The advice of Switzerland’s popular saint, Nicholas of Flüe (1417-87), “Don’t get involved in other people’s affairs” has been the hallmark of Swiss policy for nearly 500 years. The country has in effect been neutral since 1515, a status formally recognised and guaranteed by the great powers of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Neutrality is defined as non-participation in a war between other states. The rights and duties of neutral countries in time of war were laid down by the international community in 1907. In times of peace neutral states define their own rules, but take it for granted that they should stay outside military blocs, like NATO. The status of neutrality has not only protected Switzerland from war, but has helped prevent the country from being torn apart when its different language communities might have been tempted to side with different belligerents in cases of conflict.
Switzerland industrialized rapidly during the 19th century and by 1850 had become the second most industrialized country in Europe after Great Britain. During World War I serious tension developed between the German, French, and Italian-speaking parts of the country, and Switzerland came close to violating its neutrality but managed to stay out of hostilities. During World War II, Switzerland came under heavy pressure from the fascist powers, which after the fall of France in 1940 completely surrounded the country. Some political and economic leaders displayed a mood of appeasement, but a combination of tactical accommodation and demonstrative readiness to defend the country helped Switzerland survive unscathed.
Switzerland’s neutrality allows the country to act as a mediator. Its diplomats often represent the interests of countries which have no relations with each other. Thus for example it looks after US interests in Cuba and Iran, and Cuba’s interests in the US. Switzerland offers a neutral ground to host sensitive conferences and meetings. For example, the first meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan (1985) or between Clinton and Syria’s President Assad (2000) took place in Geneva. Switzerland has also been the venue for peace talks between various governments and rebel groups – for example from Indonesia, Spain and Sri Lanka – and for talks on a settlement for the divided island of Cyprus.