As long as states (or statelike entities) and warfare between them have existed, there have been states that did not participate in a current war and thus displayed neutral behavior (derived from the Latin ne-uter, “neither of the two”). The modern tradition of neutrality dates back to the development of the state system in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interaction of state practice, scholarly thought, and international treaties crystallized into an institution of international law.
One can distinguish at least three or even four types of “neutral” behavior of states. The first is occasional neutrality, a state’s neutrality in a particular war between other states. Its legal rules were codified in 1907 at the second Hague Peace Conference. Permanent neutrality under customary international law commits a state to neutrality in all present and future wars and obliges it to avoid such peacetime ties and policies as would make its neutrality in war impossible. Conventional neutrality without an international legal basis is followed by states that tend to call their foreign policies neutral. They follow a more or less neutral course in practice, but fail to commit themselves to permanent neutrality under international law. Whereas these three types of neutrality have been practiced mostly by European states, a distant fourth variant, nonalignment, evolved above all in countries that during the cold war wanted to avoid entanglements in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. These countries formed the nonaligned movement.
The Hague Conventions require the occasional neutral state to prevent the use of its territory, including its airspace and waters, by belligerent states; the neutral must not allow the passage of troops, munitions, or supplies through its territory. The neutral state has to refrain from any support for belligerents and may not deliver war materials or extend loans for military purposes. In contrast, the neutral is not bound to prevent private persons and companies from exporting war materials to belligerent states. If the neutral regulates trade with military goods, these provisions must treat the belligerents equally and be implemented without discrimination.
These rules originated in the liberal era when it was seen as feasible to keep apart public space (the state) and private sphere (the economy). But during the twentieth century, this distinction became more and more blurred. In addition, many armed conflicts like internal wars, guerilla wars, and massive terrorist attacks are not the type of interstate wars that are the subject matter of the international law of neutrality. Enforcement measures by the United Nations Security Council (UN Charter, chap. VII) are regarded as “police operations” and also not relevant to neutrality.
The rules for the behavior of permanently neutral states have never been codified. In 1815 Switzerland’s status of permanent neutrality was recognized by the powers of the Congress of Vienna. As comparable buffers between France and Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg agreed to legally based permanent neutrality in the first half of the nineteenth century, but abandoned it in the aftermath of World War I (1914–1918).
The customary rules of permanent neutrality include three basic duties in peacetime: (1) not to begin a war; (2) to defend the status of permanent neutrality; and (3) to do everything to avoid being drawn into a war and to abstain from any action that could lead to involvement in a war. The range of this last set of duties, the “antecedent effects” of permanent neutrality, have been controversial. In the 1950s the Swiss authorities interpreted these duties to encompass a prohibition against concluding any treaty that would oblige it to wage war (like a military alliance). Switzerland would also not be allowed to conclude any customs or economic union with any other country because it would thereby relinquish its political independence and thus could not credibly forestall participation in a future war. As a quid pro quo for ending the four-power occupation installed after World War II (1939–1945), Austria in 1955 assumed the status of permanent neutrality according to the Swiss model.
About the same time, after the Soviet Union relinquished its naval base at Porkkala near Helsinki, Finland started to practice neutrality in its foreign relations. Sweden had followed this type of neutrality policy since the first half of the nineteenth century. Ireland had adhered to a limited “military” neutrality since World War II. These conventional neutrals rejected all legal obligations during peacetime, but followed a foreign policy similar to that of the permanently neutral states.
The European neutrals did not join the European Economic Community (EEC), founded in 1957, although Austria and Sweden, for example, had close economic ties with its members. During the years of détente between East and West, these neutral countries played a role in moderating international conflicts through their “active neutrality.” Ireland joined the EEC in 1973. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, economic difficulties forced the other neutrals to rethink their position vis-à-vis the European Union (EU). The end of the cold war and a less-strict interpretation of permanent neutrality helped Austria, Sweden, and Finland finally join the EU in 1995. Together with Ireland, they refused a military assistance clause, as foreseen in the Constitutional Treaty of the EU. But otherwise, the foreign policy behavior of the neutral states is similar to that of the other members of the EU. They fully participate in the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU. In situations where military force is used without a UN Security Council mandate, their positions can become awkward, as the 1999 Kosovo crisis showed. Austria regarded the NATO bombing of Serbia as “necessary and warranted” in the EU context, but at the same time refused the overflight of NATO war planes on their way from the U.S. bases in southern Germany to the Balkans. The status of permanent or conventional neutrality has lost most of its functions at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But since neutrality is still favored by their populations (as numerous public opinion polls show), the governments of the neutral states are reluctant to change this status.
Doherty, Róisín. 2002. Ireland, Neutrality, and European Security Integration. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.
Gehler, Michael, and Rolf Steininger, eds. 2000. Die Neutralen und die europäische Integration, 1945–1995: The Neutrals and the European Integration, 1945–1995. Vienna: Böhlau.
Malmborg, Mikael af. 2001. Neutrality and State-Building in Sweden. New York and Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave.
Ojanen, Hanna, ed. 2003. Neutrality and Non-alignment in Europe Today. FIIA Report 6/2003. Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Verdross, Alfred. 1978. The Permanent Neutrality of Austria. Trans. Charles Kessler. Vienna: Verlag für Geschichte und Politik.