A new path in the post-Cold War world

This is the excerpt below Neutrality since 1989: A new path in the post-Cold War worldedited by Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom. This book is available for free download from E-International Relations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, neutrality was seen by many as a relic of the Cold War. However, with the emergence of rising powers and the gradual shift towards multipolarity as countries such as Russia and China asserted their influence and challenged the US-led international order, neutrality has been resurrected in various forms. The book begins with a series of chapters that examine the “old neutrals” of Europe through contemporary Austrian and Swiss neutrality, the decline and demise of Swedish and Finnish neutrality, and the resilience of Irish neutrality. Later chapters address the rise of the “new neutrals” through Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy,” Israel’s efforts to balance its relations with Washington and Moscow, and Oman’s non-interventionist foreign policy. As the series of chapters demonstrate, the role of neutrality, and its perception or misinterpretation, remains important in understanding contemporary geopolitics and international relations.

Neutrality is generally understood as a policy of not taking part in wars or choosing sides. This perception, especially in the Western world, is heavily influenced by the experience of World War II (1939-1945) and the subsequent Cold War (1947-1991), especially in Europe. In reality, neutrality is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. It has many nuances, ranging from “active” to “passive”, from permanent to non-permanent, as well as military non-alignment, which are not strictly neutral but are often treated as the same thing.

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the possibility of American unipolarity led countries around the world to reconsider the meaning of neutrality and its necessity. For some, this meant a decline in the importance of neutrality and a gradual abandonment of the idea, since neutrality was underpinned by a bipolar world that no longer existed. After the full-scale Russia-Ukraine conflict began in February 2022, non-aligned (yet often erroneously called “neutral”) Sweden and Finland applied for and later completed membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), marking a further decline in the role of neutrality in the 21st century.

But the story of neutrality is not exclusive to Europe. This is especially true in the post-Cold War era. Whereas the 1990s and 2000s represented the hegemony of the United States (and the broader Western world), the 2010s and 2020s have been characterized by the growing multipolarity. With the increasing number of rising great powers, there is a growing desire to avoid and refrain from full alignment with one power. As a result, while Western observers frequently speak of the irrelevance or demise of neutrality, in other regions the situation is quite different. This book wants to shed light on this ongoing development. It seeks to explain how the rise and fall of neutrality is happening simultaneously for different reasons. In discussing neutrality, a broad definition is adopted to reflect the wide range of experiences and unique approaches to international affairs of the countries covered in this book.

In the first chapter, Pascal Lottas focuses on neutral exemplars Switzerland and Austria. Though externally perceived as similar Alpine neutral states, Lottas makes clear that these similarities are in fact only superficial. Differences lie in both the history of the two countries and the underlying philosophy guiding their policies, which in turn continue to influence how they understand their own neutrality. In the second chapter, Erik Noreen and Roxana Sjöstedt focus on Sweden. For decades, the country was still seen as a quintessential neutral country addressing world issues. Even after joining the European Union (EU) and formally abandoning neutrality, the Nordic country pursued a policy of non-alignment. Nevertheless, as Noreen and Sjöstedt show, Sweden remained a militarily active country and deployed around the world with NATO. In this chapter, we explain how Sweden came to be closer to NATO, while remaining officially non-aligned.

In chapter 3, Jussi Pakkasvirta and Hanna Tuominen focus on another neutral Nordic country, Finland. Finland’s concept of neutrality changed significantly after the end of the Cold War, leading first to EU membership, then a military mission in NATO, and finally to NATO membership. Their chapter traces and analyzes this evolution over the last 30 years. Chapter 4, by Karen Devine, focuses on Ireland, which has resisted the post-Cold War trend towards military de-neutralization in Europe. Ireland has shown remarkable resilience and commitment to neutrality despite significant and growing pressure from political elites both within and outside Ireland.

In the second half of the book, chapters 5, 6 and 7, we move away from Europe to look at how neutrality is used around the world. In her chapter on Vietnam, Nguyen Khach Giang describes how the Southeast Asian country practices “bamboo diplomacy”, balancing its relations with the United States and China while simultaneously seeking an independent foreign policy. Lyudmila Samarskaya’s chapter focuses on Israel. Despite being widely seen as an ally of the United States, the Israeli government sometimes follows its own path. This has been especially true in recent years, when it has sought to balance its relations with Washington, Moscow and Beijing in pursuit of its own national security interests, and has implemented a policy of selective neutrality. Another country associated with neutrality is Oman, sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. In the book’s final chapter, Robbie Barrett and Leah Sherwood argue that this perception is false and that Muscat is in fact a partisan non-interventionist. This policy is in contrast to a truly neutral country, Real Politics This approach has enabled the country to act as a middleman while advancing its own interests.

The countries featured in this book were chosen because of the breadth of interpretations of neutrality. These countries demonstrate the fact that neutrality is never a simple and straightforward policy, either domestically or externally, but rather a synthesis of national interests, historical and contemporary circumstances, and domestic and foreign policy realities. As a result, understanding what neutrality is or is not requires a broader view of the world situation. With a better understanding of these nuances, readers will understand that states that practice neutrality and its derivative policies, whether motivated by personal interest, academic research, or policymaking responsibilities, do not fit into simple categories, but rather are adapted and perceived by their own national traditions and ongoing challenges.

By focusing on the post-Cold War era, this book aims to reaffirm the current importance of neutrality as a conceptual framework in both international relations and domestic politics. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the so-called “end of history” (Fukuyama 1989), neutrality has been largely relegated to history books or viewed as an unconventional quirk/remnant of the Cold War era. However, this book, in addition to other works such as Rotaz et al. (2022), shows that neutrality, and the need to understand its dynamics, is as important as ever. Neutrality is not simply a product of bipolarity as the Cold War era suggests, but can in fact emerge in unipolar or multipolar periods. Moreover, being relatively rare (though perhaps not as rare as commonly imagined), neutrality’s various manifestations are often unique. This requires research into what forms it takes or why it is abandoned, to which this book hopes to contribute.

Neutrality, both as a concept and as a phenomenon, is alive and well. As the chapters in this book discuss, understanding neutrality is crucial as multipolarity gains strength in global affairs. In such an ordered world, neutrality will continue to be a tool used by different nations in different forms. Recognizing neutrality as such helps us understand both the world today and the world of tomorrow.

References

Fukuyama, F. 1989. “The End of History?” National Interest16, 3–18.

Lottas, Pascal; Heinz, G; Herbert, R.R. 2022. Neutrality Beyond the Cold War: Neutral Countries and the Post-Cold War International SystemLanham: Lexington Books.

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