The Role of Swiss Neutrality in the Context of Supporting Economic Sanctions of the European Union

Seminar Paper, 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Role Theory

III. Implications of Neutrality

IV. Swiss Foreign Policy regarding EU Economic Sanctions

V. Findings

VI. Concluding remarks

VII. Sources

I. Introduction

The Swiss foreign policy stance on neutrality has long played a crucial in the nation’s history. Since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Swiss neutrality has officially been recognized by international law (DDPS 2004:15). This particular foreign policy stance may have contributed to the economic and democratic development of the nation as Switzerland stayed neutral in both World Wars. The exact role of neutrality, however, has experienced frequent adjustments as the term might not indicate a clear strategy in foreign policy behavior.

This paper aims to examine the role of neutrality in Swiss foreign policy as some cases of foreign policy behavior raises questions left to be answered. Focus is given on EU-foreign policy decisions concerning economic sanctions. The role of neutrality in this particular context would suggest not to follow EU sanctions since the country neither is a member of the European Union, nor of the European Economic Area (EEA). Switzerland, furthermore, is not bound by international law to join economic sanctions of the EU. Yet, the country’s interest involves a broader spectrum of factors to be considered within its role of neutrality.

The main puzzle this paper further tries to solve is concerned with economic sanctions of the EU which have been implemented by the Swiss federal government. Those sanctions mostly originate from external factors that pose threats to international, regional or domestic security. Violations of international law or aggressive foreign policy behavior also represent causes to enforce sanctions as a form of protest. Economic sanctions, thus, either target a national economy as a whole and/or certain individuals, enterprises and/or institutions in order to weaken economic or political positions. Establishing trade embargos, cutting financial aid or seizing foreign assets are named as examples (Grieco et. al. 2015:109). This approach is often used as a non-violent means in modern foreign policy. The EU as a political union established norms to meet common foreign policy decisions in which economic sanctions are regularly enforced.1

The above-mentioned EU sanctions, adopted by Switzerland, leave the following questions concerning the Swiss role of neutrality: 1. What is the definition of neutrality? 2. Does the role of neutrality implicate restrictions in joining other countries’ foreign policy stances? 3. On what grounds did Switzerland enforce economic sanctions originally established by the EU? These questions are subject to analysis in the following paragraphs. Role theory, furthermore, is chosen in order to equilibrate theoretical suggestions and foreign policy actions. Thus, a congruency test comparing role expectations and role behavior will be applied.

Role theory as a discipline within the study of foreign policy analysis enables insight into national role conceptions (NRC’s). Although role theory was originally developed as a sociological and psychological approach to understand individuals’ behavior (Biddle and Thomas 1966; Le Prestre 1997; Grossman 2005), research has extended to include NRC’s. This inclusion is justified as elites’ NRC’s “are intersubjective and are, therefore, shared in society at large” (Cantir and Kaarbo 2012:7). Moreover, referencing to decision makers are mostly viewed as suitable since elites determine how nations behave internationally (Cantir and Kaarbo 2012:7).

Previous academic research primarily focused on the role of neutrality and its foreign policy behavior. Applying the concept of national role conceptions according to Holsti (1970:265), Graf and Lanz (2013) drew connections between Swiss neutrality and its small state peace policy. Thus, Switzerland was categorized by both NRC’s “mediator-integrator” and “isolate”, representing essential branches of Swiss identity (Graf and Lanz 2013:413). Other authors put emphasis on continuous adjustments to Swiss neutrality and its foreign policy behavior, although the foreign policy concept of role theory was not specifically taken into consideration (Brunner 1989; Dame 1981). Grouping Swiss neutrality and economic sanctions happens to be brought up mostly by domestic media outlets (Wyss 2014; Zeyer 2014; SRF 2019), examining to what extent Swiss neutrality justifies alignment with foreign entities by common economic sanctions. Like Graf and Lanz (2013), this paper both applies the concept of role theory and examines role expectation and role behavior by a congruency test. Neutrality, however, is chosen as a starting point to elaborate its meaning in joining economic sanctions of the EU.

Firstly, as our main research method is based on role theory according to Holsti (1970), an examination of the theory according to the subject of neutrality defines the approach our paper is following. Secondly, in order to elaborate an authentic explanation to the foreign policy role of neutrality, we take reference to sources based on both historical and contemporary literature whose findings of Swiss neutrality enable a broader understanding of the term. Thirdly, cases are studied in which Switzerland enforced economic sanctions equal to those enacted by the EU. As far as foreign policy cases are concerned, official information from federal authorities of Switzerland are selected as empirical source. Lastly, by means of applying role theory to our foreign policy cases, the paper presents its findings.

II. Role Theory

The concept of role theory was originally designed – based on certain attributes of individuals – to identify expectations in people’s behavior. Comparing role expectations (alter) and role behavior (self), the concept further facilitates to detect schemes and irregularities in individuals’ actions. Scholars in international relations and foreign policy analysis used the theory to explain role patterns of single nations, generally referring to elites as national representatives (Cantir and Kaarbo 2012:6). These patterns aim to explain national foreign policies, although early research primarily focused on the perception originating from the Cold War period, consisting of aggressors, defenders and balancers. The theory, however, may only capture static situations and does not account for dynamic changes within any given system. Additionally, specific definitions of how systems should operate are subject to theoretical assumptions (Holsti 1970:234).

Definitions of NRC’s according to Holsti (1970) aim to reflect a broad set of roles that may seem suitable as subject to further study. Solely relying on constructed sets of NRC’s, however, may not meet our academic aim to address the role neutrality plays within Swiss foreign policy. The findings of Holsti (1970), nevertheless, provide additional research to gain a more global comprehension of role conceptions itself. Therefore, our theoretical approach to role theory aims to reflect a broader variety of concepts which includes a sophisticated definition of neutrality. Consequently, the definition serves as our main determinant to conclude role expectations concerning neutrality. Furthermore, the problem of capturing a static snapshot of role conceptions can be minimized by examining both historical and contemporary literature regarding the perception of neutrality.

Cantir and Kaarbo (2012:7ff) further elaborated multiple issues to determine specific roles that represent nations as a whole. As an example, the degree of opposition within elites as foreign policy makers lacks consideration in role theorist literature. Furthermore, the absence of studying mass opinion draws an unproportionate amount of attention to policymakers. Although both authors gave propositions to address this academic issue in future research, empirical evidence in mass opinion studies may be regarded as scarce. In our case study of Switzerland, a broader context of mass opinion is provided by a plethora of voting records since the establishment of plebiscitary rights in 18742. Thus, our role conceptions will also reflect popular opinion, although only a few voting results show clear foreign policy stances in terms of neutrality.


1 Requires unanimity among all EU member states

2 In 1874, the right to veto federal law acts was introduced. In 1891, the right to form popular initiatives to change single constitutional amendments was added.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Role of Swiss Neutrality in the Context of Supporting Economic Sanctions of the European Union
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Sanktionen, Schweiz, Neutralität, Switzerland, Neutrality, Role Theory, Internationale Beziehungen, EU, Europäische Union, Aussenpolitikanalyse, Foreign Policy Analysis
Quote paper
Florian Ramos (Author), 2020, The Role of Swiss Neutrality in the Context of Supporting Economic Sanctions of the European Union, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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