When war breaks out, what does it mean for a country to remain neutral? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we explore the advantages and disadvantages of neutrality – and what responsibilities come with the choice not to take sides. We talk to an historian about how an age of neutrality emerged in the 19th century and what lessons it has for the war in Ukraine. And we dig down into the reasons why one country – India – has decided to remain neutral on the conflict.
In early March, when the UN general assembly passed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 35 countries abstained. These countries, across Africa, Asia and Latin America, chose to remain neutral for their own reasons, some historic, some economic and some political. Like neutral countries throughout history, they will have carefully weighed up the pros and cons of doing so.
Throughout history, while some countries have chosen to remain neutral for their own security, others have seen advantages in doing so. This was particularly the case in the 19th century, when the first international laws of neutrality began to emerge in Europe. Maartje Abbenhuis, a professor of history at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, explains how an “age of neutrality” dawned as the world’s great powers avoided being drawn into a series of costly wars. But by staying neutral, countries such as the UK and the Netherlands were also able to concentrate on colonising other parts of the world. “The wealth of the British empire grew on this policy of as little war in Europe as possible and expansion overseas,” says Abbenhuis.
Today, India is one of the countries trying to maintain a delicate balancing act over Ukraine. Swaran Singh, a professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, calls India’s position one of proactive neutrality. “India is not saying we have nothing to do with the conflict, but it’s very proactive,” he says, for example, engaging in diplomacy with Russia, Ukraine and the US and rescuing Indian and other foreign nationals at the start of the conflict.
Singh explains India’s neutrality is rooted in its history of non-alignment during the cold war, which subsequently shifted into a policy of multi-alignment through which India has tried to build as many partnerships as possible. Now that India has close ties to both the US and Russia, Singh explains that it has done a “cost-benefit analysis and it feels that that proactive neutrality ensures maximum benefits with minimum costs.”
Why India chose a path of ‘proactive neutrality’ on Ukraine
But neutrality also brings responsibilities with it, from humanitarian support to diplomatic efforts to bring about peace – and countries can also change their mind during the course of a war too. Learn more by listening to Abbenhuis and Singh in the full episode of The Conversation Weekly.
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This episode was produced by Gemma Ware and Mend Mariwany, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.
Newsclips in this episode are from WION, CNA, NDTV and eNCA.
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Swaran Singh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Maartje Abbenhuis receives funding from the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund.