Prominent cases of permanent neutrality—Switzerland, Austria, and Laos

This chapter briefly examines the development of the policy of permanent neutrality in Switzerland, Austria, and Laos. While these three cases share certain common features—such as difficult terrain, no direct access to the sea, and being surrounded by powerful and hostile neighbours—the context, motivation, trajectory, and outcomes of their policies of neutrality substantially differ from each other. Switzerland is the oldest neutral country and the only one whose permanent neutrality survived for nearly two hundred years and through the two World Wars. By contrast, Austria and Laos were made permanently neutral in the second half of the twentieth century. Swiss permanent neutrality was a product of the post-Napoleonic balance of the power system in Europe; however, permanent neutrality of Austria and Laos was seen as an instrument of conflict management aimed at the reduction of hostilities between Cold War rival blocs.

Each case study is divided into two parts. The first part presents a brief introduction to the development of the policy of permanent neutrality, and the second part examines the presence and impact of the five factors of the analytical framework, namely: (1) geopolitical position and importance, (2) balance of power, (3) consensus and agreement among neighbouring and the great powers, (4) domestic stability and cohesion, and (5) military and economic capabilities.

Permanent neutrality of Switzerland

Officially, at least since the 1815 Congress of Vienna, neutrality has become an inseparable characteristic of Switzerland’s history and identity. Today, the notion of Swiss neutrality is principally coterminous with the idea of a Swiss nation. However, this often-revered Swiss tradition of neutrality evolved through decades of proxy wars, internal conflict, and continuous existential threats posed by its powerfid neighbours, such as imperial France, Germany, and Austria. According to Kate Morris and Timothy

White, “historically, the Swiss policy of neutrality can best be understood as a reaction against the real and threatened domination from other larger more powerful states, especially its neighbours”.1

The evolution of Swiss neutrality

While it is difficult to locate a certain point in history as the time of its inception, the idea of neutrality emerged in the discourse among the cantons of Swiss Confederation after it suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Marignano in 1515. According to historian William Denison McCracken, the defeat at the hands of a superior and better-organised French army in the plains of northern Italy was a point of departure for new and more pragmatic practices of governance and foreign relations in the Confederation. After this battle, the Swiss recognised that they “no longer were able to decide European issues by the weight of their influence.”2 Swiss leaders quickly realised that engaging in European power politics demanded at the very least a unified defence and foreign policy strategy, which in turn required inter-state cohesion and establishment of a central authority akin to those of the neighbouring states, such as France and Germany. In a loose Confederation composed of various religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups, such an undertaking was certainly unfeasible. Moreover, the concept of centralisation was in contradiction with the spirit of individual freedom and cantonal autonomy, which were the fundamental principles of the Swiss system of governance. As a result, the Confederation decided to restrain its practice of wild militarism and foreign adventurism and instead embrace a policy of “sitting still” or keeping aloof from conflicts among regional powers while staying prepared to defend its territory when attacked. The idea of Swiss neutrality therefore has a pragmatic character rooted in safeguarding Switzerland’s sovereignty and autonomy by taking all necessary measures to avoid entanglement in others’ conflict.

The early period: Self-declared neutrality

The Confederation applied a whole range of state resources—diplomatic, political, military, and economic—to defend and promote its neutrality. At the diplomatic level, while there were no international legal mechanisms during this period to regulate and guarantee the state’s neutrality, the Swiss developed a system of bilateral treaties with the neighbouring powers to institutionalise and reinforce then policy of neutrality. The earliest examples of institutionalisation of neutrality, according to Edgar Bonjour, were the signing of “the perpetual peace with Francis I of 1516 and the protective alliance of 1521. In these two treaties, the Confederation committed

Prominent cases of permanent neutrality 39 itself to never permitting its soldiery to be used against the King of France and to close the Alpine passes to his enemies”.3 Occasionally these treaties, including the Eternal Pact, which the Confederation signed with her archenemy Austria in 1511, contradicted each other. However, as part of the development of its neutrality, the Swiss quickly learnt how to reconcile these contradictions and navigate their way through inconsistencies in their commitments and promises. The Confederation cleverly used its strategic assets, such as control of the alpine passes and the services of fearless soldiers, in different combmations to secure long-time peace treaties with her powerful neighbours and to maintain the balance of power in the region.

At the domestic political level, adoption of neutrality as a state policy and the necessity of joint national defence demanded increased coordination and cooperation among different cantons and strengthening federal institutions. In this period, nine adjacent small states and territories joined the Confederation, raising the total number of cantons to 22 from its earlier 13. This fairly voluntary' expansion moulded the Swiss Confederation into a solid geographical unit with defined and mostly defendable fr ontiers.

The era of Reformation and Counter-Reformation resulted in the Thirty Years’ War, which exacerbated religious, ethnic, and political cleavages between the Protestant and Catholic parts of Switzerland, and disrupted the nascent process of formation of a national authority. However, despite attempts by certain Catholic and Protestant groups to push the country to engage in Europe’s religious war, Bonjour argues that “the Confederation eluded the danger by girding on the armour of neutrality; it did not completely cut Switzerland off from the outside world, but protected her from military embroilment”.4 The 1648 Peace of Westphalia formally recognised the Confederation’s territorial integrity and independence, and a neutral Switzerland emerged, which was stronger and more cohesive as a nation than ever before.

Cognisant of the realities of the European power struggle, the cantons, Catholic and Protestant, finally decided to contribute to the formation of federal forces and adoption of a defensive doctrine called Federal Bastions. A major element of the Federal Bastion strategy, according to Bonjour, was the creation of “a belt of neutralized zones, in which all military actions should be prohibited,”5 to protect Switzerland from coming into direct contact with the surrounding conflicting parties.6

This indicated the Confederation’s commitment to defend its neutrality. However, besides domestic measures, maintenance of neutrality was also a function of external factors, most importantly tire dynamics of relations among the surrounding gr eat powers. At the external level, manifestation of a balance of power in the early sixteenth century, with France and Austria (tire houses of Hapsburg and Bourbon) as its main protagonists and Britain often actingas the balancer, enabled Switzerland to adopt and maintain neutrality. The Confederation at times helped this system of balance of power in Europe by equal tr eatment of its neighbouring powers. In all, as noted by Leo Schelbert, despite political and administrative inefficiencies and challenges, dining the early phase of the Confederacy’s rule from 1516 to 1799, Switzerland enjoyed relative peace and stability.7 The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1815) eventually disrupted this long era of a balance of power, destabilised Europe, and brought an end to the first phase of Swiss neutr ality.

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