Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Stuck in neutral?

Some Europeans who steered clear of the Cold War may be wavering 20 years later.

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.