In acclaimed Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s psychological realist classic Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963), the morose and self-pitying Lutheran curate Rev. Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) disdains the fervent affection of the neurotic schoolmarm Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) even though their prospective conjugal affection would likely breathe new life into all the frozen, benighted communicants of their nameless and useless remote village. Foremost among his errors in judgment is therefore failing to properly appreciate a rare and valuable asset until it is gone. With the recent joint press conference on April 13 in Stockholm between the Swedish and Finnish prime ministers announcing their shared intentions to join NATO as soon as it can be arranged, one might discretely inquire whether Nordic life has begun to imitate Nordic art with regard to the valuable political asset to both nations—their international neutrality—about to be precipitously cast aside.

International theory supplies few constructs, and international law supplies few criteria for establishing the neutrality of a given state within the states system. Therefore, its presence or absence, and if present its form or character, is largely historical, comparative, and path-dependent. The grand strategy of the Kingdom of Sweden memorably opened with her imposition of an armistice in the civilizational slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War. But following the interminable hegemonic contests of the eighteenth century, King Charles XIV John Bernadotte—not unlike President George Washington somewhat earlier—issued royal directives in 1834 establishing a policy of neutrality envisioned mainly as intentional avoidance of European absolutist wars. Spared therefore from Nazi occupation or Soviet attack, Sweden became a refuge for the Jews of Denmark and for other wartime persecuted, a policy faithfully sustained until the present and enthusiastically commended throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Republic of Finland independently although in coordination with the Third Reich fought an intermittent series of infantry battles against the Soviets resolved primarily through the peace treaty of February 1947 that disarms, de-militarizes, and de-Nazifies the republic, rendering Finland de jure non-aggressive and de facto non-aligned during the Cold War.

The question is not merely comparative, however, but also systemic insofar as the neutral states of Europe have consistently been observed to provide desperately needed elasticity within both multi-polar and bi-polar power blocs, furnishing the inviolable territory and moral independence useful if not necessary to transformational diplomacy. It is no accident that the neutral or at least non-aligned cities of Geneva, Vienna, and Helsinki figure so prominently within the development of international law and norm. The most comprehensive removal of gratuitous violence from international relations began when Genevan Henry Dunant, influenced by a Christological abhorrence of bloodshed, published his gruesome Souvenir de Solférino (1862) detailing needless loss of sick and wounded life in but one engagement of the Austro-Sardinian war. His eyewitness account spurred transnational activism resulting in the first Geneva convention of 1864, in which battlefield medics are guaranteed access to soldiers in need of treatment provided they visually signify their affiliation with a new international organization distinguished by a “red cross on a white backdrop.” The subsequent additions and expansions to the original Geneva convention in 1906–07, 1949, and 1977 provision a spirit of law to interstate armed conflict whereby prisoners of war are endowed with inalienable rights, civilian lives, possessions, and premises are removed from contention, and all acts of diabolical barbarity utterly prohibited, with the neutral Swiss government tasked with the certification though not enforcement of national compliance. 

The two other primary examples were agreed in non-aligned cities. First, the State Treaty for the Re-establishment of an Independent and Democratic Austria of May 1955 disarmed and de-Nazified Hitler’s native land and removed it from Cold War contention via multilateral British, French, American, and Soviet agreement. Therefore, in addition to its position as a secondary United Nations headquarters, Vienna became host to five treaties (1961, 1963, 1975, 1978, 1986) that collectively articulate the essential principles of diplomacy, including the inviolability of embassies and ambassadors, the purposes and privileges of commercial consuls, the juridical status of agreements with or between international organizations, and resolution of the “succession of states” dilemma that had bedeviled international politics since antiquity, with agreement reached at last that completely different regimes materializing through war or revolution are not as a rule bound by the treaty obligations of their predecessors. (This last provides almost the sole existing legal basis for any diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, for example.) Second, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe Final Act agreed at Helsinki in August 1975 and entrusted to the Finnish government achieved significant de-escalation of Cold War tension. Explicitly affirming national sovereignty, non-intervention and non-violence, and détente, 34 allied, associated, neutral, non-aligned, and communist countries as well as the Apostolic See agreed to inform each other of any significant military maneuvers, as well as to seek after “the ultimate achievement of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Long-term normative synthesis is to be achieved primarily through profound intensification of educational, scientific, technical, ecological, and cultural exchange across borders, providing much of the programmatic basis for the contemporary lived experience of interdependent world polity.

The occasionally life-saving capability of neutral power should also be recognized. During the German occupation of Italy (1943–44), Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty fully exploited the neutrality of Vatican territory to save several thousand Allied, associated, and civilian lives, repeatedly defying an enraged SS with his masterful use of disguises! Shortly before the liberation of Paris (August 1944), Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling tactfully induced General Von Choltitz to sabotage Hitler’s directives to incinerate the city, sparing the French capital the annihilation of the Polish.

Neither neutrality nor any other international policy ought to be preserved merely because good has come of it. Nor should Sweden or Finland necessarily preserve their respective neutral and non-aligned commitments merely because they are consolidated, long-standing, and have proven both comparatively and internationally advantageous. But public mood swing should not directly translate into sudden reversal of international policy, NATO membership should not become a substitute for national self-defense, and, above all, the civilizing influence of neutral power should not be despised.