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Neutral country

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A neutral country is a state that is neutral towards belligerents in a specific war or holds itself as permanently neutral in all future conflicts (including avoiding entering into military alliances such as NATO, CSTO or the SCO). As a type of non-combatant status, nationals of neutral countries enjoy protection under the law of war from belligerent actions to a greater extent than other non-combatants such as enemy civilians and prisoners of war. Different countries interpret their neutrality differently:[1] some, such as Costa Rica have demilitarized, while Switzerland holds to "armed neutrality", to deter aggression with a sizeable military, while barring itself from foreign deployment.

Not all neutral countries avoid any foreign deployment or alliances, as Austria and Ireland have active UN peacekeeping forces and a political alliance within the European Union. Sweden's traditional policy was not to participate in military alliances, with the intention of staying neutral in the case of war. Immediately before World War II, the Nordic countries stated their neutrality, but Sweden changed its position to that of non-belligerent at the start of the Winter War. Sweden would uphold its policy of neutrality until the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. During the Cold War, former Yugoslavia claimed military and ideological neutrality from both the Western and Eastern Bloc, becoming a co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.

There have been considerable changes to the interpretation of neutral conduct over the past centuries.[2]


  • A neutral country in a particular war, is a sovereign state which refrains from joining either side of the conflict and adheres to the principle of the Law of Neutrality under international law. Although countries have historically often declared themselves as neutral at the outbreak of war, there is no obligation for them to do so.[3] The rights and duties of a neutral power are defined in sections 5[4] and 13[5] of the Hague Convention of 1907.
  • A permanently neutral power is a sovereign state which is bound by international treaty, or by its own declaration, to be neutral towards the belligerents of all future wars. An example of a permanently neutral power is Switzerland. The concept of neutrality in war is narrowly defined and puts specific constraints on the neutral party in return for the internationally recognized right to remain neutral.
  • Neutralism or a "neutralist policy" is a foreign policy position wherein a state intends to remain neutral in future wars. A sovereign state that reserves the right to become a belligerent if attacked by a party to the war is in a condition of armed neutrality.
  • A non-belligerent state is one that indirectly participates in a war by politically or materially helping one side of the conflict and thus not participating militarily. For example, it may allow its territory to be used for the war effort. Contrary to neutrality, this term is not defined under international law.

Rights and responsibilities of a neutral power


Belligerents may not invade neutral territory,[6] and a neutral power's resisting any such attempt does not compromise its neutrality.[7]

A neutral power must intern belligerent troops who reach its territory,[8] but not escaped prisoners of war.[9] Belligerent armies may not recruit neutral citizens,[10] but they may go abroad to enlist.[11] Belligerent armies' personnel and materiel may not be transported across neutral territory,[12] but the wounded may be.[13] A neutral power may supply communication facilities to belligerents,[14] but not war materiel,[15] although it need not prevent export of such materiel.[16]

Belligerent naval vessels may use neutral ports for a maximum of 24 hours, though neutrals may impose different restrictions.[17] Exceptions are to make repairs—only the minimum necessary to put back to sea[18]—or if an opposing belligerent's vessel is already in port, in which case it must have a 24-hour head start.[19] A prize ship captured by a belligerent in the territorial waters of a neutral power must be surrendered by the belligerent to the neutral, which must intern its crew.[20]

Recognition and codification


Neutrality has been recognised in different ways, and sometimes involves a formal guarantor. For example, Switzerland and Belgium's neutrality was recognized by the signatories of the Congress of Vienna,[21] Austria has its neutrality guaranteed by its four former occupying powers, and Finland by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The form of recognition varies, often by bilateral treaty (Finland), multilateral treaty (Austria) or a UN declaration (Turkmenistan). These treaties can in some ways be forced on a country (Austria's neutrality was insisted upon by the Soviet Union) but in other cases it is an active policy of the country concerned to respond to a geopolitical situation (Ireland in the Second World War).[22]

For the country concerned, the policy is usually codified beyond the treaty itself. Austria and Japan codify their neutrality in their constitutions, but they do so with different levels of detail. Some details of neutrality are left to be interpreted by the government while others are explicitly stated; for example, Austria may not host any foreign bases, and Japan cannot participate in foreign wars. Yet Sweden, lacking formal codification, was more flexible during the Second World War in allowing troops to pass through its territory.[22]

Armed neutrality

Switzerland is a prominent example of a country outside of any military alliance, but maintaining a strong deterrent force.

