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HomeWorldSimilarities and Differences Between Austria and Switzerland: A Comparative Analysis

Similarities and Differences Between Austria and Switzerland: A Comparative Analysis

This is an excerpt from Neutrality After 1989: New Paths in the Post-Cold War World, edited by Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom. You can download the book free of charge from E-International Relations.

Switzerland and Austria are connected not only by a border in the Alps but also by a long-standing and surprisingly intertwined commitment to neutrality. At the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), the Austrian Empire was one of eight Great Powers giving guarantees for Switzerland’s ‘perpetual neutrality’. Over a century and two empire-breaking world wars later, the Austrians themselves had to sign a memorandum agreeing to become a neutral state ‘like Switzerland’ to end the post-war occupation. In recent years, Switzerland used the Austrian example to argue that it could join the United Nations without damaging its neutrality. What goes around comes around. Nevertheless, both states exhibit considerable variances on policy matters. For instance, despite the written promise of the Austrians to follow the Swiss model, one of the first things Vienna did after making neutrality the law of the land was to apply for United Nations (UN) membership – something Switzerland had ruled out for itself, arguing that it would be incompatible with neutrality. In Berne’s view, the UN was the club of the winners of World War Two, lacking universality, and was hence off-limits for a neutral state. Similarly, once the Cold War had ended, Austria, together with the northern European neutrals Sweden and Finland, joined the European Union in 1995 – while Switzerland refrained. Although the government and parliament wanted to join the European Economic Community (the EU’s precursor), a referendum in 1992 returned a 50.3 per cent no-vote. Swiss critics of European integration have since argued EU membership is incompatible with neutrality – leading to Switzerland’s continued absence from the union. Only in 2002 did the country become a UN member, after enough of its people were convinced that the organisation had achieved ‘true universality’ and thus compatibility with its neutrality.

Austria understands its neutrality in a less limiting way when it comes to participation in international organisations. This is exemplified by various Austrian initiatives, like Chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s (1970–83) appeals to resolve the Palestinian question, or more recently Austria’s leadership in creating the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and its proactive role in facilitating an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capabilities (the JCPOA) between Tehran and Washington. Economically and diplomatically, Vienna often understood its foreign policy as what historian Heinz Gärtner (2018) has termed ‘engaged neutrality’. In military matters, Vienna also often went different ways, using its neutrality policy as an argument to reduce the size of its forces or advocate for global disarmament and non-proliferation while spending the Cold War straddling the Iron Curtain. In Switzerland, the opposite argument was prominent, that the state needed to maintain a large and heavily equipped army to defend its neutrality against potential threats. Until the late 1960s, Switzerland even contemplated building nuclear weapons – significantly supported by parts of the military establishment who believed only a Swiss bomb could uphold the country’s neutrality in the nuclear age (Zogg 2024).

Why is it that on paper it looks as if Switzerland and Austria shared a commitment to the same neutral principles, but in practice they deviate so significantly on concrete policies? This chapter explores the main factors for the differences and similarities in contemporary Austrian and Swiss neutrality conceptions. On the one hand, analogous developments in the early days of both legally guaranteed neutralities partially elucidate why they have more in common with each other than with other neutrals of comparable ages. On the other hand, the differences in Berne’s and Vienna’s international needs and their individual historical trajectories explain why they both went their own ways in defining this fuzzy concept.

Children of War

Before discussing the differences, let us consider which factors make Swiss and Austrian neutralities look alike. First and foremost, they were both shaped by how different European wars ended, during which both states experienced occupation: For the Swiss, it was the Napoleonic Wars that came with conquest by the French. For the Austrians it was the Second World War and the subsequent Allied occupation. In both cases, their modern-day neutralities were part of a package deal as a post-war settlement.

