Murdo Ritchie surveys the decline of neutral foreign policy status across Europe, and argues this is a forgotten and important aspect of Nato’s expansion in the continent.
One of the central disputes since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been over the role of Nato’s eastward expansion, and the extent of its influence on Russian strategic thinking. The list of experts warning that this could create greater conflicts includes the author of post-war containment, George Kennan, cold warrior Henry Kissinger, international economist Jeffrey Sachs, Russian and Soviet specialists such as Professors Stephen Cohen, Richard Sakwa, and great power realist John Mearsheimer. The current director of the CIA, William Burns warned several years ago that: “Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite [and] not just Putin.”
But Nato has not only carried out an eastward expansion across large parts of Europe. It has also augmented the status of the nominally neutral countries (Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and the Irish Republic) by creating so-called Partnerships for Peace (PfPs) that allow countries to claim they are not full members, while still participating in military exercises, sharing expertise, intelligence and gaining access to Nato’s lucrative weapons and military materials market.
Non-aligned and neutral countries have become almost indistinguishable from countries with full membership. This shift has increased the pressures on the Russian Federation as well as narrowed the political space available for reducing tensions within Europe.
Initially, PfPs were vehicles for countries seeking full membership, who had yet to standardize their policies, practices and much of their equipment through Membership Action Plans. But in some cases the goal of full membership was dropped. PfP plans are individualised, with some limited opt-outs, especially if a country wishes to continue its claim of neutrality. These often include limiting the deployment of foreign troops to certain areas. Currently, Cyprus is the only EU member that is not a full Nato or PfP member.
Though Nato is the main driver of military policy, the European Union has made various attempts to establish military structures. These have usually failed because of the overwhelming presence of Nato, and Franco-German tensions. The European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon (2009) made it obligatory for member countries to align their policies with Nato through the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy – a military agreement with 18 Battlegroups at its disposal, each with about 1,500 troops.
This force ostensibly exists for peacekeeping, humanitarian, and peacemaking (war-fighting) purposes. So far, only Denmark and Malta have opted out of Battlegroup integration. To ease Nato integration, these EU forces use English as standard. The ironically named European Peace Facility, adopted in 2021, now allows it to deliver military equipment to already existing theatres of conflict, and not just for peacekeeping.
Both institutions have warped neutral status across the continent, to the point where it has become little more than a fig-leaf hiding military incorporation. Sweden, no longer calls itself a neutral country, despite no popular vote reversing that traditional orientation position. Austria and Finland still maintain their neutral status, though this is under strain. Finland boasts that it is better integrated into Nato than many full members. Across the continent, political and military elites have been pushing barely concealed assimilation with little awareness from their populations. During this current conflict Sweden has delivered around 5,000 AT4 anti-tank weapons, while ‘neutral’ Finland has sent 1,500 single shot anti-tank weapons. At present, Swiss made MP9 machine guns are being used by both sides, while it is unknown how many Glock pistols Austria has previously sent or is currently delivering.
Norway joined Nato in the first wave after realising it could no longer trust Swedish neutrality. During WWII, Sweden provided the use of its railways to transport German troops, arms and munitions including heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns to occupy Norway. It later aided the Finnish army in alliance with the Wehrmacht to fight the Continuation war (1941-1944), the conflict that succeeded the earlier Winter war between Finland and the Soviet Union (1939-1940). Finland changed sides when it became clear that the Wehrmacht was losing. This did not stop it being declared as a belligerent party at Nuremberg and in the 1947 treaty with the Soviet Union accepted a neutral status. It was a neutrality that rested on large-scale annual conscription of several hundred thousand volunteers.
Sweden’s claim to neutrality has always been challenged. It flew reconnaissance missions, but not bombing ones, over Libya. The US National Security Agency operates a top secret electronic and human intelligence sharing relationship. The current war has seen elites in both Sweden and Finland demanding full Nato membership.
The Swedish arms industry has always been a significant part of the economy, employing 30,000 people in mainly highly skilled positions. Well known weapons such as the Bofors guns were sold to contesting sides. Although, once a highly self-sufficient industry, economic globalisation has changed this. British Aerospace is now the biggest owner of Saab (35 percent) as well having bought Landsystems Hägglunds, and Bofors Defense; HDW took over Kockums before being taken over by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. These international acquisitions increasingly shape foreign and military policies. Sweden’s international arms sales are now regulated through the European Defence Agency of the European Union.
