Can We Be Neutral About Neutrality?

The Swiss are debating their traditional neutral role in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Swiss government is divided about how strongly to condemn Russia. But neutrality poses challenges beyond Switzerland. Is the world becoming divided between those strongly condemning humanitarian violations and those trying to remain neutral? Beyond the obvious dichotomy between democracies and autocracies lies a host of positions ranging from Sweden and Finland considering joining NATO to China’s continuing support of Russia.

Is it possible to navigate between support or weak condemnation of Russia and outright support for sanctions and military aid to Ukraine? And what’s at stake in the different positions? Is respect for the rule of law a principle value that trumps neutrality?

To condemn violations of human rights and humanitarian law goes to the heart of respect for international law. While it is easy to say that all countries, Russia included, have agreed to certain treaties and thus have ensuing obligations, it is more difficult to deal with outright non-respect for those obligations. Naming and shaming, tribunals and such, are obvious counteractions.

But deeper questions must now be asked. The entire system of multilateral agreements has been part of a functioning world order since the end of World War II. We have assumed that what was put in place, such as the United Nations and its Security Council, would be able to prevent another world war. A minimum level of interstate cooperation was established under various multilateral institutions with the assumption that greater cooperation and interdependence would lead to the greater possibility for peace. Respect for international law was a primary value.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s support of President Putin raise elementary questions about that system and its values. Suspending Russia from various fora is not just a temporary punishment: It represents a broader recognition that one of the world’s major powers, possessing nuclear weapons, is now no longer an active part of the multilateral system. And China’s support of Russia, or at least its lack of condemnation, means that another nuclear power as well as the world’s fastest growing economy has also challenged the established system and its values.

The various countries abstaining in the UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia should be given special attention. It’s not just the four or five countries voting against, such as Syria or Eritrea, but the abstainers included rising powers South Africa and Brazil. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Brazil would “adopt a neutral stance on Ukraine”. He also said that Brazil would not sanction Russia over the ongoing developments in Ukraine. (And the world’s two most populated countries, China and India, also abstained.) What does Bolsonaro’s “neutrality” mean as far as the multilateral system’s values are concerned? About respect for human rights and humanitarian law?

What do the 35 abstentions mean?

If it appears that I am implying you are either with us or against us, there is some truth to that. I am not implying that you have to be 100 percent behind the United States or its overwhelming influence in the founding of the United Nations system. No. My point is that there appears to be emerging another world vision that is in contradiction to established norms.

Russia could be more than just a pariah. It could be in the forefront of a frontal attack on the entire role of international law. That’s more than just about an invasion of Ukraine. And if countries like China and Brazil also question fundamental values of the multilateral system, then the system itself is in grave difficulty.

Is neutrality possible in terms of respect for international law and the multilateral system? That’s the more profound question involving Russia and why the Swiss insist that their neutrality is about values and not about military engagements. Switzerland, unlike Sweden and Finland, is not considering joining NATO, but it has joined European sanctions.

So how to be neutral militarily while sharing certain values about the sanctity of human rights? The Swedes and the Finns obviously share the values of the 27 members of the European Union. Their interest in joining NATO shows the complex relationship between shared values and shared alliances. Are they always the same?

In order for the multilateral system to work, there must be a minimum of shared values. Multilateralism is based on respect for treaties and common norms. Beyond that, there can be no cooperation. The Russians have broken that confidence. They have challenged the foundations of the system.

How to react? Is neutrality still possible in the face of flagrant violations of fundamental agreements? Or are we witnessing an evolving alternative group of countries with values anathema to the fundamentals of traditional multilateralism?

If that is the case, then the confrontation in Ukraine is more than just military.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.