Define: Armed Neutrality

Armed Neutrality
Armed Neutrality
Quick Summary of Armed Neutrality

Armed neutrality is when a neutral state is prepared to use military force to maintain its neutrality. This means that the country declares itself neutral in a conflict but is ready to defend its neutrality with military power if needed. For example, during World War II, Sweden declared itself neutral but also maintained armed neutrality, allowing it to defend its borders and territory against potential aggressors. This strategy allowed Sweden to remain neutral while deterring attacks and protecting its sovereignty.

What is the dictionary definition of Armed Neutrality?
Dictionary Definition of Armed Neutrality

Armed neutrality occurs when a country chooses to refrain from participating in a war but is prepared to use military force to defend its neutrality. This involves maintaining peaceful relationships with all parties involved and not taking sides in the conflict.

Full Definition Of Armed Neutrality

Armed neutrality is a nation’s policy of staying neutral in conflicts while keeping an armed force ready to defend its neutrality. This concept, based on international law, allows a country to avoid getting involved in conflicts while ensuring its sovereignty and security. This document offers a comprehensive legal overview of armed neutrality, covering its historical context, principles, legal basis, and application in modern international relations.

Historical Context

Early Examples

The concept of armed neutrality dates back to the 18th century, with notable instances during European conflicts. For instance, Sweden and Denmark-Norway adopted armed neutrality during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) to protect their trade interests from the warring powers.

Armed Neutrality Leagues

The most significant historical manifestations of armed neutrality were the First and Second Armed Neutrality Leagues.

  • First League (1780–1783): Initiated by Catherine the Great of Russia, this league included Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It aimed to protect neutral shipping against British interference during the American Revolutionary War. The league declared principles such as the right of neutral nations to trade non-contraband goods with belligerent states and the need for a convoy system to protect neutral shipping.
  • Second League (1800–1801): Formed during the Napoleonic Wars, it included Russia, Denmark–Norway, Prussia, and Sweden. This league sought to uphold similar principles but was dissolved after British naval actions and diplomatic negotiations.

Principles of Armed Neutrality

Armed neutrality is governed by several core principles derived from international law and customary practices:

  1. Neutrality: A neutral state must refrain from participating in hostilities or providing support to belligerents.
  2. Self-Defence: A neutral state maintains the right to self-defence, ensuring it can protect its sovereignty and territory.
  3. Impartiality: Neutral states must treat all belligerents equally, not favouring one side over the other.
  4. Non-Interference: Neutral states must prevent their territory from being used for military operations by belligerents.

Legal Basis

Hague Conventions

The legal framework for neutrality, including armed neutrality, is enshrined in the Hague Conventions of 1907. Specifically:

  • Hague Convention V: This convention outlines the rights and duties of neutral powers in land warfare. It prohibits the passage of belligerent troops and the establishment of communications for military purposes on neutral territory.
  • Hague Convention XIII: This convention addresses the rights and duties of neutral powers in maritime warfare. It protects neutral shipping from belligerent interference, provided the vessels are not carrying contraband.

United Nations Charter

The United Nations Charter also provides a basis for the principle of neutrality.

  • Article 2(4) prohibits the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
  • Article 51: Recognises the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs.

Case Studies of Armed Neutrality


Switzerland is the quintessential example of armed neutrality. Its policy is enshrined in its constitution and has been recognised internationally since the Treaty of Paris (1815). Switzerland’s neutrality involves a strong military defence to deter aggression and strict policies to prevent its territory from being used by belligerents.

  • World War II: Switzerland mobilised its military to defend its borders and maintained strict control over its airspace and territory, preventing both Axis and Allied forces from using its territory for military operations.


Sweden has a long tradition of neutrality, reinforced by a strong defence policy.

  • Cold War: Sweden maintained neutrality while building a robust defence capability. It engaged in significant intelligence operations and military preparedness to deter potential aggression from both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces.

Legal Challenges and Contemporary Issues

Technological Advances

Advances in military technology, such as cyber warfare and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), pose new challenges to the concept of armed neutrality.

