NATO’s Partnerships 360 Symposium: A Fatal Attraction?

“This is just perfect for Switzerland,” exulted a high-level Swiss defense official when Switzerland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1996. “We can have access to the bar without being full country club members.” He added: “I don’t like playing golf anyway,” an allusion to Swiss neutrality which forbids Switzerland from joining any military alliance such as NATO.

The PfP was a creative idea, allowing countries like Switzerland to participate in various NATO activities while not actually being members. Today, it has become even more attractive as NATO re-emerges as a major force countering Russia after its February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

But the attraction of becoming closer and closer to NATO as a military alliance risks disqualifying Switzerland as a neutral convenor and international actor. Switzerland helped Russia join the World Trade Organization and represents Russian interests in Georgia as well as Georgian interests in Russia. While joining European Union sanctions against Russia was a small step away from neutrality, becoming more and more active in the PfP could be a step too far.

Is the PfP and NATO a fatal attraction for Switzerland today?

While Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO has topped front pages, there continues to be active NATO partnership arrangements with other countries. The Swiss recently hosted the third NATO Partnerships 360 Symposium in Geneva, which was attended by 250 civilian and military representatives from NATO member and partner states. There are roughly 20 partner countries.

Why should a neutral country like Switzerland be interested in continuing its PfP relationship with NATO? According to the website of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs: “The PfP provides Switzerland with an institutionalised framework for security policy dialogue with NATO, the member countries and other partner nations…The PfP is also important to the Swiss Armed Forces, enabling it to develop expertise, where required, and build on its own defence capabilities and preparedness for peacekeeping and disaster assistance operations.”

As an example of closer Swiss transatlantic military ties, Switzerland recently chose America’s F-35A fighter planes for its next generation of defense over France’s Rafale and the Airbus Eurofighter.

The official Swiss communiqué about the Symposium declared that “NATO preserves security and stability in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area. Switzerland therefore benefits from a strong NATO.” How does it benefit as a neutral? According to the NATO communiqué about the meeting, “The ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine exemplifies the negative impact that the resurgence of geopolitical competition has had on the rules-based international order…. As authoritarian powers become more assertive and try to shift the global balance of power in their favour while undermine international norms and values, the rules-based international order is only likely to come under growing strain in the coming years. A test to which NATO and its Partner Nations must be ready.”

 (It should be noted, and repeated, that although the 2008 Bucharest meeting confirmed that Ukraine and Georgia would someday be members of NATO, both countries were not accepted in NATO’s Membership Action Plan. NATO realized that neither country had the capacity to fulfill membership requirements. In addition, while Russia’s fears about Western troops on or near its borders may be justified, Ukraine’s membership in NATO is also not for tomorrow.)

The Symposium was initiated before the February 24 invasion, just like the recent Lugano meeting on rebuilding Ukraine. The NATO language of authoritarian vs. rule-based international order is the current code for democratic vs. autocratic or the previous calling for a “coalition of the willing” against “non-democratic” adversaries. The binary Us vs. Them credits those associated with NATO with democratic, liberal values, and NATO the military wing of the rule-based international order.

Since the United Nations has no active military force, NATO, in the eyes of its members and partners, becomes the physical defender of the international order. The question of the legitimacy of the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 remains questionable. Was NATO acting as a regional organization to preserve peace and security? What specific authorization did it have from the United Nations? The UN Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, supported the action in principle but criticized NATO’s unilateral bombing without UN approval.

Given the current polarization, countries like Switzerland are walking a very thin neutrality line. Terms like “active neutrality,” “committed neutrality,” or “cooperative neutrality” are being tossed around by experts before a highly anticipated update of the 1993 Swiss government report on neutrality.

Switzerland has an ambassador at NATO headquarters and increasing logistical cooperation with NATO. On the other hand, the Swiss just refused to accept wounded Ukrainians. While the cantons were ready to accept the wounded, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs vetoed the idea: “There were obstacles tied to the law of neutrality in accepting military patients,” it said. “The distinction between civil patients and military patients is not really possible.”

The current attraction of NATO is obvious. Loose coalitions like the PfP are especially attractive for countries such as Switzerland that share NATO’s narratives about rules-based values in the international order. But, and this is not a small but, NATO as the military defender of that international order goes diametrically against Switzerland’s tradition of neutrality. NATO is a military alliance and not a political club.

The separation of bar rights and full club membership is harder and harder to maintain. But in the interests of Switzerland, and the world’s perception of its neutrality, it must be maintained. The price of full membership in this club is much too expensive and the bar bill is getting heavier and heavier.

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