Impartial or Uninvolved? : The Anatomy of 20th Century Doctrine on the Law of Neutrality

Abstract: This work focuses on neutrality as a discourse in the 20th century. I have looked at a number of doctrinal texts and read them both as legal arguments and as texts with philosophical and political implications. Therefore, this is a piece of intellectual (or conceptual) history in international law.I have covered three periods: The interwar period, the post-war period and the end of the Cold War. In all three there were cycles. Immediately after the First World War, most texts on neutrality dealt with the content of the law against the background of the conflict. Then, when the contours of the League of Nations emerged, many writers questioned the status of neutrality, and the position of neutral Switzerland -- a League Member – was analysed. In the mid 1930’s, in a new debate, some writers blamed the League’s problems on neutrality, others defended it, and still others tried to reconceive neutrality.After the next war, a new assessment was necessary, but this time authors generally acknowledged the legal realities (the “holes” in the Charter) as well as the political facts (the Cold War and the actually existing permanent neutrals). By the mid 1950’s, permanent neutrality was fully re-established. But by then, this debate was largely restricted to Central Europe.The fall of the Wall ushered in another set of writings. The immediately preceding Iran-Iraq War had generated debate on classical maritime neutrality. The new interest challenged the basic assumptions and even put neutrality in the context of “alien” discourses, like human rights. Then, from the mid-90’s, interest waned, again.A common thread is the view that neutrality is in principle contradictory to collective security, but still survives as a residue. Whether the Charter’s solidarity with victims of aggression has modified also the concrete rights and duties of neutrality, has been more controversial. The old assumption of a night-watcher state was challenged in the post-war period, but accepted again after the Cold War.How come neutrality has not been extended to economic conflicts, or to struggles with non-state entities? How could neutrality continue to be relevant in war (Iran-Iraq) when it for a long time had been talked about in conjunction with “peace” (the Cold War)? And foremost, how did neutrality, born in an age of balance of power, survive the League of Nations, total war, the United Nations, the Cold War and “the New World Order”?It is an eternal question whether one should engage or not. As a matter of legal policy, there might no longer be much room for traditional neutrality, and neutrality as abstention (or staying aloof) is rarely possible. However, the common-place dichotomy of involvement vs. indifference is too simplistic. Whatever the future, there will always be a need for impartiality, call it neutrality or not.

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