H-Diplo Article Review 933 on Widmer. “Neutrality Challenged in a Cold War Conflict: Switzerland, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Angolan War.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 993

30 October 2020

Sabina Widmer.  “Neutrality Challenged in a Cold War Conflict: Switzerland, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Angolan War.”  Cold War History 18:2 (2018):  203-220.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2017.1408072.

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by R. Joseph Parrott, The Ohio State University

After whiling away at the edge of discussions on decolonization and superpower conflict in southern Africa, in the last decade Angola and its contested transition to independence in 1975 have begun to elicit greater attention from international historians.  Though first considered through the lens of the Cold War and Cuban foreign policy, the country’s history intersects with a number of current trends. Sabina Widmer’s study of Swiss policy and recognition of Angola in 1975-76 takes advantage of this historiographical crossroads to consider issues of neutralism, North-South relations, and the politics of humanitarianism.  Widmer argues that Switzerland’s tradition of political neutrality became problematic during the 1960s, when economic relationships with Portugal, South Africa, and Rhodesia placed it on the side of colonialism and white minority governance.  Association with the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indirectly improved matters, but Swiss hesitation to support the Communist-backed government of Angola threatened to damage its standing with African states.  Ultimately, Widmer concludes “concern about Switzerland’s image in Africa was decisive for the government’s recognition of Angola in February 1976” (204).

Widmer contends that the Swiss-Angolan relationship is important for two reasons.  First, it sheds light on how European states adjusted their Cold War policies in response to a rising Global South.  Though the Swiss idea of ‘universality’ required recognition of states regardless of political ideology, the Cold War meant that recognition of specific governments effectively involved choosing sides.  In Angola, this meant either supporting the Western-backed parties led by Jonas Savimbi and Holden Roberto or the People’s Republic of Angola (PRA) declared by the Soviet-Cuban supported Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).  Cold War considerations had led Switzerland to give preference to pro-West states such as South Korea and South Vietnam in the past, but circumstances had changed by 1975.  New African states were criticizing Switzerland for its ties to the white minority regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia, especially since the Bern government used its neutrality to justify eluding United Nations sanctions on the latter.  These actions looked all the worse in comparison with Europe’s other famed neutral, Sweden, which adopted an active policy in the late 1960s that included support for anti-colonial liberation movements in southern Africa.  As a result, the Bern government came to see recognition of the PRA as a way to burnish its tarnished reputation, linking its policy to broader European calculations that largely deferred to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In the months following Angolan independence in November 1975, international opinion slowly moved toward the MPLA.  A few weeks after the OAU lent its support to the leftist party, Switzerland joined Sweden and many other West European states in recognizing the PRA on February 18, 1976.

Recognition helped improve Swiss standing in Africa, but this policy built upon the reflected glow of the second focus of the article: the Geneva-based ICRC’s operations in Angola.  Using both official and ICRC archives, Widmer details the complex relationship between the government and the independent Red Cross organization, noting that it had numerous ties to Swiss diplomats and depended heavily on state support.  At the time of independence, the Swiss government funded roughly one-third of ICRC activities in Angola.  Few Angolans understood the intricacies of this relationship, so the conflation of Switzerland and the ICRC—as well as the delivery of aid using Balair planes displaying the national flag—led the Swiss consul in Luanda to conclude the assistance “improved Switzerland’s image” (212). Though ICRC activities ended in Angola soon after recognition, the article contends that these two factors improved Swiss standing with African states.

Essentially, Angolan independence acts as a prism to analyze the adaptation of Swiss policy for a new, more complex world.  Designed in response to an international system that was dominated by European empires and wars, Swiss neutrality leaned West during the Cold War but felt pressure to become still more active as the contested process of decolonization in southern Africa challenged the status quo. One of the article’s more interesting sub-themes is how Switzerland and other European countries navigated these competing claims in Angola without fully abandoning Cold War alliances.  Widmer explains that Switzerland never seriously considered recognizing the Western-aligned Roberto and Savimbi factions, even though Savimbi had ties to Switzerland and was initially preferred by many in the government.  Nonetheless, quick association with the MPLA would break with neutrality and the stated preferences of the United States.  Switzerland solved this dilemma by “pragmatically following the example of the OAU, and by coordinating their recognition policy with the European Economic Community” (213).  Western Europe—including neutrals Switzerland and Sweden—sought to navigate the North-South divide by following consensus policies, taking cues from African governments and coordinating decisions to avoid individually aggravating their superpower ally.  This decision also demonstrates the important role South-South alliances played in legitimizing postcolonial governments, with the OAU’s embrace of the MPLA after South Africa’s much maligned intervention paving the way for mass European recognition.  Swiss neutrality remained firmly embedded within the continental context, but it adapted slightly to reflect changes in the way European governments understood the fluid balance between East-West and North-South issues.

