Armed neutrality: Why does Switzerland try to stay neutral in conflicts?

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 for its peace-promoting stance in conflict. But what would happen if Switzerland were to be directly attacked by another country? How would the country’s military react? 

The history of why Switzerland is neutral

The origins of Swiss neutrality date back to the 1500s, with the conclusion of centuries of Swiss wars with the neighbouring French, Milanese and Burgundian militaries. In the time before this, the Swiss government pursued a military policy of expansionism, but after signing a peace agreement with the French and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Switzerland was encouraged to take a neutral path. 

Following another French invasion in 1798, Switzerland's neutrality was affirmed by 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, such as has been seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Switzerland through assisting Swiss healthcare.

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 have 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 conflicts in 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. 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.”

Emily Proctor


Emily Proctor

Emily grew up in the UK before moving abroad to study International Relations and Chinese. She then obtained a Master's degree in International Security and gained an interest in journalism....

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