Exploring neutrality as a concept in its own right
In my current research, I’m exploring a blind spot of international relations — the study of neutrality as its own concept.
I came to this topic through looking at the diplomacy of neutral states in the Second World War in Asia. During this all-encompassing conflict, Neutrals had unexpectedly a lot of diplomatic possibilities and responsibilities. To name just one example, small neutral states took over so- called “protecting power” mandates for belligerents on both sides.
After Pearl Harbor, Japan and the U.S. were at war, which meant that they couldn’t talk to each other anymore. But even so, they still had common interests, such as returning diplomats and civilians who were trapped on each other’s territories.
Just how do you do that when you don’t talk to each other? Well, you ask a mutual friend to do diplomacy in your name. For the case of Japan, those were Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain. They weren’t allies; they were basically lawyers, outside of the conflict. They did important work, such as operating the exchange ships that brought civilians back and forth, as well as checking on Prisoner of War camps in the name of the Red Cross.
But there are many examples before and after WWII when neutrals had a very particular impact on the global system. In the Spanish civil war, for example, the liberal democracies — the U.S., Britain and France — decided to remain neutral and not to support the democratically elected Republican Government in Madrid, while the Germans and Italians secretly supported Francisco Franco. In the end this situation helped Franco to win the war. So, you see, not taking sides is actually still a form of partaking in a sense. Neutrals are still part of international dynamics and that has been the case forever.
I find this fascinating, and I’m looking at it as a historical and International Relations concept. The main issues are how the institution of neutrality enables diplomacy, how it impacts strategy and what it does to the logic of security architectures.
You see, neutrality is one of the tools in the security toolbox that you can use conceptually and at the policy level. And interestingly, it’s actually an empirical thing — neutrality doesn’t happen because scholars talk about it and conceptualize it. It’s politicians on the ground who, during conflicts, say “What if we don’t join either camp?” They don’t look at it as hedging or balancing, they look at it as political realism.
To choose a current example, when the U.S. wants to ramp up its efforts against Iran but other nations like Japan don’t have any beef with Teheran, the logical outcome is that Japan stays out of the conflict or would even try to mediate between the two parties. Japan, in this case, is not exactly a textbook neutral, but it behaves according to the logic of neutrality.
Another current example is Venezuela, where some neighboring countries and the U.S. are trying to put political pressure on the Maduro regime to hand power to the opposition. However, Mexico and Uruguay have decided that they’re not going to join in, and instead remain neutral in this ideological conflict. The other countries in the region see this as giving tacit support to Maduro.
That’s the “conflict logic” that happens when states or actors try to stay out of conflicts because of their own interests. This can be explored in terms of how neutrality impacts other actors in a system.
That’s what I’m trying to build my research around. There are plenty of historical examples of states acting as neutrals, but I’m trying to take it further into international relations and explore the concept on a logical and ontological level.
I’ve been working on this since 2014, when I started my Ph.D. At first, I thought the topic was pretty small and isolated, but the more I worked with it, the more I realized its huge potential to be researched from different angles and deliver important insights.
One of the great things about Waseda is that they support this idea of researching neutrality as a concept and not just during particular instances (WWII, WWI, 19th century, etc.). I call this approach “neutrality studies.” In my view, it should become a subfield of international relations (IR) to help understand the concept comprehensively. Nobody has done this so far and that’s what fascinates me about my opportunity here at WIAS.
I told a couple of my historian colleagues that my employment contract at Waseda explicitly mentions that I’m hired to do “Neutrality Studies” and their reply was “you must be the only person in the world who has been hired to do that.”
Pioneer in the field
There are two groups of people who are interested in this topic. One is historians, especially those who study particular examples of neutrality, such as, for example, how the Netherlands acted in WWI or other instances.
Then there are other IR scholars who work on this or related issues, like alliances. Anyone who works on how alliance strategies function usually touches on neutrals every once in a while. But the issue is not usually conceptualized as “neutrality,” it’s often approached under other terms like “bandwagoning,” “hedging,” “free-riding,” etc.
These are IR terms that describe strategies that at one time you would have conceptualized under the term “neutrality.” We use such terms to analyze how states act and decide to become part of or avoid alliances — especially under realist theory. They are the subject of a lot of research.
In realist theory, every country should either join a big power, or form its own alliance against a big power, because states want to remain in a “balanced” system. Or, on the other hand, theory would predict that states might choose to bandwagon, as in, “Let’s profit from the hegemon providing a world system,” that’s the idea behind using terms like “Pax Britannica” or “Pax Americana” where we have a set of rules made in London or in Washington that other states then followed voluntarily.
Being in Japan and here at WIAS is a huge advantage for my research. Tokyo has the advantage that there are just so many research facilities and scholars in a very condensed space. It’s quite easy to join conferences, and it’s easy to talk to scholars here about different subjects, because my topic connects to history, international relations, game theory, etc. that I would like to talk about.
I may not have enough knowledge on a certain subject, but there are people nearby who do. That’s why I’m able to co-organize a conference at GRIPS in December about neutrals and the development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. I don’t know much about nuclear weapons, but there is a good scholar at GRIPS who does, and together we’re going to organize a conference where we’ll explore this topic.
I also enjoy Japan for its own sake. When I was a high school student in Switzerland, I did a one-year exchange program to Wakayama, and I spent anothe five years doing my master and Ph.D. in Tokyo. I’ve been here for a total of almost seven years, and I feel very much at home.