fighters were considered to be the best in the world at the time, which is why so many European nations continued to employ mercenaries from Switzerland long after neutrality was declared - as best shown by the Swiss that still guard the Vatican today.
However, this militarism began to change after the Battle of Marignano in 1515, when a Swiss army was bloodily defeated by a French army under the command of King Francis I. The Swiss were forced to relinquish their claims on northern Italy and sign a perpetual peace with France that would only be broken once Napoleon invaded in 1798. “I have vanquished those whom only Caesar vanquished” was the message on the medal struck for King Francis to commemorate the battle.
The beginnings of Swiss neutrality
From 1525, Switzerland would never invade another country again - with the exception of Canton Bern invading what is modern-day Canton Vaud on its own in 1536. This new policy of neutrality was reinforced by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, when Switzerland was encouraged by other nations to take a neutral path.
Following another French invasion in 1798, Switzerland's neutrality was affirmed by the European powers as part of the Treaty of Paris's Act on the Neutrality of Switzerland, signed in 1815. The creation of the first Swiss constitution in 1848 eventually put its stance on military neutrality into law.
Since then, the country has upheld its historic position - most famously, by choosing not to take sides in either of Europe’s major 20th-century conflicts.
Why does Switzerland still have an army?
While Switzerland has a policy of neutrality, the Swiss military exists to protect the country if it were attacked. Unlike other countries that may use their armed forces for offensive purposes, the Swiss Army focuses on developing defensive and supportive capabilities.
The Swiss Army does not take part in conflicts abroad, but they do take part in international peacekeeping missions. Despite their neutrality, the Swiss armed forces are still a force to be reckoned with, especially since the country requires all male citizens to take part in some form of national service, while women can join the force voluntarily. There is also a small number of regular soldiers.
There are approximately 21.000 active regular soldiers in Switzerland, with reserve forces totalling 218.000. The country held a referendum on abolishing conscription in 2013, but 73 percent of the population voted against the proposal.
Switzerland’s response to the Ukraine crisis
In the past, when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Switzerland was hesitant to implement sanctions on the country, but since the most recent escalation by the Russian military, Switzerland has taken a harder stance. According to Reuters, Russia and Russian citizens had approximately 10 billion Swiss francs stored in Swiss banks as of 2020, perhaps explaining the financial reasons for not sanctioning the Russian Federation in the past.
How does Swiss neutrality impact the country?
Some Swiss politicians have raised concerns over what could happen if Switzerland were to face an attack from another state, similar to the one that Ukraine is currently facing. Defence Minister Viola Amherd feels that Switzerland’s neutral status could be damaging to the nation, and has stressed that Switzerland must ensure its own security.
“We could ask other countries for support if attacked, but whether anyone helps us is an open question,” Amherd told the NZZ am Sonntag in an interview back in 2022. Since Switzerland has chosen to remain militarily neutral, the country is not a member of a collective security organisation such as NATO, which pledges to protect its members if one of them is attacked.
“As a non-NATO member, we can’t automatically count on help,” Amherd added. “Under certain circumstances, we would have to rely on solidarity. That is why it is so important for us to do our part and protect Swiss airspace with our own resources.”