In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Politics and Diplomacy of Neutrality

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Reference Works and Textbooks
  • Neutrality and the International System
  • Diplomatic Practices of Neutral States
  • Neutrality Today

International Relations The Politics and Diplomacy of Neutrality
Pascal Lottaz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0307


This article discusses the diplomacy and foreign policy of neutral actors in international relations. It introduces popular research themes of neutrality studies and presents some of the relevant literature. Neutrality has been most profoundly developed, studied, and defined under international law. However, there are other dimensions to it like politics, ethics, norms, identity, and security under which it remains a relatively fuzzy concept. The Finnish president, Urho Kekkonen, once explained it best: “There are as many kinds of neutrality as there are neutral states.” That is because the concept has diplomatic implications that do not stem directly from a country’s abstention from conflicts, but rather from strategic or ideational factors like the normative self-conceptualizations of peoples living in neutral countries and the political choices they make. In this respect, much research on the motivations and development of individual neutralities has been conducted over the years, including case studies, comparative works, theoretical treaties, and general histories. The focus of this article lies on the development of the concept since the maritime and Great Power neutralities of the 18th century. In particular, it covers the major literature of the past one hundred years, during which neutrality in the classic sense of international law underwent several changes and new forms of the neutral idea emerged in the form of nonalignment and neutralism. Furthermore, neutrality also has a place in the history of international organizations like the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and humanitarian institutions like the International Committee of the Red Cross. Therefore, this article understands “diplomacy” in a loose sense, including the foreign policies of states and the international political approaches of non-state actors alike. It defines “neutrality” as an actor’s military noninvolvement in third-party conflicts, especially in interstate wars. Hence, neutral diplomacy refers to the coordinated activities of international actors who remain—or try to remain—at a distance from third-party conflicts. The article does not cover technical understandings of neutrality that do not refer to a subject’s exclusion from conflicts but to different principles. For instance, “net-neutrality,” refers to the non-discrimination of Internet access speeds, not to the Internet’s exclusion from conflicts, and will not be covered in this analysis.

General Overview

Neutrality as a political concept developed in several cultures over at least two-and-a-half thousand years. Thucydides 431 BCE is one of the earliest occidental records about it. In the “Melian Dialogue,” he chronicled the (unsuccessful) struggle of the Melians to remain outside the war between Athens and Sparta. Bauslaugh 1991 explains in great detail how neutrality was used and viewed in other instances in ancient Greece. India, too, had an early concept of political neutrality as can be read about in Kautilya 300 BCE. However, most research in neutrality studies is Eurocentric. In addition, the modern law of neutrality that became an accepted global norm from the 19th century onward was a European invention. Howland 2010, for instance, shows how Japan, in a transcultural process, learned to use neutrality after its opening to the world in 1853. Generally, this Western concept can be understood as a formalized and rule-based approach toward non-participation in third-party conflicts. The most important and basic international law traditions about neutrality can be found in Oppenheim 1912 (paragraphs 285–312). For an overview of legal sources, Chadwick 2017 wrote a useful article, and Neff 2000 is the standard work in terms of a general history. As a political concept, neutrality is a by-product of conflicts that either take place right now or might happen in the future. For the first case, when a war is occurring, international law determines that any state that is not belligerent automatically becomes neutral. Many such neutralities are referred to as “occasional neutrality” or “ad-hoc neutrality,” because states might choose to remain neutral only in that particular conflict but not in general. For the second case, when states promise to always remain neutral toward any potential third-party conflicts, one speaks of “permanent neutrality” or “perpetual neutrality.” This distinction only emerged in the early 19th century through the Vienna Congress (1815), at which the permanent neutrality of Switzerland was enshrined in treaty documents. The practice that a territory could be made permanently neutral via treaty agreements became known as “neutralization.” This instrument was used extensively in the latter half of the 19th century when not only countries were neutralized but also non-sovereign colonies, islands, borderlands, waterways, railways, and even telegraphic lines (for an overview, see Graham 1927).

  • Bauslaugh, Robert A. The Concept of Neutrality in Classical Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520909335

    Despite the lack of a dedicated word for the concept of “neutrality” in ancient Greece, Bauslaugh collected instances of non-participation of third parties in the conflicts of the ancient city-states and evaluated the development of that practice.

  • Chadwick, Elizabeth. “Neutrality.” In Oxford Bibliographies in International Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    A systematic overview of the historical developments and their impact on the law of neutrality, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. The cited primary sources are particularly valuable as they are the most important texts on which judicial decisions and interpretations about neutrality law are based on.

  • Graham, Malbone W. “Neutralization as a Movement in International Law.” The American Journal of International Law 21.1 (January 1927): 79–94.

    DOI: 10.2307/2188597

    A short article that gives a thorough overview of the use of (legal) neutralization as well as the major works written about it in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The footnotes are especially valuable because they include non-English publications as well.

  • Howland, Douglas. “Japanese Neutrality in the Nineteenth Century: International Law and Transcultural Process.” Journal of Transcultural Studies 1.1 (2010): 14–37.

    A study on Japan’s “learning curve” of (Western) international law. Howland analyzes the gradual changes in Japan’s usage of neutrality proclamations and its behavior toward Western conflicts in the 19th century. The essay also contains an insightful discussion about Chinese and Japanese translations of the word “neutrality.”

  • Kautilya. Arthashastra. Translated by R. Shamasastry. Bangalore, India: Government Press, 1915.

    This is the first English translation of Kautilya’s Sanskrit work, accessible online. It discusses state craft in ancient India—including issues of war and peace—under what today would be called a realist framework. Book 7 introduces three notions of neutrality, presented as the possible stances of states that remain outside of a war. They are not concepts of a rule-based neutrality, but the possibilities states have in power politics.

  • Neff, Stephen C. The Rights and Duties of Neutrals: A General History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    The best and most accessible work to gain an overview of the long but steady development of neutrality law and its political background. Neff’s work is particularly valuable as he identified the intellectual history of neutrality thought, i.e., the recurring themes and schools of thought.

  • Oppenheim, Lassa F. L. International Law: A Treatise—War and Neutrality. Vol. 2. London: Longmans, Green, 1912.

    Because the law of neutrality has not been significantly revised since 1907, this still remains as one of the most important reference works concerning the legal aspects of neutrality, available online. Note that, nevertheless, some developments in neutrality law occurred since 1912, most importantly through the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and two additional protocols of 1977.

  • Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. London: Longmans, 1874

    Often cited as one of the most important works of the realist school, Thucydides’ account of the Melian dialogue is also pivotal to the understanding of ancient neutrality. In Book 5, he tells the story of the neutral Melians and their fate after Athens had decided not to accept their neutrality anymore. Available online.

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