NATO Comes to Switzerland, Goodbye Neutrality?

Image Source: Justin Kunimune – CC BY-SA 4.0

Sweden and Finland have joined NATO. Will Switzerland be next? In a small step in that direction, NATO will soon open an office in Geneva. Does NATO’s presence, however small – sources say only one NATO officer will be based in Geneva – represent a historic change for a country that has been legally neutral since 1815? Although the office is presented as a multilateral liaison with international organizations – NATO has similar offices in Vienna and New York – it does raise questions about Swiss neutrality and neutrality in general.

Surprisingly, a recent poll showed that 53% of the Swiss were in favor of joining NATO, an unexpected number in a country where neutrality is included in the Constitution and strong state sovereignty is embedded in its national culture.

The Swiss pride themselves on their independence. Austria is also a neutral country militarily, but it joined the United Nations in 1955, forty-seven years earlier than Switzerland. Austria is a member of the European Union whereas since 1992 Switzerland has had protracted negotiations over its relations with the European Union. Swiss neutrality and sovereignty are as much a part of the national heritage as the Matterhorn and Geneva’s Jet d’eau.

Traditionally, the Swiss population has been more reluctant to join international institutions than the government. That is what makes the latest poll so unexpected. Based on the poll, the Swiss are more worried about being attacked by Russia than their historic neutrality.

The shift in Switzerland’s attitude towards NATO has been swift. A Swiss security expert said in 2022: “Switzerland is not interested in NATO membership; we simply don’t need it. Not only is there no reason for us to join, membership would even be a disadvantage: we would lose our neutrality.”

A small country surrounded by three large neighbors, Switzerland has always boasted that it has the oldest military neutrality in the world. Officially, the 1815 Congress of Vienna established its neutrality at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The 1907 Hague Convention further established that Switzerland would not take part in international armed conflicts, favor warring parties with troops or armaments, or make its territory available to the warring sides.

Switzerland has benefitted from its neutrality by having so many organizations, specialized U.N. agencies, and international civil servants in Geneva going back to the League of Nations. It prides itself on how its good offices represent the United States in Iran among several other mandates.

Although politically and militarily neutral, Switzerland does have a history as a spy center. With 180 diplomatic Missions, over forty international organizations and 750 NGOs, Geneva has been and continues to be a hub for espionage. The U.S. and Switzerland, the so-called Sister Republics, quietly cooperated during World War II and the Cold War. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, functioned out of Bern with the arrival of Allen Dulles, officially the Special Assistant to the American Minister, in 1942. Dulles became director of the CIA in 1953. No undercover activities have called into question Swiss neutrality. They didn’t historically, they don’t now.

But there is a difference between spying cooperation and military alliance membership. Switzerland has been a member of NATO’s antechamber Partnership for Peace (PfP) since 1996. Under the PfP, Switzerland’s cooperation with NATO includes “general goals such as the continuation of political dialogue and, more specifically, the development of cooperation in the fields of new technologies and innovation, resilience, the promotion of women, peace and security (WPS), disarmament and non-proliferation, and cyber defence. Many of these goals are aimed at enhancing interoperability, for example between air forces and communication systems.”

Swiss neutrality has been particularly challenged since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 1) Switzerland joined the U.N. in 2002 with a majority vote of 54.6% and twelve out of twenty-three cantons voting in favor. Sixteen years before, in 1986, 75% of the Swiss population voted not to join the U.N. 2) Switzerland continues to ban the re-export of Swiss-made guns and ammunition to Ukraine, but in 2023 it did sell twenty-five decommissioned Leopard 2 tanks to Germany on the condition that Berlin not forward the tanks to Ukraine. 3) Switzerland now sits on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member. To calm objections to conflicts between UNSC membership and neutrality, a 2015 Federal Council report stated that “The Security Council is not a party to a conflict in the sense of neutrality law…In today’s polarised environment, neutrality is an advantage, not an obstacle.”

The Swiss neutral image is changing, Often accused of being Western-leaning, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted this reality. The Swiss defense minister, Viola Amherd, visited NATO Headquarters in March 2023. During her visit, she participated in a North Atlantic Council meeting, a historic first for a Swiss defense minister. Swiss/U.S. military cooperation has also further deepened with the Swiss decision to purchase American F-25 fighter jets to replace its aging fleet.

There have been domestic and foreign reactions to these neutrality challenges and changes. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party launched a “neutrality initiative” in 2022 to prohibit Switzerland from entering into military alliances or placing sanctions on other countries. A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson declared that “Switzerland had unfortunately lost its status of a neutral state” when Switzerland joined EU sanctions against Russia. Moreover, whereas Switzerland has represented Russia in Georgia and Georgia in Russia, Russia refused Switzerland’s proposal for representing Ukraine’s interest in Russia because “Bern has joined illegal Western sanctions against Russia.”

All the above are why the NATO liaison office’s presence is so intriguing. Since there is no longer the Warsaw Pact – Have you ever wondered why NATO didn’t disband when the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact disbanded? –  NATO’s raison d’être is now clearly opposing Russia. Its Article 5 represents the core principle that an attack on one of its members is an attack on all its members. If the NATO office move indicates that Switzerland is moving closer to NATO, Switzerland will be moving closer to a European, Transatlantic partnership and closer to Article 5 guarantees, and further away from its neutrality.

The concept of neutrally, both militarily and legally, has lost its glimmer in the face of Russia’s aggression. Globally, there are expanding alliances and new partnerships in reaction to a rapidly changing security environment. Countries are shopping for new comparative advantages. NATO’s move to Geneva may not be an existential threat to historic Swiss neutrality, but it is part of an evolving understanding of neutrality. The move, however small, can be interpreted as a direct consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the potential political significance of International Geneva.

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