An Internationalist Neutrality in the Service of Europe

By Pascal Lottaz

This article first appeared in german in the Austrian magazine International
Photo by Benjamin Kaufmann on Unsplash

Silenced by some, pronounced dead by others, Austria’s neutrality has seen more glorious days. However, the concept is far from being outdated on a global scale. Austria’s internationalist and humanitarian neutrality has the potential to greatly assist Europe if it is only utilized for that purpose.

The Swan Song of a State Maxim?

On October 26 of last year, the Republic celebrated its post-war independence for the 65th time. Once, this date was celebrated as the “Day of Neutrality,” but this aspect of the historical process leading to the end of occupation is largely unsung today. Although neutrality enjoys high esteem among the population, it has fallen into political oblivion. However, this is neither a coincidence nor an isolated case. Austria finds itself in a similar domestic political dynamic as Sweden and Switzerland, both of which have de-emphasized their traditional neutrality since the end of the Cold War. Social-democratically governed Sweden has almost completely removed the concept from its foreign policy discourse and replaced it with “freedom of alliance.” Even in Switzerland, the left sees the silence surrounding the discourse on neutrality as a means to counter right-wing isolationism, which has always invoked neutrality to prevent Swiss integration into the European project. Consequently, the current party program of the Swiss Social Democratic Party (SP Schweiz) no longer even mentions neutrality. The trend in Austria is less pronounced. Not only does the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) mention the strengthening of neutrality as a goal of security policy, but it also holds an important status in the government program of Chancellor Kurz’s People’s Party (Volkspartei), where it is described as “unshakable.” However, it is noticeable that the party program of the People’s Party does not mention neutrality. The reason for this could be similar to that of Sweden: those who define integration as a value often find themselves in (false) embarrassment when confronted with the discourse on neutrality.

The Critique of the Hawks

For Austria, which is an EU member (and, alongside Ireland, Malta, Sweden, and Finland, should convincingly demonstrate to both the Swiss left and right that neutrality and the EU can coexist splendidly), integration means, especially in the discourse of the “hawks,” a closer affiliation with Europe’s security structures. Accordingly, neutrality is often perceived as an impediment. Gerhard Jandl, for instance, even regards Austria’s relationship with neutrality as the nation’s pivotal question. Regarding Austria’s further contribution to the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and collaboration with NATO, he states: “Whether we comprehensively support all evolutionary steps of the CSDP is not a legal but a political question. (…) Vienna should not fall into the ‘neutrality trap,’ as a so-called security policy free rider cannot claim such a role credibly and will not be accepted as a player.”[1] The idea that neutrality hinders further integration into Europe’s security structures and that it should be overcome as a relic of the Cold War and a myth held by the population are common arguments among those who see Austria’s future within security alliances.[2] They consider half-hearted participation in these security structures to be shameful, as evidenced by the embarrassed argument of the “free rider” (which is frequently mentioned). Both perspectives are based on a conservative understanding of European security and overlook the creative possibilities that a neutral Austria has to offer to the EU. However, first, let us examine the reasons why deviating from neutrality would be problematic and explore the state of neutrality worldwide.

The Value of a Promise

On the one hand, it is true that the question of whether Austria wants to maintain its neutrality is a purely political matter and only seemingly a legal issue. When the Raab government negotiated the conditions for the end of the occupation, it was essential to them that the nation’s neutrality would not be imposed under international law. The compromise with the USSR resulted in the Moscow Memorandum—an kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” that promised Austria would voluntarily commit to neutrality.[3] Hence, strictly speaking, from an international law perspective, it is true that Austria could amend its constitution at any time to, for example, allow NATO membership. One must also ask, in the international arena, who would seriously oppose such a step? Russia is the most likely, but could one imagine anything more than harsh words from Moscow? There is no international body that could pass judgment on the validity of such a step, and the immediate neighboring EU countries would certainly be anything but infuriated.