Although arguments can be made for armed neutrality, these can never explain Sweden’s nuclear weapons research and development programme. For twenty-seven years until 1972, it ran clandestinely up to the point when considerations were being made for underground testing. There was massive co-operation with the United States over this period.
The current war has also changed the ‘perpetual neutrality’ of Switzerland – a policy it has held since 1815. “This is a one-time step by Switzerland,” said Swiss President Ignacio Cassis, “which we should not take lightly,” when it took out a PfP agreement in 1996, though it still claims neutrality.
Switzerland is a small but significant arms exporter with 0.7 percent of the world’s sales. As the editor of the Swiss Military Review, Alexander Vautravers wrote: “Nato accounts for 70 percent of global military spending, if we want to set standards, for example in the calibre of ammunition, the organisation joint force commands, a rapprochement with Nato is inevitable, whether we like it or not.” This comment accurately expresses elite opinion across the continent. But Switzerland’s main change has been by enforcing the implementation of European Union economic sanctions; the largest cluster after the United States. Traditionally, Swiss financial institutions were fiercely independent holding to firm secrecy by resisting external pressures. Financial capital, using systems such as SWIFT, now make it impossible to operate outside the international framework set by the big players.
Europe’s International Architecture
Europe’s international architecture centres around Nato and the European Union. Nato was established as a tightly disciplined organisation with a European political head and a US military head. Nato operates on the principle of Article 5, that an attack on one member was an attack on all. The only time this article was invoked, after the bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001, produced a hesitancy in many European capitals. Afghanistan was not seen as part of Europe’s core strategic interests, neither was Iraq. Discipline eroded and Nato became a pool out of which a ‘coalition of the willing’ could be assembled. The growth of full members and PfPs has turned it into a coalition of pacified bystanders allowing the main powers, mainly the US, to pursue their global agendas, while using collective discipline to silence divergent views.
The organisations that evolved into the European Union arose at the same time to control the main tools of war production: iron, steel, coal and fissile materials. Sold to populations as a way to stop another war between France and Germany, it was an economic mechanism for preparing the materials for a possible hot war with the Soviet Union, and for administering the Cold War. The EU was a joint militarist and liberal trade block, initially given a social democratic cover behind social policies. This façade disappeared after the creation of the single market, the adoption of the Euro and the launching of the supposedly independent European Central Bank. Because independent European attempts at military integration always failed the US presence was always required. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Nato members became intoxicated with the fantasy of a ‘peace dividend’ and ceased to meet their 2 percent obligation to military spending.
No Strategic Autonomy
As tensions between the US and Russia grew, both saw European institutions and governments as less significant. Most of Europe went along with the US invasion of Iraq, the limited opposition from France and Germany showed how little influence they had. Although many European countries claimed to be opposed to Ukraine joining Nato, they capitulated after extreme pressure, and the ‘open door’ policy to Ukraine and Georgia, was announced at the Bucharest Nato summit in 2008. US unilateral abandonment of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and withdrawal from the treaty on nuclear fuel and weapons in Iran continued the theme. Finally, the breaches of the Minsk Protocol regarding the military occupation of the Donbass and Luhansk rebel areas got so poor a response from Europe that Russia demanded to negotiate directly with the US instead. Russia, now, no longer believes Europe can exert a restraining hand on the US.
As French researcher Isabelle Facon puts it, Russia: “…consistently believes, with evident annoyance, that European countries are hopelessly incapable of strategic autonomy with regard to the US, and that they refuse to take responsibility for the deteriorating strategic and international situation.”
Really, there are no neutral actors in the US’ European sphere. Nato expansion, has eroded independent foreign policy. Every attempt to de-escalate a conflict will be seen with suspicion. It is hardly surprising that the main driving forces for the reduction of the conflict have come from countries such as Turkey and Israel. Neutral status in Europe may have been a convenient mask for self-interested and western-aligned states, but even the pretence provided some European political space for reducing tensions. Today, its disappearance makes settling conflicts much more difficult.