In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, the assembled eight Great Powers put down in writing that they ‘acknowledged that the general interest demands that the Helvetic States should enjoy the benefit of a perpetual neutrality; and wishing, by territorial restitution and cessions, to enable it to secure its independence and maintain its neutrality’ (Hansard, 1816). This landmark treaty, to which Switzerland acceded a few months later, was pivotal in two ways. On the one hand, it neutralised Switzerland under international law and bound the great powers to recognize this status while also adding important state territory to the Helvetic body; Geneva, a corridor leading to it, and Basel would henceforth be part of the nineteen cantons of Switzerland. The Great Powers were in words and deeds interested in making the Swiss body politic a viable part of the European concert system, strong and independent enough to buffer Austria and France, preventing the Alps between them from being used as a staging ground by either side to threaten the other, and ensuring that Switzerland would not…

Bound By Their Own Laws

This brings us to a second important similarity – for both states, the internationally recognized characters of their neutralities led to their codification into national legislation. Switzerland enshrined it in two key paragraphs of its 1848 constitution, the founding document of modern-day Switzerland. Although the wording slightly changed over time, the principles of the paragraphs remained the same. They oblige the legislative and executive branches of the state (the National Assembly and the Federal Council) to maintain the ‘external security, independence, and neutrality’ of the state (Art. 173 and 185). This does not make neutrality part of the national objectives, as the federal administration has insisted repeatedly (Motion 05.3213), but it does elevate it to a principle of foreign policy to which both branches of government are bound (Interpellation 14.3331). A similar obligation is put on the Austrian state through a federal constitutional law (Bundesverfassungsgesetz, 1955):

  • For the purpose of asserting its independence to the outside world and for the purpose of safeguarding…

This provision even defines Austrian neutrality to some extent, which is lacking in the Swiss case. Regardless, the fact that both constitutions mention neutrality is a domestic legal aspect differentiating the Alpine nations from other neutrals of similar periods that used neutrality policy merely as a tool in the absence of better options. The prime examples are Sweden and Finland, which never had explicit neutrality provisions in their national laws. The Swedes had been neutral like Switzerland since 1815, but not because of an agreement with foreign powers. They simply did not join any wars or alliances for 200 years. They even tried to create a Scandinavian defence alliance several times before and after World War II. It was the failure of those endeavours and the lack of alternatives that led the Swedes back to neutrality several times. Finland, too, started calling its foreign policy neutral out of necessity after having lost World War Two and having been forced into a security arrangement with the USSR. For Helsinki, calling their foreign policy neutral was a way of resisting Soviet demands for closer integration – much to the chagrin of Moscow, which until the Gorbachev era did not agree to call the Finns neutral (Juntunen 2024).

However, like Stockholm, Helsinki never actually codified its neutrality in national legislation, nor did it seek the status of a permanent neutral under international law like Austria. Both Nordic states were following pragmatic neutrality policies geared toward specific security predicaments. While the Finns had to be careful of their relationship with the USSR and thus followed a policy beneficial to Moscow (in the West pejoratively referred to as ‘Finlandization’), the Swedes were leaning their security thinking heavily on the West, or, as Mikael af Malmborg (2001, 52) explains, ‘anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Swedish military planning (…) knew that there was never talk of more than one enemy’ – i.e. the Soviet Union.

Consequently, it was relatively simple for both Nordic states to discard their neutral positions after the Cold War. Once the East-West dichotomy had ceased and the threat level declined, Sweden and Finland first reframed their foreign policies around the turn of the millennium as ‘non-alignment in peacetime’, discarding references to hard neutrality in their foreign policy communication – and ultimately, gave up also on that stance in 2022 when they applied for NATO membership. Unlike when Sweden joined the EU, this step was achieved without a long and hard public debate since no public referendum was needed to change their constitutions or national laws. This aspect differs strongly from Switzerland and Austria, both of which would face much larger public hurdles to change the policy, as that would necessitate an extensive involvement of the general public for the sake of changing such a fundamental element of national identity. In Austria, a two-thirds majority in both chambers of parliament would be needed to change the neutrality law. An even bigger hurdle exists for Switzerland, where changes to the constitution can only be achieved through a mandatory referendum. In this regard, the Alpine neutralities have always been more firmly rooted in domestic law than their Nordic counterparts.