Armed neutrality is the posture of a state or group of states that has no alliance with either side of a war but asserts that it will defend itself against resulting incursions from any party,[23] making the benefit to a belligerent of entering the country by force not worth the cost.[citation needed]

This may include:

  • Military preparedness without commitment, especially as the expressed policy of a neutral nation in wartime, and the readiness to counter with force an invasion of rights by any belligerent power.[24]
  • Armed neutrality is a term used in international politics for the attitude of a state or group of states that makes no alliance with either side in a war. It is the condition of a neutral power during a war to hold itself ready to resist by force, any aggression of either belligerent.[25]
  • Armed neutrality makes a seemingly-neutral state take up arms for protection to maintain its neutrality.

The term derives from the historic maritime neutrality of the First League of Armed Neutrality of the Nordic countries and Russia under the leadership of Catherine the Great, which was invented in the late 18th century but has since been used only to refer to countries' neutralities.[26] Sweden and Switzerland are independently of each other famed for their armed neutralities, which they maintained throughout both World War I and World War II.[27] The Swiss and the Swedes each have a long history of neutrality: they have not been in a state of war internationally since 1815 and 1814, respectively. Switzerland continues to pursue, however, an active foreign policy and is frequently involved in peace-building processes around the world.[28] According to Edwin Reischauer, "To be neutral you must be ready to be highly militarized, like Switzerland or Sweden."[29]

In contrast, some neutral states may heavily reduce their military and use it for the express purpose of home defense and the maintenance of their neutrality, while other neutral states may abandon military power altogether (examples of states doing this include Liechtenstein). However, the lack of a military does not always result in neutrality: Countries such as Costa Rica and Iceland replaced their standing army with a military guarantee from a stronger power or participation in a mutual defense pact (under TIAR and NATO respectively).

Leagues of armed neutrality

  • The First League of Armed Neutrality was an alliance of minor naval powers organized in 1780 by Catherine II of Russia to protect neutral shipping during the American Revolutionary War.[30] The establishment of the First League of Armed Neutrality was viewed by Americans as a mark of Russian friendship and sympathy. This league had a lasting impact of Russian-American relations and the relations of those two powers and Britain. It was also the basis for international maritime law, which is still in effect.[31] In the field of political science, this is the first historical example of armed neutrality, however, scholars like Carl Kulsrud argue that the concept of armed neutrality was introduced even earlier. Within 90 years before the First League of Armed Neutrality was established, neutral powers had joined forces no less than three times. As early as 1613, Lubeck and Holland joined powers to continue their maritime exploration without the commitment of being involved in wartime struggles on the sea.[32]
  • The Second League of Armed Neutrality was an effort to revive this during the French Revolutionary Wars.[33] It was an alliance with Denmark-Norway, Prussia, Sweden and Russia. It occurred during 1800 and 1801. The idea of this second league was to protect neutral shipping from the British Royal Navy. However, Britain took this as the alliance taking up sides with France, and attacked Denmark leading to the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and the taking of Copenhagen by the British. The alliance was forced to withdraw from the league.
  • A potential Third League of Armed Neutrality was discussed during the American Civil War, but was never realized.[34]


Irish units on UN patrol in the Golan Heights.

For many states, such as Ireland, neutrality does not mean the absence of any foreign interventionism. Peacekeeping missions for the United Nations are seen as intertwined with it.[35] The Swiss electorate rejected a 1994 proposal to join UN peacekeeping operations. Despite this, 23 Swiss observers and police have been deployed around the world in UN projects.[36]

Points of debate


The legitimacy of whether some states are as neutral as they claim has been questioned in some circles, although this depends largely on a state's interpretation of its form of neutrality.

European Union


There are three members of the European Union that still describe themselves as a neutral country in some form: Austria, Ireland, and Malta. With the development of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy, the extent to which they are, or should be, neutral is debated.

For example, Ireland, which sought guarantees for its neutrality in EU treaties, argues that its neutrality does not mean that Ireland should avoid engagement in international affairs such as peacekeeping operations.[37]

Since the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty, EU members are bound by TEU, Article 42.7, which obliges states to assist a fellow member that is the victim of armed aggression. It accords "an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in [other member states'] power" but would "not prejudice the specific character of the security and defense policy of certain Member States" (neutral policies), allowing members to respond with non-military aid. Ireland's constitution prohibits participating in such a common defence.

