Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady. The Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli had his doubts about the wisdom of a state remaining neutral, as it usually risks alienating both sides in a conflict. “He who conquers does not want doubtful friends who will not aid him in the A Ukrainian soldier makes the victory sign as he moves toward the front-line city of Bakhmut on March 11. 26 How long can these neutrality doctrines survive in the 21st century without becoming a security risk for the states practicing them? Maintaining neutrality will be more difficult for two main reasons.

First, the existence of European neutrals is much less useful to non-neutrals today than it was during the Cold War when it served the purposes of both East and West. Not only will great powers be less inclined to respect neutrality in the future. The European Union, too, will increasingly find its neutral members an obstacle as the bloc tries to develop a common security and defense policy. Second, at the military level, 21st-century warfare increasingly requires highly integrated, sophisticated, and interoperable capabilities that small, neutral powers simply cannot afford on their own. Proponents of neutrality argue that as long as neutral states remain useful to larger powers or alliances, they have little to fear. Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

Historically, they have been useful as buffer states or diplomatic go-betweens. A good example is Austria during the Cold War: For the Soviets, a neutral Austria was useful because it physically separated NATO allies Italy and West Germany. A weak Austria also offered the Soviets a potential route for a rapid flanking attack on NATO forces in southern Germany. Similarly for NATO, Austria’s status as a buffer state gave the alliance the option of a forward defense on Austrian territory.

Austria’s official Cold War neutrality was very profitable for Vienna, which turned itself into a diplomatic hub by enticing international organizations—including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OPEC, and various United Nations bodies—to establish their headquarters there. However, the end of the Cold War also ended Austria’s usefulness as a buffer state. Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 show that staying out of alliances, as Ukraine did, offers no protection from a revisionist great power. What’s more, the idea that neutral powers can be successful conveyors and mediators between hostile powers is generally not borne out by history.

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Neutrality is no precondition to facilitating a postwar settlement; one of the most successful cases of peace-brokering in European history was the Congress of Vienna, where the hosting Austrian Empire was clearly on the side of the Napoleonic Wars’ victors. Similarly, the United States’ and France’s intervention in the Balkan Wars did not keep them from supervising negotiations to end these conflicts in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 and Rambouillet, France, in 1999. Nor is a neutral state necessarily a better location for multilateral diplomacy; the United Nations headquarters in New York are at least as important a diplomacy hub as the organization’s offices in Vienna and Geneva. The latter cities are good diplomatic hubs not because of their neutral status but because they have easily accessible airports, plenty of five-star hotels, and excellent conference infrastructure. Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

Today, Austrian, Irish, and Maltese neutrality contributes to the EU remaining a weak player in security and defense. There are, of course, many other reasons why the EU is unlikely to become a European alternative to (or complement of) NATO. Carnegie fellow Sophia Besch has named some of them: “the absence of a common European threat perception, a lack of financial resources, a shortage of creative policy proposals, successive U.S. governments poised to blockade the EU’s ambitions, and member states unwilling to delegate power over defense to the supranational level.”

But neutral members contribute to this weakness, not least because the so-called Irish clause of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty effectively gives them an opt-out when it comes to providing military support to a fellow EU member state under attack. Some EU members’ neutrality can also be readily exploited by countries such as Russia to drive wedges time of trial,” Machiavelli wrote in his 16th-century strategy manual, The Prince. “And he who loses will not harbor you because you did not willingly, sword in hand, court his fate.” Following Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, two formerly neutral European states—Finland and Sweden—have heeded Machiavelli’s advice.

In April, Finland joined NATO as its 31st member, and neighboring Sweden will soon follow. Europe’s four remaining traditional neutrals— Austria, Ireland, Malta, and Switzerland— are sticking to their neutrality for now. Ireland, which has de facto disarmed, claims to be militarily neutral if not politically so; still, the country is training some Ukrainian soldiers and has been cozying up to NATO since the outbreak of the war. Austria and Malta likewise insist they are militarily neutral but “not neutral on values.” Switzerland is the most uncompromising of the bunch, remaining both politically and militarily neutral, going as far as refusing to grant other countries permission to re-export Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine. Critics argue that Switzerland’s stance actively undermines Ukraine’s defense. Neutrality, like pacifism, leaves the victim of aggression to its fate. Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

Yet, out of Europe’s four remaining neutrals, only Switzerland maintains robust conventional defenses capable of fielding a credible military deterrent against a potential aggressor. Austria, Ireland, and Malta, on the other hand, have effectively outsourced their territorial defense to NATO, with the implicit expectation that their neighbors will come to their aid when needed. This enabled each of the three to spend less than 1 percent of GDP on defense before the Russian invasion. Although the three countries have announced spending increases, these will not be enough to boost military capabilities to a level where they could defend themselves in a high-intensity conflict anytime soon.

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Into the bloc via influence campaigns. Neutrality also leads to fissures in support for Ukraine: Austria, Ireland, and Malta have abstained from decisions to arm Ukraine under the European Peace Facility financing instrument. This is weakening the EU’s response to Russia’s invasion. Military neutrality also makes less and less practical sense when one considers the future of warfare. Western armed forces are adopting a doctrine of multidomain operations, which require the coordinated use of military capabilities in multiple domains such as air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace— and the ability of allied countries to do so jointly, smoothly, and quickly. The fuel for these highly complex military operations is intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and other types of data collection using multiple sources, including satellites, uncrewed aerial vehicles, and cyberspace operations, which feed into command, control, and communications to create a sophisticated picture of the battlespace or overall strategic environment.

Given the relatively limited capabilities of individual European militaries, sharing technologies and data across allied militaries will be key to future military effectiveness. Neutral countries would be largely cut out of these arrangements. Classification issues and a general lack of trust make it difficult for NATO members to share sensitive real-time tactical data with Austria or Ireland in a military crisis.

Even short of a crisis, neutrality already makes it difficult for some NATO member states to share data with these countries on a permanent basis—for example, on cyber threats. It’s an open secret that Austria and Ireland are de facto NATO militaries, having adopted the bloc’s operational concepts, doctrines, procedures, and munitions. However maintaining interoperability with NATO partners will become increasingly challenging as sensitive data will not be shared outside the alliance. Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

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In addition, Europe’s neutrals would not be permitted to participate in large-scale military exercises focused on multidomain operations in a high intensity war. In other words, advanced training will become extremely difficult for Austria and Ireland. Finally, their status will prevent Europe’s neutrals from pooling and sharing military capabilities at the operational level, where it matters most in a military crisis. Within NATO, there are already discussions about various countries specializing in different capabilities. One country might provide offensive cyber capabilities, another could provide advanced electronic warfare capabilities, and a third could specialize in air defense. Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

Neutral countries would be left out of these arrangements— and would need to invest in capabilities across all domains to mount a tenable defense. Austria, for example, would have to triple its defense spending—to 3 percent of GDP—or more for decades to come, an unlikely proposition.

From both diplomatic and military perspectives, the Austrian, Irish, and Maltese governments’ case to remain neutral is weak—unlike Switzerland’s, since the Swiss maintain an effective military.

For the former countries, neutrality could endanger their military security should the United States or NATO not intervene in times of crisis.

Naturally, this security free-riding is breeding resentment among nonneutrals, most of which spend a significantly higher share of GDP on defense or plan to do so. Austria, Ireland, and Malta expect others to fight on their behalf, while they are unwilling to do the same for their neighbors.

For Europe’s last neutrals, it’s time for a genuine, open-minded discussion about the diplomatic and military utility of neutrality in the 21st century. Why Neutrality Is Obsolete in the 21st Century By Franz-Stefan Gady

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