  • Cyber Warfare: Neutral states must develop capabilities to defend against cyber-attacks that could compromise their sovereignty or neutrality.
  • UAVs: The use of drones by belligerents in or near neutral airspace necessitates updated protocols for air defence and sovereignty protection.


Global economic interdependence complicates the implementation of armed neutrality. Neutral states must navigate complex trade relationships while avoiding entanglement in conflicts.

  • Sanctions and Trade: Neutral states may face pressure to support international sanctions regimes, potentially conflicting with their neutrality principles.
  • Defence Partnerships: While maintaining neutrality, states may seek defence partnerships and alliances for security, requiring careful legal and diplomatic balancing.

International Terrorism

The rise of non-state actors and international terrorism presents unique challenges:

  • Counter-Terrorism: Neutral states must develop legal frameworks for counter-terrorism that respect their neutrality while addressing security threats.
  • International Cooperation: Engaging in international counter-terrorism efforts without compromising neutrality requires nuanced legal and diplomatic strategies.

Legal Implications of Armed Neutrality

Sovereignty and Self-Defence

Armed neutrality underscores the importance of sovereignty and the right to self-defence.

  • Territorial Integrity: Neutral states must ensure their territorial integrity is respected by belligerents, requiring a credible military deterrent.
  • Legal Justification: Any use of force by neutral states must be legally justified under international law, particularly the right to self-defence.

Diplomatic Relations

Maintaining armed neutrality necessitates sophisticated diplomatic efforts:

  • Impartiality: Neutral states must manage diplomatic relations with belligerents impartially, avoiding actions that could be perceived as favouritism.
  • Mediation and Peacekeeping: Neutral states often play a role in mediation and peacekeeping, leveraging their impartiality to facilitate conflict resolution.


Armed neutrality is a complex and dynamic concept rooted in international law. It involves balancing the principles of neutrality with the need for self-defence. Historical examples such as Switzerland and Sweden demonstrate how armed neutrality has been applied in practice. At the same time, contemporary challenges like technological advances, globalisation, and international terrorism require ongoing legal and strategic adaptation. The legal implications of armed neutrality emphasise the importance of sovereignty, self-defence, and sophisticated diplomatic relations. This ensures that neutral states can navigate the complexities of modern international relations while maintaining their non-involvement in conflicts.

In conclusion, armed neutrality remains a relevant and vital policy for nations seeking to uphold their sovereignty and security without getting involved in the conflicts of others. As the international landscape evolves, the principles and practices of armed neutrality will continue to adapt, guided by the foundational tenets of international law and the ever-changing dynamics of global politics.

Armed Neutrality FAQ'S

Armed neutrality refers to a policy adopted by a country to remain neutral in a conflict while maintaining a strong military defence to deter potential aggressors.

Yes, a country can declare armed neutrality during a war to protect its sovereignty and avoid being drawn into the conflict.

Armed neutrality allows a country to maintain its independence and avoid taking sides in a conflict, reducing the risk of being targeted by belligerent parties.

Countries practicing armed neutrality are generally not legally obligated to provide military assistance to any party involved in a conflict.

While armed neutrality aims to deter potential aggressors, there is no guarantee that a country practicing armed neutrality will not be attacked. However, attacking a neutral country is generally considered a violation of international law.

Yes, a country practicing armed neutrality has the right to engage in self-defence if it is attacked or its sovereignty is threatened.

Yes, a country practicing armed neutrality can participate in peacekeeping missions under the authorization of international organisations, as long as it aligns with its neutral stance.

Countries practicing armed neutrality are generally free to engage in trade with all parties involved in a conflict, as long as it does not violate any international sanctions or embargoes.

Yes, a country practicing armed neutrality can provide humanitarian aid to war-torn regions, as long as it does not involve taking sides in the conflict or engaging in military operations.

While joining military alliances may contradict the concept of armed neutrality, it is not strictly prohibited. However, it may raise questions about the country’s commitment to neutrality and potentially affect its reputation as a neutral party.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 8th June 2024.

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