With the launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in defense at the end of 2017, the EU's activity on military matters has increased. The policy was designed to be inclusive and allows states to opt in or out of specific forms of military cooperation. That has allowed most of the neutral states to participate, but opinions still vary. Some members of the Irish Parliament considered Ireland's joining PESCO as an abandonment of neutrality. It was passed with the government arguing that its opt-in nature allowed Ireland to "join elements of PESCO that were beneficial such as counter-terrorism, cybersecurity and peacekeeping... what we are not going to be doing is buying aircraft carriers and fighter jets". Malta, as of December 2017, is the only neutral state not to participate in PESCO. The Maltese government argued that it was going to wait and see how PESCO develops to see whether it would compromise Maltese neutrality.[38]

Neutrality during World War II

"Neutrality is a negative word. It does not express what America ought to feel. We are not trying to keep out of trouble; we are trying to preserve the foundations on which peace may be rebuilt.”
Woodrow Wilson

Many countries made neutrality declarations during World War II. However, of the European states closest to the war, only Andorra, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland (with Liechtenstein), and Vatican City (the Holy See) remained neutral to the end.

Their fulfillment to the letter of the rules of neutrality has been questioned: Ireland supplied important secret information to the Allies; for instance, the date of D-Day was decided on the basis of incoming Atlantic weather information, some of it supplied by Ireland but kept from Germany. Ireland also secretly allowed Allied aircraft to use the Donegal Corridor, making it possible for British planes to attack German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic. On the other hand, both Axis and Allied pilots who crash landed in Ireland were interned.[39]

Sweden and Switzerland, surrounded by possessions and allies of Nazi Germany similarly made concessions to Nazi requests as well as to Allied requests.[40] Sweden was also involved in intelligence operations with the Allies, including listening stations in Sweden and espionage in Germany. Spain offered to join the war on the side of Nazi Germany in 1940, allowed Axis ships and submarines to use its ports, imported war materials for Germany, and sent a Spanish volunteer combat division to aid the Nazi war effort. Portugal officially stayed neutral, but actively supported both the Allies by providing overseas naval bases, and Germany by selling tungsten.

The United States was initially neutral and bound by the Neutrality Acts of 1936 not to sell war materials to belligerents. Once war broke out, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt persuaded Congress to replace the act with the Cash and carry program that allowed the US to provide military aid to the allies, despite opposition from non-interventionist members.[41] The "Cash and carry" program was replaced in March 1941 by Lend-Lease, effectively ending the US pretense of neutrality.

Sweden also made concessions to the German Reich during the war to maintain its neutrality, the biggest concession was to let the 163rd German Infantry Division to be transferred from Norway to Finland by Swedish trains, to aid the Finns in the Continuation War. The decision caused a political "Midsummer Crisis" of 1941, about Sweden's neutrality.

Equally, Vatican City made various diplomatic concessions to the Axis and Allied powers alike, while still keeping to the rules of the Law of Neutrality. The Holy See has been criticized—but largely exonerated later—for its silence on moral issues of the war.[42]

List of countries proclaiming to be neutral


Some countries may occasionally claim to be "neutral" but not comply with the internationally agreed upon definition of neutrality as listed above.[43]

State Period(s) of neutrality Notes
 Andorra 1914–present
 Austria 1955–present (Declaration of Neutrality)
 Costa Rica 1949–present
 Ghana 2012–present
  • Attempted neutrality during the Cold War, officially neutral since 2012.[53][54]
 Haiti 2017–present
  • Neutral since 2017.[55]
 Ireland 1939–present[56]
  • Established a policy of neutrality during World War II, known as the Emergency in Ireland.[22]
    • Despite this policy, Ireland made concessions to the Allied Powers by secretly sharing intelligence and weather reports as well as by repatriating downed Royal Air Force airmen.[57][58]
    • It was believed that Ireland would take the German side if the United Kingdom attempted to invade Ireland, but would take the British side if invaded by Nazi Germany.
    • After the war, it was discovered that Germany had drawn up plans to invade Ireland in order to use the country for launching attacks into the United Kingdom, known as Operation Green.
    • Conversely, had Ireland been invaded, the United Kingdom had drawn up secret plans to invade Ireland in collaboration with the Irish Government to push Germany back out, known as Plan W.[59]
  • Ireland was invited to join NATO but did not wish to be in an alliance that included the United Kingdom.[22]
  • An EU Member since 1973: military non-aligned, see points of debate § European Union.
  • Has provided military aid to Ukraine during the Russo-Ukrainian War.[60][61][62]
 Liechtenstein 1868–present
 Malta 1980–present
 Mexico 1945–present
 Moldova 1994–present
 Monaco 1945–present
 Mongolia 2015–present
  • During World War I Mongolia was neutral, but became a belligerent country of World War II. In September 2015, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj in the 70th UN General Assembly speech suddenly announced that Mongolia will implement the "policy of permanent neutrality," and called on the international community to recognise Mongolian neutrality.[68]
  • Is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
 Panama 1990–present
 Rwanda 2009–present
 San Marino 1945–present
  • Neutral during World War I.
  • Declared its neutrality again in 1939, but following its occupation by Nazi Germany in 1944, the Sammarinese government declared war on the Axis, and joined with British forces in Italy to drive them out.[72]
  • A United Nations member since 1992.
 Serbia 2007–present
  Switzerland 1815–present
  • Self-imposed, permanent, and armed, designed to ensure external security. Because of that, it is the most globally known example of a neutral country.
  • The 1815 Congress of Vienna re-established Switzerland and its permanent neutrality was guaranteed by France, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom and others.[22]
  • Swiss neutrality was so rigorously defended that the country refused even to join the United Nations until 2002.[76]
  • However, the Swiss Armed Forces participated in the U.S.-led War in Afghanistan; in what the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation described as the nation's "first military deployment since 1815."[77] During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States was given permission to use Swiss airspace for surveillance missions over Iraq.[78]
  • The Swiss adopted sanctions imposed by the EU against Russia in 2022 in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.[79] Switzerland has previously only put in place sanctions created by the United Nations Security Council.[80]
  • Switzerland has no law that allows it to impose sanctions by itself, it can only adopt sanctions from the UN Security Council, the OECD or the EU.[81]
 Turkmenistan 1995–present
 Uzbekistan 2012–present
  • In 2012, the law of the Republic of Uzbekistan "On approval of the Concept of foreign policy of the Republic of Uzbekistan" was adopted[83]
  • Is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
 Vatican City 1929–present
  • The Lateran Treaty signed in 1929 with Italy imposed that "The Pope was pledged to perpetual neutrality in international relations and to abstention from mediation in a controversy unless specifically requested by all parties" thus making Vatican City neutral since then.
  • Is an observer of the Non-Aligned Movement.