Neutrality Provides Identity

Lastly, in both countries, the discourse about the fundamental principles of the state led to the identification of large parts of the population with it. People perceive neutrality as an essential part of what it means to be Austrian or Swiss. At different times but in similar ways, private citizens, politicians, and thinkers started attributing values to neutrality that went well beyond a simple foreign policy. For instance, Pictet de Rochemont, the aforementioned nineteenth century Swiss diplomat and one of the intellectual fathers of modern Swiss neutrality, viewed the policy as a service to Europe, allowing for the establishment of lasting peace by guarding the Alps against Great Power competition. This idea impacted many contemporary liberals to rethink Switzerland’s position in the nation-building process of that age as an inherently European project. A century later, the experience of having survived two world wars unharmed had another deep impact on the national psyche, convincing generations of Swiss that policies of self-defense and self-reliance – neutrality included – were right to protect their livelihoods inside a small state. Neutrality had become itself a value and an identity that needed to be maintained (Fischer & Möckli 2016).

Hence, Cold War Swiss discourse was centred around the perils of being part of foreign efforts to consolidate power away from the state, like European integration or the UN. Much of this was firmly rooted in popular beliefs about fundamental Swiss values. Consistently, opinion polls came out with astronomical approval rates for neutrality – even after the Cold War. Since 1989, the Center for Security Studies in Zürich conducts yearly surveys on popular opinion about various security issues, showing an unwavering approval for maintaining neutrality between 80 and 97 percent. Although the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2022 led to a ‘plummeting’ of those values from 97 per cent to 89 per cent, they have since gone up again to 91 per cent in 2023 (Szvircsev Tresch et al., 2023). If anything, the end of the Cold War made neutrality only more appealing to the Swiss populace.

The same is true for Austria, where neutrality has become an important part of national identity. For instance, 26 October, the day Austria passed its neutrality act, is today celebrated as the republic’s national day. The decision to adopt a holiday to celebrate the Austrian state was taken in 1965. For the entirety of the Cold War it was celebrated under the name ‘Day of Neutrality’. This contrasts with other national holidays like the United States’ Independence Day or Germany’s Day of German Unity, and reflects how strongly neutrality was part of Austria’s emerging national identity. Although this tradition has been changing in recent years (Schreiner 2018, pp. 225– 229), the identification of Austrian statehood with neutrality is still fundamental, enunciated most recently by the speeches of the President of the Republic Alexander van der Bellen and Minister of Defense Klaudia Tanner in their addresses to the nation on 26 October 2022. Although Chancellor Karl Nehammer did not mention neutrality in his speech, Van der Bellen (2022) and Tanner (2022) called it a ‘principle’ giving Austrians a sense of orientation and a ‘high value’. Consequently, as in Switzerland, neutrality has remained extremely popular among the public also after the Cold War, with most approval rates hovering between 60–80 per cent, depending on the year and questions asked. Even in 2023, only 16 per cent of Austrians wanted to join NATO while 71 per cent preferred remainin…

Blurry Origins versus New Beginnings

There are, however, fundamental differences in the normative developments of the two neutrality conceptions that partially explain the observable variations on the policy level. To begin with, the origins of the two neutralities are remembered differently. In this regard, the two nations are as different as it gets. Austria became a small state in the heart of the Alps only after being defeated in two world wars. The Second Republic that emerged after World War Two was a far cry from the vast, multi-ethnic, multilingual empire that Vienna once controlled. This experience is radically different from Switzerland, which was not fighting in either war and had been a sm…

The Dogmatic Fork in The Early Cold War

Another fundamental difference is the conceptualization of what concrete foreign policies of a small permanent neutral state should look like. A ‘dogmatic split’ with far-reaching consequences occurred in the 1950s, from the very beginning of Austrian neutrality. Two prominent and respected international law thinkers were the theoreticians of the split: Rudolf Bindschedler of Switzerland and Alfred Verdross of Austria. Although neither was the originator of the political approaches – those decisions had been made previously – they enunciated them in jurisprudential terms influencing generations of Swiss and Austrian thinkers until now. Their interpretations of neutrality became so prominent that academics and officials literally started using the word “doctrine” to refer to their respective theses.