On the other hand, arguments solely based on legality and feasibility overlook the central value of international agreements: the commitment to one’s word. The fact is that terminating the “perpetual neutrality” would be a breach of a previous commitment, and this has significant symbolic implications. Of course, it can be done, but is that what Austria wants? Is it truly a good signal for the future that the world is once again dealing with a state that politically discards its agreements as soon as they are no longer opportune, without suffering any direct harm from their compliance? Moreover, as a political guideline, neutrality has not only served Austria but has also proven beneficial to Europe numerous times. Vienna has emerged as one of the most important hubs of international diplomacy alongside Geneva and Helsinki, with a litany of international organizations preferring a neutral location over either of the two blocs. Consider that not only the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in Vienna but even the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to do so—despite Austria not being an OPEC member state. Furthermore, together with the other neutral countries in Europe, Austria played a central role in the détente of the Cold War, particularly

 in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process. [4]This initiative resulted in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which still plays a crucial role as a platform for dialogue and bridging gaps. It is not coincidental that Vienna remains a global center for peace diplomacy, as demonstrated by the recent negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement.

Realism as a Guiding Principle

On the other hand, the criticism that neutrality in Austria (as well as in Switzerland) has been excessively glorified is not unfounded. A naive “belief” in neutrality as a panacea is not a healthy approach to foreign policy. Neutrality is not a cure-all that can solve every problem. The decision to pursue neutrality can also go terribly wrong. Just one year after Austria gained independence thanks to neutrality, Hungary attempted the same. Imre Nagy declared in November 1956 that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and would become neutral.[5] However, the USSR, in its immediate sphere of influence, did not tolerate this at all, promptly marched into Budapest, and had Nagy hanged by the Kadar regime. Further tragic examples of failed attempts at neutrality are Laos and Cambodia. Both countries sought to avoid involvement in the Vietnam War through internationally recognized neutrality agreements. However, they failed because neither the United States nor the Viet Cong respected the neutrality rights of these countries, while they themselves lacked the means to enforce neutrality in the thickets of the Indochinese jungle.[6] Furthermore, there are plenty of examples of “killed” neutralities during times of war. In the Second World War alone, the neutrals were attacked en masse by both sides of the conflict.[7]

Neutrality for the sake of neutrality can certainly not be a value for a state. It is a means to an end, namely the security and integrity of its population. This is how the majority in Austria understands it, particularly those who associate pacifistic ideals with neutrality. They see it as a guarantee that the state will not embark on reckless foreign policy adventures or ever engage in an aggressive war. Let us not forget that almost every war in the past 200 years has been fought in the name of peace, and how short the memory of those whose gloomy prophecies do not come true can be. Just remember the second Iraq war (2003) and the hysteria over Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be pure fiction propagated by the warmongers. It takes resilience to resist being drawn into a war under such pressure from the “coalition of the willing,” and the concept of neutrality serves that purpose aptly.

Other states have also recognized this value in recent years, choosing not to depend on a larger defense alliance for their security from the outset but instead deciding on cooperation on a case-by-case basis. MongoliaSri Lanka, Serbia, even Belarus and the dictatorial Turkmenistan have turned to neutrality in one form or another as their foreign policy creed. The ten ASEAN states, increasingly, emphasize their idea of a “Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality,” as they refuse to be drawn into the feud between China and the United States. For all of them, neutrality (or non-alignment) is not an entrenched doctrine but a dynamic means to preserve their diplomatic maneuverability within (potential) conflict zones. It is important to note that these states do not isolate themselves but seek international cooperation with all sides and increasingly aim to assume mediation roles, as exemplified by the Minsk talks (Belarus) for the Ukrainian crisis or Singapore as the venue for the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Therefore, the question for Austria should not be whether neutrality is still relevant today—it is timeless—but rather what it stands to gain or lose from deviating from it.

The Austrian Neutrality in the Service of Europe

However, let us not conclude this discussion on neutrality with a pros and cons analysis of Austrian neutrality, but rather with a vision for the neutral countries of Europe. It is undoubtedly true that a secure Europe guarantees the security of Austria. However, drawing the conclusion that all EU member states should commit to the Union’s (military) security in the same way overlooks the fact that Europe is more than just the EU. At least the Balkans, Turkey, and Russia belong to Europe, and perhaps even Central Asia and the Middle East (at least in terms of security concerns). Only a secure Europe can guarantee a stable EU. The security of Russia is as much a part of this equilibrium as that of Germany, England, or France, and discord with any of these states has historically brought misfortune to the continent. The ongoing crises in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and Afghanistan demonstrate that the threat to European peace is not eliminated. Turmoil in these regions automatically worsens the situation in Europe, whether through migration movements that inflame domestic climates or through harsh military escalation at the EU’s borders. These tendencies cannot be simply eradicated through large military alliances. History has also taught us this. Active diplomatic and geopolitical management of Europe’s inherent inter-state tensions has always been a key to pacifying the continent. Even NATO, to a significant extent, served as a vehicle for both external deterrence and internal pacification.

