Opinion: Stuck in neutral?

NEW YORK — In world politics, neutrality is in the eye of the beholder. For Utopians and pacifists, neutrality floats in the clouds like the final step in the stairway to some kind of geopolitical nirvana – John Lennon’s world that lives as one. Political “realists,” on the other hand, see neutrality the way they do everything else: a decision taken after a cold calculation of national interest.

When the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, many analysts thought outliers like Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland and Switzerland would join the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe in the line to join NATO. So far, these predictions have turned out wrong.

Still, neutrality, circa 2009, is hardly as standoffish as it was during the Cold War. All of the above but Switzerland now belong to the European Union, and even the Swiss, neutrality’s pioneers, joined the United Nations in 2002. Sweden reinforced its contingent in Afghanistan this year (to 500), Finland doubled its small contingent (to 36) and both participate in a NATO-commanded “Nordic Battalion” in Bosnia. Irish and Swiss troops have also been in Afghanistan, and Ireland and Austria each have just over 150 troops on the Darfur-Chad border.

Nordic NATO expansion?

In fact, the Finns have been dropping hint after hint that full NATO membership may be in the Nordic wind. On Nov. 9, Jyri Hakamies, Finland’s defense minister, said the country’s current “cooperation agreements” with NATO won’t cut it in a crisis.

"We must bear in mind that not one of these cooperation arrangements guarantees us direct support in a military crisis and yet we are dependent on said support," he remarked in an address Monday to a Finnish defense institute.

In both Finland and Sweden minority parties,, usually citing the threat of an increasingly anti-Western Russia, have advocated membership for years. This summer, however, in a first, both Finnish and Swedish warships took part in a large NATO naval exercise, “Arctic Sea,” which Russian newspapers widely denounced as a recruiting junket by the alliance.

Russia feels no need to be subtle. Finland stayed neutral during the Cold War because the country had fought two bloody “winter wars” of independence from the USSR ending in 1944 — so it was in no mood to gamble on a third. Thus was born the term “Finlandization,” a fancy, somewhat unfair way of denigrating Finland’s decision not to commit national suicide.

The wounds are still fresh, even if the so-called “winter war” seems like ancient history. As Finland’s defense minister put it: “To look for these new solutions when a crisis is already at the gate does not work. This was a key lesson from the time leading to the winter war and from the war itself.”

These days, Finns talk of buying “fire insurance” in the form of NATO membership as a way of avoiding Moscow’s bullying, and the Finns and Swedes have promised if they take the NATO plunge, they’ll take it together.

History plus ideology

The reasons for neutrality in various European states vary widely.

Like Finland, Ireland’s neutrality grew out of its fight for independence. Bitterness over its long struggle to overthrow British rule led to a post-independence Dublin government that forswore international alliances. The last thing most Irish wanted in 1922 was to join a post-war effort to prop up the British Empire. In spite of occasional lobbying from the U.S., including personally during a visit by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Ireland stayed out of the Cold War.

That position holds true today, even if the bitterness toward Britain has subsided. When Ireland’s voters enjoyed a make or break choice on the EU’s constitution recently, for instance, Dublin demanded and received a special provision to exclude its military from any future EU army.

Sweden, on the other hand, has adopted a kind of muscular neutrality, not only fielding credible armed forces but also manufacturing and exporting tanks, submarines and warplanes.

The Swedes have been neutral since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1649. But neutrality and morality are two different things. For instance, when the Nazis invaded neighboring Norway in 1940, the Swedes failed to lift a finger on behalf of their cousins, instead profiting mightily selling iron ore and other goodies to Hitler’s Reich for the duration of the war. Norwegians, neutral to that point in their history, mention the betrayal to this day. They also became founding members of NATO in 1949.

No guarantees of safety

In fact, despite its high-minded appeal to peace and coexistence, neutrality has proven no particular defense against aggression nor a reason to admire the country espousing it.

Belgium's sad experience of neutrality — it was twice used as a doormat by German troops invading France during the 20th century — makes it the poster child of the perils of trying to stay pure. Like Norway, Belgium took the lesson (the second time around, anyway) and became a founding member of NATO in 1949 and eventually host to NATO's headquarters.

Portugal and Spain, once synonymous with carnivorous imperialism, struck neutral poses in the 20th century for differing reasons: Portugal to protect foreign colonies it couldn’t possibly defend from attack, and Spain because of lingering chaos after its 1936-38 civil war. Portugal, however, chose to join NATO as a founding member in 1949. Spain, under the Fascist Franco regime, was not invited to join until 1975.

Yugoslavia's post-war decision in the early 1950s to break with the Soviet Union led it to briefly flirt with the idea of joining NATO, but it officially declared neutrality in 1953 and sustained it until the country’s dissolution in 1992.

Neighboring Albania's hermetic communist period (1945-1992) qualified as neutrality, too, in some minds. Albania joined NATO in 2009.

Greece and Italy maintained neutrality in World War I for a period. Italy joined the allied cause in 1915, largely over disputes with Austria-Hungary. After the Mussolini period, Italy aligned itself with the West and became a founding member of NATO.

Greece stayed out of World War I until 1917, when events and British pressure forced it to join the allied cause. Greece was occupied by Italian and German troops in World War II, and following a civil war in the late 1940s, joined NATO in 1952.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Turkey was the largest European neutral during World War II. Memories of the ill-fated alliance between Ottoman Turkey and Germany in World War I played a part, as did Ataturk’s George Washington-like advice against foreign entanglements.

A few years later, however, Turkey looked around and rethought neutrality. Greece, its historic rival, was about to join NATO. The USSR, fomenting trouble in Iran, Greece and elsewhere, loomed large. Forsaking Ataturk in 1952, Turkey joined NATO along with its Greek arch-enemies.