In 1954, Bindschedler, who had been working as an in-house lawyer for the Political Department (Switzerland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs), wrote a short four-page memo on the meaning of neutrality. Although it never became the official position of the Federal Council, the memo was widely circulated in the administration and referred to throughout the Cold War. He established the idea that permanent neutrals, due to their obligation to remain neutral in all future wars, were under special, secondary obligations during peacetime to make sure none of their foreign policy decisions would make neutrality impossible during wartime. This line of thinking developed into the so-called Vorwirkungslehre (doctrine of preconditions) according to which the status of permanent neutrality came with preconditions that needed to be fulfilled by way of a correct peacetime neutrality policy in addition to maintaining strict legal neutrality when war broke out. One such precondition was (for obvious reasons) not to join a military alliance. But just as important was not being part of economic or political clubs that could force their members to commit ‘unneutral’ actions during wartime. Bindschedler phrased it as follows:

When participating in international conferences and organisations, it is important to distinguish whether they have a predominantly political, economic, cultural, or technical aspect. If they are conferences or organisations of a political nature, participation can only be considered if they exhibit a certain universality. The main representatives of the relevant political groups must participate, especially both parties involved in any potential conflict. Also in this respect it is important for Switzerland to avoid taking sides (Bindschedler, 1954).

The Bindschedler Doctrine line of thinking was one of the main reasons Switzerland stayed away from UN membership until 2002 (Fischer and Möckli 2016).

A distinctly different theory of permanent neutrality was formulated by Alfred Verdross, a dean of the law faculty at the University of Vienna and one of the country’s foremost experts in international law. In conjunction with his colleague, Laurenz Kunz, he held that not only was it in the discretion of the Security Council to exempt member states from participating in military coercive measures, but that UN members had acknowledged Austria’s status as a permanent neutral by virtue of being notified thereof. Furthermore, Austria’s intention to join the…

Neutrality Changing or Disappearing?

For the above dogmatic and ideological reasons, Swiss foreign policy during the Cold War remained focused for a long time on maintaining as much independence as possible in security, economic, and political terms. It was not an isolationist policy like that of Albania, or a nonaligned stance in the way Yugoslavia started developing it. Switzerland participated in key elements of the West’s Cold War economic structure like the Marshall Plan (starting in 1947) and later unofficially cooperated with COCOM export controls, bringing Switzerland into the Euro-Atlantic trade system. Neither did Bern oppose diplomatic participation in universal but non-binding pan-European endeavours like the Council of Europe, which it joined in 1963. Also, together with Europe’s other neutral and non-aligned states, it played an important role in creating the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the mid-1970s (Fischer 2009). Furthermore, Switzerland remained willing to support international peace and diplomacy activities when asked to do so. It was part of two neutral commissions implementing the Korean armistice after 1953. It also remained willing to provide Geneva as a European meeting ground for the UN and a plethora of other international organisations. Finally, there is Bern’s long-standing practice of providing good office services to mediate between third states that broke relations. Some of these efforts remained low-key, while others became visible, as during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–80, the 1985 superpower summits in Geneva (Fischer and Möckli 2016) and, more recently, the mediation efforts between Russia and Georgia in 2010–11 and the 2021 US-Russia summit in Geneva.

However, on issues touching directly on military affairs and political independence, Bern has been maintaining an arms-length distance. Whenever supranational organisations and the pooling of sovereignty are involved, the Bindschedler understanding of neutrality influenced the political debate – albeit this inclination gradually decreased after the Cold War. Some activities, especially the ones of military nature, have been prompted by the changed nature of the international system. Even after Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994, the

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