List of formerly neutral countries

State Period(s) of neutrality Notes
Afghanistan 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1939–1945 (neutral during World War II)
Albania 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1968 (attempted neutrality during the Prague Spring)
  • A NATO member since 2009.
Argentina 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1939–1945 (attempted neutrality during World War II)
Belgium 1839–1914 (to World War I)
1936–1940 (to World War II)
Bhutan 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1939–1945 (neutral during World War II)
  • In accordance with the Treaty of Punakha in 1910, Bhutan during World War II to deal with foreign relations powers to the United Kingdom, Bhutan became a de facto wartime neutral country.[85]
  • Is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Cambodia 1955–1970 (to Vietnam War)
Chile 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1938–1943 (to World War II)
Colombia 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1933–1943 (to World War II)
Denmark 1864–1940 (after Second Schleswig War to World War II)
El Salvador 1906–1941 (to World War II)
Estonia 1938–1939 (to World War II)
Ethiopia 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
Finland 1935–1939 (to Winter War)
1956–2022 (from return of Porkkala rental area to 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine)
Greenland 1940–1941 (from Fall of Denmark to World War II)
  • Greenland exercised its sovereignty after the fall of Denmark in 1940, and declared its neutrality. The United States became a protecting power over the island to ward off Axis invasion, and Greenland later joined the war alongside the U.S. in 1941.
  • A NATO member since 1949 as a part of Denmark.
Haudenosaunee 1783–1917 (to World War I)
  • The confederation never made peace with Germany following the end of World War I.[96] They subsequently issued a second war declaration in 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States joining the war.[97]
Hawaii 1854–1893 (to Revolution of 1893)
Hungary 1956 (attempted neutrality during the Hungarian Revolution)
Iceland 1918–1940 (to World War II)
  • The Kingdom of Iceland declared its neutrality in 1940 after the fall of Denmark, but was thereafter invaded and occupied by British troops. The government later requested the United States assume the role of its defense for the duration of the war.
  • A NATO member since 1949.
Iran 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1939–1943 (neutral during World War II)
  • Occupied by the Allies in 1941, subsequently declared war on the Axis in 1943.
  • Is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Italy 1914–1915 (to World War I)
Laos 1955–1975 (ostensibly neutral throughout the Vietnam War)
Latvia 1938–1939 (to World War II)
Liberia 1914–1917 (to World War I)
1939–1944 (to World War II)
  • Liberia declared its neutrality in 1914, later joining after pressure from the United States in 1917.
  • Declared its neutrality again in 1939 at the start of the Second World War, but granted Allied forces early access to its territory. Liberia served as one of the Allies' only sources of rubber during the war when the plantations of Southeast Asia had been taken over by the Japanese.
Lithuania 1939 (to World War II)
Luxembourg 1839–1914 (to World War I)
1920–1940 (to World War II)
  • Neutral stance since 1839, abolished through its constitution in 1948.
  • A NATO member since 1949.
  • An EU member since 1957.
Nepal 1858–1914 (to World War I)
1918–1939 (to World War II)
Netherlands 1839–1940 (to World War II)
Norway 1814–1940 (to World War II)
  • A NATO member since 1949.
Orange Free State 1854–1899 (to Second Boer War)
  • Conquered by Britain in 1900.
  • Annexed into South Africa in 1902.
Portugal 1932–1945 (neutral during World War II)
  • While neutral throughout World War II, Portugal became non-belligerent towards the Allies, as evidenced in the Azores Base.
  • A NATO member since 1949.
  • EU member since 1986.
Spain 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1940–1945 (neutral during World War II)
  • While neutral throughout World War I and World War II, Spain did lean towards the Axis, as evidenced by the Blue Division.
  • A NATO member since 1982.
