Switzerland Flirts With NATO

Russia’s war in Ukraine has some Swiss considering closer cooperation with the alliance—but not membership.

Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
A soldier wearing a camouflage uniform and helmet is seen from behind with the Swiss flag in the distance.
A soldier wearing a camouflage uniform and helmet is seen from behind with the Swiss flag in the distance.
A Swiss soldier stands at attention in front of a Swiss flag before the arrival of then-German President Christian Wulff in Bern, Switzerland, on Sept. 8, 2010. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Russia’s War in Ukraine

Flirten ja, heiraten nein!” (“Flirting yes, marrying no!”)

Flirten ja, heiraten nein!” (“Flirting yes, marrying no!”)

This is what the president of one of the largest associations of Swiss soldiers, Stefan Holenstein, recently said about Switzerland’s relationship with NATO. It may sound frivolous, but Holenstein was serious: His point, prompted by Russia’s war in Ukraine, was that Switzerland should work more closely with NATO but stop short of membership.

This is a ground-breaking suggestion in a country in the heart of Europe that is not a member of NATO or the European Union, only joined the United Nations in 2002, and—apart from sending some officers—has never joined full military exercises with surrounding NATO countries, believing the strict policy of military neutrality enshrined in Switzerland’s constitution prohibits it. Because of the war in Ukraine, Holenstein wants Switzerland to finally become part of, and start shouldering some responsibility for, Europe’s security and military architecture.

Suddenly, Swiss politics and media are alight with the neutrality issue. Last week, Damien Cottier, a liberal member of the Swiss parliament, said the Swiss have thought for too long that being surrounded by NATO countries automatically meant they would be protected too. This, he wrote in Le Temps, is “a dangerous pipe dream. Our country cannot be a free rider when it comes to European security.”

The world has already seen Finland and Sweden—two EU countries that, like Switzerland, have long-standing traditions of military neutrality—start to seriously consider applying for NATO membership, which could happen any day now. A noticeable shift is also taking place in Denmark, a NATO ally whose government now hopes to overturn the country’s existing policy of opting out of European Union defense projects in a June referendum.

These Nordic countries have suddenly concluded that “two life insurances are better than one,” a security expert said on the condition of anonymity. Switzerland is far away from Russia geographically and much less exposed than the Nordic countries are. But it, too, feels the need to move more firmly into the Western system of mutual security guarantees.

This is yet another example of how strategic alignments in Europe are changing due to Russian aggression. It seems military neutrality inherited from 20th-century Europe is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

NATO membership remains deeply unpopular among the Swiss; just 33 percent favors it. But public support for closer cooperation with the Atlantic alliance has grown in recent weeks, and some Swiss want to get as close as their country’s constitution will allow. “The Ukraine war is a shock wave for us,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global and emerging risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, who wrote his doctoral thesis on European neutral states after the Cold War.

Switzerland will not go as far as Sweden and Finland seemingly want to go and actually join NATO—not just because neutrality is in the Swiss Constitution but also because neutrality is an essential element of Swiss self-perception, preventing it from joining any military alliance with a mutual defense clause.

In countries such as France and Germany, language, religion, and a shared history have shaped national identity. But Switzerland has four national languages, several religions, and a strongly decentralized governance structure. (Its cantons have different holidays, law enforcement, health policies, and public education.) There, national identity is shaped by federalism, neutrality, and direct democracy. “In other words,” Rickli said, “Swiss identity is a political identity. Joining an international organization would destroy this.”

This is why the discussion in Switzerland on pursuing a closer relationship with NATO is difficult and sensitive. Several Swiss security experts refused to speak on the record, citing political pressure.

The country’s largest party—the far-right, nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP)—has already made its position clear that any flexibility on the neutrality principle compromises national sovereignty. For the SVP, Switzerland crossed that line when it decided to join other Western countries in sanctioning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Several center-left and center-right politicians, however, defended the sanctions, arguing that because Russia had violated international law—which was partly written in Geneva—Switzerland must condemn it. Some also said Switzerland can and should do much more with NATO than it currently does.

Switzerland joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a program for nonmembers, in 1996 after the end of the Cold War. The country has provided training and even some helicopters for international peacekeeping missions, such as the NATO-led one in Kosovo. It also exchanges air traffic data with NATO allies to prevent terrorist attacks from the air and participates in a NATO cyber defense center in Estonia. But that is about it. “Until now, interoperability [with NATO forces] on such a tactical level was as far as Switzerland would go,” Rickli said. “But to make entire units interoperable with NATO troops was never on the agenda. Now, this is suddenly being discussed.”

This discussion was kicked off by the leader of the center-right liberals, Thierry Burkart, in an op-ed in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on April 7. He argued it was time for “das Ende der Igel-Schweiz”—“the end of hedgehog Switzerland,” which rolls up in a ball and puts up sharp spines when it is under military attack but does nothing when other countries are attacked. In Burkart’s view, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves Swiss security policy is “at a dead end.” After all, Russia has classified the entire West as the enemy; Switzerland has been the target of Russian cyberattacks, just like nonneutral European countries; and Russian rockets can easily hit Switzerland.

The Swiss defense budget—currently just slightly less than 1 percent of the country’s GDP—will be increased, like elsewhere in Europe. Bern has also just ordered U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets. Burkart wants to align more purchases with NATO equipment so Switzerland can more easily conduct military exercises with NATO allies and even come to the aid of neighboring countries. It is this operational incompatibility that Burkart wants to eliminate. In the Alpine region, as one diplomat told Foreign Policy, “no vacuum must be created.”

By mid-April, a comprehensive poll showed that a majority in Switzerland favors Burkart’s plan for rapprochement with NATO, including joint military exercises: 56 percent of the Swiss want to cooperate more closely with NATO in various ways—just like Sweden and Finland have done in recent decades.

“Relations between Switzerland and NATO have oscillated between convergence and divergence” in recent decades, said Henrik Larsen, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. In a research paper, he wrote that in a safe and peaceful world—notably during the 1990s—the two tend to get closer. When the world gets uglier, though, Switzerland and NATO have found less ground for cooperation, such as when NATO refocused on collective defense after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Today, with NATO reinforcing territorial defenses on its eastern flank, Switzerland has little to offer, and the divergence is widening.

In the past, when the Swiss thought of their security, what they had in mind was the security of their own small country. Today, they increasingly see it in a wider European context. Now, because the war in Ukraine could fan out in all directions, Holenstein said, “they finally realize security is the foundation of everything we hold dear: our freedom, our democracy, rule of law, and military neutrality.”

“A brutal war of aggression, in the middle of Europe, hits us all indiscriminately,” he added. “Therefore, Switzerland must arm itself for the future.”

So far, this is just talk in political, diplomatic, and military circles. Whether Switzerland will really start to cooperate with NATO in an operational way will likely be decided in a referendum. If it is approved, the process could take two years.

Nevertheless, that this discussion is taking place at all is revolutionary by Swiss standards. If even the devoutly neutral Swiss wake up and move closer to the Western camp, it means the world is really changing.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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