There is no other concept in international relations that is as flexible and suitable for de-escalating inter-state tensions as neutrality. “Buffer states” that adhere to the relatively precise provisions of neutrality under international law (although these provisions may require updating) are valuable because they mitigate the security dilemma in both directions or, more precisely, they have a balanced effect in all directions. It is not surprising that for a long time, there has been an idea, supported by academics and policymakers alike, to make Ukraine and Georgia neutral countries following Austria’s example. Even US security experts have entertained this idea.[8] Regardless of how one looks at it, Russia, after two brutal invasions in Central Europe during the 20th century, has a legitimate need for security and rightly perceives NATO as a threat. Moscow will not let the conflicts in Ukraine or Georgia subside (as this would hinder their NATO membership) unless guarantees are in place that these countries will not become bases for Euro-Atlantic weaponry. Neutral guarantees from both sides, NATO and Russia, for these countries are the best compromise for de-escalating the conflict, similar to how Swiss neutrality contributed to the peace of Europe in 1815 and Austrian neutrality in 1955. This does not mean that both states should be left defenseless, but rather that security guarantees from both sides should integrate a neutral Ukraine and a neutral Georgia into the intricate security architecture of the continent. Neutrality does not imply vulnerability but rather security through alternative means and integration without dependence.

Austria’s 65 years of experience with practiced active neutrality is invaluable for all these movements in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and other regions with an affinity for neutrality. Even for the EU itself, “neutral outposts” like Austria, Malta, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland have much more to offer than adding five more NATO members. It is worth noting that all of this does not impede voluntary and humanitarian-based cooperation, such as the “Partnership for Peace.” As the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process has shown, neutral states can initiate and negotiate credible pan-European security interests and serve as liaisons. Their humanitarian and bridge-building traditions are a valuable resource of soft power, and squandering them would be akin to discarding a jewel. The EU can effectively deploy its neutral members for peace promotion, as they can serve the EU—and Europe even more—if they are finally freed from the “free-rider” image and their usefulness for EU security is sought beyond military bases. The EU does not need to become neutral itself (as has been suggested by a Swiss politician) and dissolve its traditional alliance with the USA to benefit from the de-escalating power of its own buffer zones. Through its neutral outposts, it can have the best of both worlds. An internationalist neutrality policy implies active diplomatic involvement in EU foreign policy by playing the role of mediator and providing resources that only neutral states possess: credibility as unbiased intermediaries and goodwill on the other side of a dispute. Those who do not engage in Russia and China-bashing may be viewed with suspicion in Brussels, Berlin, and London, but they certainly have more to offer when it comes to approaching Moscow and Beijing to propose European solutions to problems. The neutral states of Europe, whether EU members or not, have no reason to be ashamed of their status but can and should utilize it, not only for themselves but for a peaceful Europe on all sides.

[1] Gerhard Jandl, “Nun sag, wie hast du‘s mit der Neutralität?,” in 100 Jahre Verfassung: 77 Stimmen zum Jubiläum des österreichischen Bundes-Verfassungsgesetzes (B-VG). Ein Lesebuch (Vienna: Facultas, 2020), 149.

[2] See also Gerhard Jandl, “Some Observations on the Neutrality of Austria, and its Participation in the European and Euro-Atlantic Security Structures,” in Außen- und sicherheitspolitische Integration im Europäischen Rechtsraum, ed. Andreas J. Kumin, et al. (Vienna: Jan Sramek Verlag, 2020).

[3] Peter Ruggenthaler, “Neutrality as an Instrument of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1945–53,” in Notions of Neutralities, ed. Pascal Lottaz and Herbert Reginbogin (Lanham: Lexington, 2019).

[4] Thomas Fischer, “Die Sowjetunion, Österreich und die finnische KSZE-Initiative vom 5. Mai 1969,” in Osteuropa vom Weltkrieg bis zur Wende, ed. Wolfgang  Mueller and Michael Portmann (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2007).

[5] Csaba Békés, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Declaration of Neutrality,” Cold War History 6 (2006).

[6] Jürg Martin Gabriel, “Neutrality and Neutralism in Southeast Asia , 1960-1970,” in The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

[7] The neutral countries Belgium, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, Monaco, and the USA were invaded by the Axis powers. Iceland and Iran were invaded by the Allies.

[8] Michael O’Hanlon, Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).