A way forward for Asia’s direct democratic tiger

The skyline of Taipei, capital of Taiwan.

Neutrality, combined with participatory democracy, is not a guaranteed recipe for a country’s lasting stability. But history suggests it is better insurance than the most sophisticated weapons systems.

This content was published on July 3, 2018 - 13:52
Bruno Kaufmann, Global Democracy Correspondent (text and photos),

How can a small country like Taiwan best defend its democracy against the explicit threats of its stronger neighbours? How can it withstand the pressures of geopolitical aggression between great powers?

Neutrality might be the answer.

I was born and raised in one neutral country, Switzerland. As an adult, I moved to and became a citizen of another neutral country, Sweden. I have experienced what it means to live in societies built on peaceful and stable ground.

In 2017 my first home country, Switzerland, celebrated the 500th anniversary of its last military action abroad. In Sweden, more than 200 years have passed since the army was last engaged in foreign war (the occupation of neighbouring Norway).

In both countries, neutrality has stood the test of time and reinforced the democratic nature of the governments. And this is why neutrality deserves more attention, especially in small and vulnerable democracies around the world.

The world is already moving in such a direction. The primary international tactic for most countries is now no longer archaic military violence, but engagement in smart public diplomacy based on international law.

A more diplomatic and law-based world fits with the notion of neutrality, which means that a country does not join any military alliance or engage belligerently with other countries.

One concept, many forms

Historically there have been as many forms of neutrality as there have been countries to declare it. There have even been some cases – for example Austria after World War II – when a country was obliged by foreign powers to become a neutral state.

For Switzerland, the concept of neutrality goes back to the Second Peace Treaty of Paris in 1815, which allowed it to become a self-governing territory. At that time, however, Switzerland was just a loose network of independent states, and it took another 33 years – as well as a civil war between the country’s various states – to establish the current federal, democratic state, ratified by referendum in 1848.

That state was explicitly neutral. And this direct engagement of Swiss citizens in state affairs, via votes in referendums and citizen’s initiatives, has served to further enforce neutrality. When people get to make decisions, they often choose peace, stability – and neutrality.

The Swiss have, however, retained an army. Indeed, for many decades, it was said that Switzerland was an army. This reflected a certain triumphalism in the country after it managed to keep itself out of two disastrous world wars that consumed its neighbours. But later in the 20th century, Switzerland reduced what had been one of the biggest and most expensive armies – a “protection force for neutrality” – in the world.

Neutrality is not static. It requires constant development and fine-tuning. The Swiss have long debated and changed exactly how their neutrality works. But the debate is always open; the Swiss consensus is that neutrality is a security issue, and security issues should not be left to a small circle within government or parliament, at least in a democracy.

For example, Swiss membership in the United Nations was long debated. Some argued that such a membership, which could imply participation in military operations abroad, would not be compatible with neutrality. And in 1986, two-thirds of Swiss voters said no to UN membership.

They narrowly approved the same measure in 2002, making Switzerland the first country to join the global organization by referendum.

The role of direct democracy

Sweden’s neutrality dates back to the Napoleonic wars, when the Nordic kingdom lost more than one-third of its territory. Since 1812, Sweden has not initiated any armed combats and has declared itself a non-aligned and neutral country.

In contrast to Switzerland, however, this policy has never been enshrined in international treaties and Sweden has always understood its neutrality to be proactive, which has allowed it to be involved in peacekeeping efforts around the world. It also has joined the European Union and forged agreements (though not membership) with NATO.

The Swiss and Swedish examples show the different options and limits of neutrality. The stricter Swiss model limits the international options of the country, but its stand is more credible than Sweden’s rather pragmatic approach. At the same time, Sweden can react more flexibly to changing security challenges.

Taking these risks and benefits into consideration, when I think about the links between peace, stability, democracy and neutrality, I wonder about the power that neutrality might hold for a place under threat – like Taiwan.

The Taiwanese case

Taiwan is a country of 23 million people, sitting next to a larger nation of 1.3 billion, which retains the possibility of invading its smaller neighbour whenever it chooses. What kind of protection does such a place need?

Taiwan has built up its military forces and weaponry, and it has made alliances with the United States and as many other countries as possible. In short, the goal has been to counter the threat with defence mechanisms.

Yet the threats continue – indeed, they have recently increased. In this context, a more important piece of the security puzzle could be the simple example that Taiwan presents to the world.

Taiwan democratized three decades ago, and over the years has sought to make its democracy more participatory. I have visited some 15 times to observe elections and referendums, and work to enhance the country’s system of direct democracy, now considered a global model.

Using that democracy to embrace neutrality has also formally been discussed, and I think that the idea has a couple of virtues.

First, it would reinforce Taiwan’s democracy by putting in place a policy in line with its people’s views, and making it clear that no government could simply go to war.

The issue of Taiwan's possible neutrality was discussed at the 2018 Northeast Asia Peace Forum, held in Taipei.

A signal for peace

It also might provide real security, while broadcasting to the world that Taiwan is devoted to peace.

Again, Switzerland and Sweden are good illustrations of how such a proactive policy of democracy and non-aggression can deter invasion (Switzerland’s ability to avoid the world wars being the prime example), while also creating a globally recognized brand for the country. If a neighbour were to invade an officially neutral Taiwan, it would be threatening and attacking an open, democratic and peaceful country – a difficult position to defend, even for an autocratic government.

Of course, there is no single or simple solution for the complicated security situation in East Asia. But a Taiwanese move to neutrality would project self-confidence, and would be a message to impress the world.

It also would allow Taiwan to focus more on its internal development, including making greater advances in its democracy. The country’s cities, in particular, are seeking more sovereignty and control from a national government that has long centralized power, in part by arguing that a strong national authority is needed for security reasons.

Neutrality, combined with participatory democracy, is not a guaranteed recipe for a country’s lasting stability. But history suggests it is better insurance than the most sophisticated weapons systems.

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