  • EU member since 1986.
Sweden 1814–2022
Thailand 1940–1941 (to World War II)
  • Following the end of the Franco-Thai War, Thailand officially adopted a neutral position during World War II.
  • Neutrality lasted until the Japanese invasion of Thailand on 8 December 1941, which led to an armistice and military alliance treaty with the Japanese Empire in mid-December 1941.
  • Following liberation by Allied forces, Thailand would remain in the camp of the anti-communist Western military bloc, sending troops to fight in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Tibet 1939–1945 (neutral during World War II)
Tonga 1845–1939 (until World War II)
  • Tonga retained its sovereignty while a protectorate of the United Kingdom. It declared war on the Axis in 1939 and 1941, respectively. Since the end of the war, Tongan forces have participated minimally in foreign conflicts.
Turkey 1940–1945 (neutral during World War II)
  • Signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1941.
  • A NATO member since 1952.
Ukraine 1991–2014 (to Russo-Ukrainian War)
  • In its Declaration of Sovereignty (1990), Ukraine declared it had the "intention of becoming a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs and adheres to three nuclear free principles" (art. 9). The 1996 Ukrainian Constitution, based upon the Declaration of Independence of August 24, 1991, contained the basic principles of non-coalition and future neutrality.[103] Such policy of state non-alignment was re-confirmed by law in 2010.[104][failed verification]
  • However, the Ukrainian army participated in the U.S.-led Iraq War. Ukraine provided the third-largest number of forces in Iraq.[105]
  • After Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine's parliament voted to drop non-aligned status on December 23, 2014.[106]
  • In 2017 Ukraine enshrined the desire to join NATO in its constitution.[107][108]
United States 1914–1917 (to World War I)
1939–1941 (to World War II)
Uruguay 1870–1945 (to World War II)
  • Sent troops to serve in the Tajikistani civil war under UN supervision.
  • A Rio Pact member since 2020.
Venezuela 1914–1918 (neutral during World War I)
1939–1942 (to World War II)
Yemen 1939–1945 (neutral during World War II)
  • Under the rule of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, Yemen followed an isolationist foreign policy. It had previously formed an alliance with Italy in 1936, yet it remained neutral for the duration of the war.
Yugoslavia 1940–1941 (to World War II)
1949–1992 (to Yugoslav Wars)

See also



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  2. ^ Stephen Neff: "Three-Fold Struggle over Neutrality: The American Experience in the 1930s" In: Pascal Lottaz/Herbert R. Reginbogin (eds.): Notions of Neutralities, Lanham (MD): Lexington Books 2019, pp.3-28
  3. ^ Neff, Stephen (2000). The Rights and Duties of Neutrals: A General History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  4. ^ "The Avalon Project - Laws of War : Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land (Hague V); October 18, 1907". avalon.law.yale.edu.
  5. ^ "The Avalon Project - Laws of War : Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War (Hague XIII); October 18, 1907". avalon.law.yale.edu.
  6. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.1
  7. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.10
  8. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.11
  9. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.13
  10. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.4,5
  11. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.6
  12. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.2
  13. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.14
  14. ^ Hague Convention, §5 Art.8
  15. ^ Hague Convention, §13 Art.6
  16. ^ Hague Convention, §13 Art.7
  17. ^ Hague Convention, §13 Art.12
  18. ^ Hague Convention, §13 Art.14
  19. ^ Hague Convention, §13 Art.16
  20. ^ Hague Convention, §13 Art.3
  21. ^ Gärtner, Heinz (2023). "Great Power Conflict". China and Eurasian powers in a Multipolar World Order 2.0: Security, Diplomacy, Economy and Cyberspace. Mher Sahakyan. New York: Routledge. pp. xxv. ISBN 978-1-003-35258-7. OCLC 1353290533.
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