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A reassessment of neutrality is necessary. The old Swiss concept of “sitting still” should be left behind. False diplomatic caution should be replaced by a courageous and aggressive advocacy of self-evident values. Austria is good example of how neutral states should use their special status to engage in international crisis management. In a polarized world, neutral states will become even more relevant.


By Prof. Dr. Heinz Gärtner, 6.9.2021.

The Idea of Neutrality

The concept of neutrality has proven time and again that it can adapt to new situations. As the Cold War was about building blocs and military alliances in Europe, neutrality represented the anomaly. Neutral states managed to stay out of the spheres of influence created by the two military superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Neutral states are well suited to making an important contribution to addressing the new challenges after the end of the Cold War. So how does the neutral state differ from the non-neutral one? In times of peace, it may not pre-emptively commit itself to support another state militarily in case of war. This obligation of assistance was included in the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 (Article V) after heated discussions, because of the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, neutral states offered mediation and good offices and fought against the stagnation of the détente policy, especially in the framework of the CSCE. After the end of the Cold War, the neutral states became active in peace operations outside of military alliances. In many ways, neutral states have more room for maneuvering than members of alliances or major powers. They enjoy more recognition and have fewer geopolitical interests. Neutral states in the twenty-first century do not encompass evading conflict but rather engaging in it. In contrast to disengagement and evasion, “engaged neutrality” entails active participation in international security policy in general and in international peace operations in particular. “Engaged neutrality” means involvement whenever possible and staying out only if necessary.

It goes without saying that there always has to be a balance between engagement and disengagement. When and how much should a neutral state be involved in or keep a distance from a conflict? What is too much and what is too little? These questions are always difficult to address in a complex and volatile security environment. It has to be said, however, that the issue of engagement is not unique to neutral states per se, but rather relates to deeper philosophical and moral questions about issues such as state sovereignty and the use of force. Neutral and non-aligned states may possess more normative power, however, than the military and economic powers that otherwise dominate the international relations of Europe and the North Atlantic area.

However, a reassessment of neutrality is necessary. The old Swiss concept of “sitting still” should definitely become a thing of the past. False diplomatic caution should be replaced by a courageous and aggressive advocacy of self-evident values.

The Case of Austria

Austrian neutrality cannot mean “staying out of it”, but rather demands an intense involvement in international crisis management. Assistance for reconstruction and humanitarian aid efforts in war-torn countries can take place within the framework of the UN, the EU, the OSCE, or the NATO-Partnerships. The possibility for participation in the foreign policy and crisis management of the EU is explicitly permitted. Neutral states are also part of robust deployments such as those within the NATO Partnership for Peace. Austria’s “engaged neutrality” means active participation in the international security policy in general, and in international peace operations in particular. Peace operations are fully compatible with neutrality. Naturally, the fundamental priority of a neutral security policy during security deployments and deployments abroad does not consist of alliance obligations under the commitments of Article V. Neutral states are well suited (in many ways better than other states) to make important contributions to these challenges.

Nonetheless, Austria’s neutrality has a crucial advantage in the debate on these values. It releases Austria from geopolitical and alliance-related considerations. Western democratic constitutional states need to deviate from their values time and again for pragmatic considerations. Austria has no global geopolitical interests that would lead it to establish military bases in or deliver weapons to warring parties or authoritarian states. Austria is also not limited by alliance obligations in its fight for democracy, human rights, and constitutional states everywhere. Its neutrality allows Austria not to have two sets of weights and measures. Austria needs to utilize these advantages and possibilities which result from its engaged neutrality policy. The state of neutrality itself already implies that Austria, from the outset, does not maintain a hostile attitude during conflicts.

Thanks to this policy of neutrality, Vienna was chosen as the third UN-Headquarters and seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN specialized agencies such as UNIDO and the secretariats of OPEC and the OSCE (formerly CSCE). Furthermore, the PrepCom (an administrative committee for the surveillance of the comprehensive test ban agreement) of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the secretariat of the Wassenaar Arrangement (dealing with the transfer of conventional weapons), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC) and other internationally active organizations. Vienna became the location for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program 2014-2015 and 2021. In 2015 an Austrian diplomat was appointed as special representative of the OSCE in the Ukraine.

Austria as a neutral participates in the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union. Obligations of assistance without exceptions would turn the EU into a military alliance. The EU Treaty of Lisbon includes a clause on security obligations (Art. 42.7.). According to this clause member states must provide each other with “aid and assistance by all means in their power” in case of armed aggression towards a member state. This includes the promise to use military force. However, the Treaty of Lisbon includes the so-called Irish Formula, which states that this article “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defense policy of certain member states”. Neutral member states would not be forced to participate in collective or territorial defense but are rather supposed to be engaged in crisis management and collective security. The Lisbon Treaty provides the basis for crisis management. Article 42.1.  refers to this as “peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter”.

Of course, there can be no neutrality between democracy and dictatorship, between a constitutional state and despotism, between the adherence to human rights and their violation. The Austrian neutrality law does not relate to these questions. It is defined in negative terms as the non-membership in a military alliance, non-participation in foreign wars, and the non-deployment of foreign troops on Austrian territory. Even during the Cold War, Austria remained firmly grounded in the community of western values.


Picture: Jerusalem, June 11, 2013 – A United Nations vehicle drives into a UN base near the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights June 11, 2013. Austria has begun withdrawing peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, winding down a four-decade mission due to spillover fighting from the Syrian civil war. © IMAGO / Xinhua