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Neutrality, Political

Neutrality, Political




Political neutrality is a position a nation-state adopts regarding a particular conflict. Politically neutral countries maintain a neutral stance toward warring parties for the duration of a conflict, although certain countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland, and Belgium until 1914, extend neutrality to all conflicts so that such stances become permanent over time. Political neutrality has its basis in international law and common principles of international society, but it is termed political in the sense that it is influenced by domestic political factors, and as a chosen policy serves a countrys national interests.

Politically neutral parties are not indifferent to conflict (they may still provide humanitarian assistance or other forms of nonmilitary aid to needing parties). For instance, while many countries did not provide military assistance in any form to the recent American-led Iraq War, several neutral countries have provided (and continue to provide) large amounts of bilateral humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, politically neutral countries are not necessarily pacifist in principle, as they still maintain armies for protection and they will fight for reasons of self-defense, as Belgium did in World War I when Germany invaded in 1914.


In order for neutrality to be viable, it must be granted and respected by other states. This assumes that nation-state behavior is rule-governed. As an intellectual approach to international politics, the Grotian tradition (named after Hugo Grotius, a seventeenth-century jurist) assumes that rules and principles operate within international politics. Also termed the international society tradition, and developed by scholars such as Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, Adam Watson, R. J. Vincent, Robert H. Jackson, and Nicholas Wheeler, this perspective still assumes that states operate within anarchyor the lack of a central, overarching political authority that can adjudicate grievances. Additionally, the Grotian tradition does not assume that these rules will inevitably abolish interstate conflicts. Yet it asserts that in certain contexts (both spatial and temporal), nation-states hold in common certain values and interests that are binding upon members of the international society. Political neutrality is one such recognized common interest.

While many international principles have informed how neutrality has been understood in international politics, three are noteworthy. First, states that are neutral toward the internal conflict of another nation-state (civil wars) do so out of respect for the sovereignty of that country. Sovereign states have exclusive political authority throughout the geographic regions they occupy. A second and related principle is pluralism, or that there are multiple conceptions and ways of life (rather than one universal) that any state may wish to pursue. Third, there is the principle of pacta sunt servanda, which translates, pacts must be respected. This principle assumes states keeping their promises. Agreements among states can only be binding if there is the assumption that, once entered, states will maintain those agreements through time.

The most explicit example of international recognition for neutrality, the Second Hague Convention (1907), grew out of what Grotian scholar Bull termed a European international society in his Anarchical Society (1977, pp. 3136). Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries European countries developed a body of international settlements and laws that were expressed in certain institutions (such as the Concert of Europe). At the Second Hague Convention, neutral countries such as Belgium, Sweden, and Switzerland were granted formal recognition in Articles V (The Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land) and XIII (Naval War). These articles declared, most importantly, that the land of neutral countries was inviolable. The Second Hague Convention is still recognized law and the most important statement recognizing the rights of neutral countries.


While international recognition is important for a nation-states political neutrality to be viable, there are many domestic influences that pressure states into neutrality (either permanently or temporarily). Three key sets of reasons for political neutrality include:

Instrumentalist Neutrality is the most cost-effective position a country can take regarding a conflict. A nation-state remains uninvolved in a dispute because the dispute is unpopular with and costly for nationally important economic and political interest groups. In instrumentalist situations, one or more warring parties may try to induce countries out of neutral positions by providing economic incentives that would therefore make political neutrality no longer cost-effective. In other words, when such material incentives successfully induce neutral countries into conflicts, an instrumentalist set of influences was probably most responsible for the original politically neutral position.

Isolationist Neutrality is based upon both a cultural and economic component that influences a countrys conception of its national interest. Isolationists assert that their country should have only limited interaction with other countries. This stance has been especially popular with certain domestic interest groups that benefit from protectionist economic policies, but it also permeates the fabric of a countrys larger political culture. Isolationism prevailed in the United States, for example, during the inter-war period (19191941). This particular form of isolationism was based in the concept of American exceptionalism, or the belief that the United States held a unique place in the world and that, therefore, America could remain neutral toward, and removed from, the balance of power politics underpinning European conflicts.

Normative Neutrality is chosen as a policy because there is no position for a country to take that would not threaten its own national vision. Normative political neutrality was the British policy toward the United States during the American Civil War (18611865). While the British had recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate belligerent party, and many Brits identified with the aristocratic landholders of the American South, the Emancipation Proclamation redefined (in British society) the American Civil War as a war over slavery. Even though neutrality proved materially very costly to Britains strategic and economic interests, the British could not side with the Confederacy as such an action would have engendered British anxiety over slavery.

In certain cases, like Switzerland, Sweden, and Belgium until 1914, neutrality is inherited as a political attribute that serves to define its social identity as a state. Belgium, from independence in 1830 until World War I, declared itself a perpetually neutral country. In this case political neutrality informs all decisions a state makes, during times of peace and war, and determines even the legal basis for whether and how to resist invading armies.

While neutrality seems to carry no guarantees, it should be noted that the territories of most neutral countries have been respected through time. Even in cases where neutrality has been compromised, the offending party often incurs widespread international condemnation for such a violation, as Germany did following the invasion of then-neutral Belgium in 1914.

SEE ALSO Neutral States; Neutrality of Money


Bull, Hedley. [1977] 2002. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Global Humanitarian Assistance: Update 200405.

Brent J. Steele

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