Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

Why neutrality is obsolete in the 21st century

By Franz-Stefan Gady

04 Apr 2023 · 6 min read

Editor's Note

As Finland joins NATO and Sweden prepares to follow, four European nations cling to their neutrality. But remaining neutral may prove increasingly difficult as security challenges grow, FP writes.

The Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli had his doubts about the wisdom of a state remaining neutral, as it usually risks alienating both sides in a conflict. “He who conquers does not want doubtful friends who will not aid him in the time of trial,” he wrote in his 16th-century strategy manual, The Prince. “And he who loses will not harbor you because you did not willingly, sword in hand, court his fate.”

Following Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, two formerly neutral European states—Finland and Sweden—have heeded Machiavelli’s advice. Today, Finland joins NATO as its newest member, and neighboring Sweden will soon follow. Europe’s four remaining traditional neutrals—Austria, Ireland, Malta, and Switzerland—are sticking to their neutrality for now. Ireland, which has de facto disarmed, claims to be militarily neutral if not politically so; but the country is slated to train Ukrainian soldiers and has been cozying up to NATO since the outbreak of the war. Austria and Malta likewise insist they are militarily neutral but not “not neutral on values.” Switzerland is the most uncompromising of the bunch, remaining both politically and militarily neutral, going as far as refusing to grant other countries permission to re-export Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine. To Kyiv, the Swiss government’s stance goes beyond neutrality by actively undermining Ukrainian defense capabilities, Ukraine Ministry of Internal Affairs advisor Anton Gerashchenko tweeted. Critics argue that neutrality, like pacifism, leaves the victim of aggression to its fate.

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