Exploring the ideas and strategies behind Swiss policy is worthwhile, because—as the comparison with Sweden demonstrates—not all neutralities are created equal.  Swiss neutrality traditionally emphasized indirect action, promoting business ties and supporting ICRC engagement with global humanitarian issues.  Though Sweden also had a Western lean and certainly pursued economic self-interests, Prime Minister Olof Palme’s Social Democratic governments of the 1960s and 1970s reoriented the Swedish state to act as a moral arbiter of international relations divided between East-West and North-South competitions. Sweden’s more active foreign policy evolved to emphasize “human rights and development issues” (207) that it believed were outside politics.  Switzerland clearly felt pressure to adjust its own policy, but it is unclear whether Swiss ideology tried to evolve along Swedish lines or if the government simply desired to improve the “image of their neutrality” (212).  Widmer notes that individual officials advocated for more proactive approaches to humanitarian aid and recognition, but their recommendations were generally delayed or ignored by superiors.  The article leans toward the position that Bern’s decisions represented strategic calculations rather than an overarching reappraisal of its neutrality.  Ultimately, even the final decision to recognize the MPLA government was made to avoid falling behind Sweden.

Widmer still concludes that this strategic adjustment to Swiss neutrality was effective.  In recognizing Angola on the same day as Sweden did, Switzerland effectively “regained much of its standing by the end of the conflict” (218).  Widmer focuses on Swiss bureaucrats, who certainly felt they had accomplished something.  But the direct comparison with Sweden calls this conclusion into question.  Sweden had a long history of aiding liberation movements and became a preferred partner of the Frontline States in terms of both development aid and their ongoing challenge to apartheid South Africa.  It sponsored the African National Congress office in Angola from summer 1976 onward and was a major source of development assistance for the Luanda government after 1977.[1] In contrast, Angola ended the ICRC relationship in early 1976 while Switzerland continued economic relations with both Rhodesia and South Africa, with the latter peaking in the 1980s.[2] Angolan recognition represented a break with tradition and the United States on one issue, but the country’s broader approach to the region likely qualified the effect this single action had on African and European perceptions of Switzerland.

The positive assessment of Swiss policy would have been more convincing if there had been greater attention to African attitudes.  Widmer notes Jonas Savimbi’s educational connections to Switzerland and that the MPLA actively lobbied the Bern government, but African opinions and policies are noticeably absent at key points.  While it was not necessary to cite archival material from Angola or nearby countries, an improvement in relations should have appeared in Swiss cables from concerned African states such as Mozambique, Zambia, or Tanzania.  However, the primary documentation of any policy impact comes from the Consul’s brief celebration of the Swiss plane landing in Luanda (211).  This silence may be telling.  The few documents I have seen discussing Swiss policy in the region continuously criticize its economic and financial ties to apartheid South Africa, lumping the neutral with the United States and Germany well into the 1980s.[3] In contrast, African leaders regularly praised Swedish, Nordic, and even Dutch policy both in the 1970s and in subsequent decades. It is unlikely that Swiss recognition of the PRA changed African attitudes for long given its hesitance to adjust other policies of equal or even greater importance.

More convincing is the idea that popular conflation with the ICRC benefited the Bern government, even if only in a fleeting way.  Widmer does an excellent job explaining the relationship between the ICRC and the government, particularly how Switzerland sought to use the humanitarian institution to better its global standing.  The details on how officials moved between the organizations provides ready evidence of shared goals between relief agency and government.  Attention to funding shows how Bern sought to subtly direct the actions of the private organization to benefit the nation.  Emphasis on how Red Cross activities contextualized government policies means that attention to ICRC activities (and their reception in Angola) is minimal, but the article does well to show how diplomats sought to harness humanitarian intervention.

