There is much to be said for the neutrality that has been part of the Swiss national identity for centuries. And yet in 2022 – as during World War II – the thought seems harder to justify. As Ukraine and the West face Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-fascist aggression, how can any country with democratic and humanitarian values stand aside?
Ironically, the people who are now raising this question are sitting in the Kremlin. This month Moscow rejected a Swiss proposal to represent the interests of Ukrainians in Russia as a “protective power” offering “good offices”. For its part, Ukraine would have been happy if the Swiss had played this role – Kyiv urgently wants information about the many Ukrainian children and civilians who the invaders have kidnapped to Russia this year.
These terms – protecting power, good offices – come from international law. They refer to neutral nations that assume the functions of substitute embassies on behalf of countries that have severed diplomatic ties.
Switzerland currently offers such services for the USA in Iran and for Iran in Egypt. It also represents consular interests in both directions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Russia and Georgia (which Putin invaded in 2008). For example, if a Georgian needs a visa or gets into trouble in Russia, she can contact the Swiss embassy in Moscow, where dedicated staff will take care of her situation.
The tradition dates back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, when Switzerland represented the diplomatic interests of two warring factions (Bavaria and Baden, both of which were merged into the new German Empire) in France. During World War I, the Swiss held 36 such mandates; at one point in World War II they had 219. For example, they represented Great Britain in Germany and vice versa. Other neutral countries, notably Sweden, also served well.
The number of mandates declined during the Cold War, but the institution remained vital. For many years, Switzerland represented the USA and Cuba mutually. In this way, the Swiss were able to provide secret return channels, which occasionally made things easier and possibly averted a catastrophe. Hence this famous quote from Kennedy’s White House.
But to make these diplomatic dances possible, three parties must tango. And today Russia doesn’t want. Because she no longer sees Switzerland as neutral.
Is it? Switzerland has certainly been walking a diplomatic tightrope since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
For many Western diplomats, Switzerland tends to be too neutral, i.e. selfish. The country’s banks, boarding schools and other institutions are said to house vast amounts of Russian money. Swiss markets are briskly trading Russian oil and other commodities. Rumor has it that the Alpine nation is even home to members of Putin’s own family.
For its part, Bern believes it has gone as far as possible to side with like-minded Western nations while maintaining its formal neutrality. In particular, the Swiss have joined the sanctions against Russia decided by the European Union (of which Switzerland is not a member). This is the official reason for Russia to call the country hostile.
Switzerland points out that “neutrality does not mean impartiality: even a neutral state has the right to political expression and cooperation and can stand up for its fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.” Neutrality only means that the country is not a party to international conflicts can be. This also precludes joining military alliances such as NATO.
By the same logic, the six countries that are part of the EU but not NATO must join the transatlantic alliance, as I argued in January. As members of the EU, they have signed a mutual defense clause similar to NATO’s Article 5 – “an attack on one is an attack on all”. Sweden and Finland have already given up their neutrality and applied to join NATO. Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta should do the same. For example, if Putin were to attack Estonia, they would have to come to his aid anyway.
But Switzerland is a special case. Countries at war eventually need to make peace, and for that they usually need neutral terrain just to gather around a table and talk. This setting was often Lake Geneva or some other scenic Swiss setting, because the country’s role as an honest broker was always credible.
In addition, the alternatives to true Swiss neutrality are worse. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a recent example. His country is a nominal but problematic NATO ally. He is now posing as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, having met repeatedly with Putin and – this week – his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy. These talks helped unblock Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea. But NATO allies rightly suspect that Erdoğan may be keen to strike separate deals with Putin to accommodate other interests.
So let’s keep Switzerland Switzerland, otherwise we’d have to reinvent it. Let it be a neutral country that can serve as ambassador, mediator, arbitrator and – one day – host another peace conference. But let the Swiss remember that their neutrality is legal, diplomatic and military – not moral. And let them remind Putin of that too.
More from other authors at Bloomberg Opinion:
• From Europe to Russia: Attack Ukraine and We All Join NATO: Andreas Kluth
• Russia’s war in Ukraine is the end of the Soviet Union: Hal Brands
• The roots of the Rushdie attack are in India, not Iran: Mihir Sharma
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion and reports on European politics. The former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
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