The article also hints at the challenges humanitarian organizations faced in the era of decolonization. Specifically, competition between the three Angolan parties undermined the ICRC relief mission, with aid flights ending when no agreement could be reached.  This calls into question the role and reception of neutral humanitarian organizations, which Andrew Thompson and others have shown had trouble navigating decolonization.[4] Widmer supports this idea, arguing that the ICRC’s policy in Angola directly reflected earlier criticism of its actions during the Nigerian Civil War, and it appears postcolonial challenges continued. The MPLA government ended relations with the ICRC in April 1976 in favor of ‘national institutions’ such as the new Angolan Red Cross, despite the fact the international organization had proposed a much-needed health infrastructure program.

Widmer does not provide a detailed discussion of the reasoning behind the decision or relations between the national and international committees, but these facts imply there were limitations to the diplomatic benefits of humanitarian organizing.  Certainly, the MPLA was wary of Western actors, but it expanded relationships with organizations like the Swedish International Development Authority in subsequent years.[5] I was left wondering if the ICRC (and its programs) were a victim of MPLA paranoia during a period of political fragility, if the African party looked askance at transnational humanitarian organizations generally, or if it specifically distrusted organizations associated with governments such as Switzerland that had supported Portugal. It may be that the Swiss-ICRC relationship was a two-way street, with Swiss actions tarnishing the reputation of the International Red Cross.  Or perhaps the process of decolonization politicized humanitarian principles designed—like neutrality—for an earlier era.  These are big questions that extend beyond the Angolan example, which I look forward to reading more about in Widmer’s larger project on Swiss policy in Africa.

Widmer’s article is a worthwhile read for scholars of international relations.  Though attention to events in Africa could be greater, there are quite a few interesting insights into Swiss and broader European diplomacy.  Specifically, it highlights the way that European states sought to balance Cold War rivalries while courting the Global South, identifying authoritative organizations like the OAU and political consensus as ways to justify straying from strict anti-communism.  More importantly, Widmer reveals in detail how states sought to use the activities of non-governmental humanitarian organizations to improve a nation’s brand on the world stage without seriously adjusting policies.


R. Joseph Parrott is assistant professor of U.S foreign relations and transnational history at the Ohio State University.  Interested in the intersection of foreign policy, race, and transnational activism, he is currently revising a manuscript that considers Portuguese decolonization in Africa as a noteworthy component in transforming western engagement with the global south.  His work has appeared in Modern American History, Radical History Review, and Race & Class.  He is also working on an edited volume that examines the radical Third World ideology of Tricontinentalism and a second book-length project on reactionary solidarity with the minority governments of southern Africa.



[1] Tor Sellström, “Sweden and the Nordic Counties: Official solidarity and assistance from the West,” The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 3: International Solidarity, Part 1, South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET), eds. (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 2008), 482-483.

[2] According to researcher Peter Hug, relations with South Africa were most extensive in the 1980s after other countries distanced themselves from the apartheid state.  See Peter Hug, “Aligning with the Apartheid Government against Communism,” Synthesis of the Study by Peter Hug for NPR+ 42, Swiss National Science Foundation (c.2007).  The full report of the project for which Hug’s study was completed is available in English as Georg Kreis, Switzerland and South Africa 1948-1994: Final report of the NFP 42+- commissioned by the Swiss Federal Council (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007).

[3] See for example, Gary F. Nelson, “RANDS FOR RACISM: The Marketing of South African Krugerrands,” Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility Brief, 1980, African Activist Archive, Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan).  See also Peter Leuenberger, “Switzerland and apartheid: The Swiss Anti-apartheid Movement,” in SADET.

[4] Andrew Thompson, “Humanitarian Principles Put to the Test: Challenges to Humanitarian Action during Decolonization,” International Review of the Red Cross 97:897/898 (June 2015): 45-76.

[5] Sweden delivered emergency assistance to Angola in 1976 and established a formal relationship regarding development aid beginning in 1977.  See Tor Sellström, Sweden Liberation in Southern Africa, Volume II (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2002), 130-140.