Very few documents online work on the difference. Non-Alignment (and the related history of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the Cold War) seems to refer to countries that will not join alliances or defense pacts. Neutrality seems to be defined around passivity and non-action.

What adjustment could be made to those definitions to account for actions during time of war and time of peace?

Do these policies need to be in respect to large international coalitions? If Sweden and Finland are non-aligned, but gang up together are they still considered non-aligned because two countries isn't enough?

What is the logical relationship between the two? Can a country be aligned and neutral, or non-neutral and non-aligned, etc.?

More generally I am still having trouble grasping what that would mean in practice. My use case is looking at Sweden during the Cold war and after, their seemingly long-standing neutrality and non-alignment policy, although they participate in exercises with NATO, joined the CSDP from the Treaty of Lisbon, which is pretty much like a NATO article 5 for the EU.

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    This is rather a large question, and I'm not sure there's a single historically-constant definition of either term; some countries are formally neutral or non-aligned in their constitutions; others are in practice or by tradition without clearly defining what that means; often neutral countries will in practice favour one side. There is the Non-Aligned Movement as a specific body, but I'm not sure if you're interested in that at all. Sweden's concept of neutrality is worthy of a long article in itself. You could ask about Ireland, Switzerland, and others in Europe and beyond.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:29
  • NAM often (ie outside Europe) had some post-colonial flavor to it as well -- in that one of the motivations for refusing deep integration into Western and Soviet systems was suspicion that, in both cases, it would effectively lead the counties back into a position of subservience.
    – Pete W
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:19
  • Swedish neutrality after WW2 (and even during WW2) has been more myth than reality, so it's a bad example by which to understand those concepts. E.g they allowed German troops to pass through Sweden during WW2. By that standard Belarus is neutral in the Russian war on Ukraine. Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 23:04
  • Neutrality is an older concept that has some formal recognition in international law (e.g. Hague conventions). Interpretation differs a bit and Sweden is pushing the envelope but it still has a specific meaning. By contrast, non-alignment was specifically about the Cold War.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 14:35
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    Note that the EU mutual defense clause is full of caveats and contradictions, including an acknowledgement that some EU member countries are neutral. It can be read as a strong committment to do something unless EU countries have another reason to ignore it entirely.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 14:36

2 Answers 2


Have look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-Aligned_Movement.

Non-alignment was a Cold War thing, mostly, while neutrality is a very very old concept, with countries refusing to either take sides in particular conflicts or staying apart as a basic principle of their nationhood (Switzerland for example). And unlike Non-alignment neutrality does not imply membership of a group, quite the reverse.

The use of alignment implies that there are larger groups too. Given Cuba's prominence in the non-alignment group at the time the notion of neutrality is pretty fuzzy too.

IIRC, there was somewhat of a whiff of "third world vs the rich world" in this movement, though that might also have been an artifact of the US playing up that aspect with anyone who didn't align with it.

Although many of the Non-Aligned Movement's members were actually quite closely aligned with China or the Soviet Union, the movement still persisted throughout the Cold War, even despite several conflicts between members which also threatened the movement. In the years since the Cold War's end in 1991, it has focused on developing multilateral ties and connections as well as unity among the developing nations of the world, especially those within the Global South.

But loosely spoken Non-alignment was theoretically a club of the we-don't-want-to-be-on-US-or-USSR-side.

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    re: "third world vs the rich world" - yes, it's exactly the origin of the term 'third world'
    – Pete W
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:15

Neutrality feels more like a 19th century concept to me. You had the Concert of Europe, also known as concert of Vienna, with multiple great and not so great powers involved in the Great Game. And a few small to medium powers who said that they would not play, and got away with it. The neutrality of Belgium was the outcome of complex negotiations. A multipolar world. (As Stuart points out, it is not just 19th century. Formal neutrality also remained relevant until well after WWII.)

By comparison, the Non-Aligned Movement is a 20th century term, when there were just two superpowers and many regional or smaller powers had to pick sides, or make a point to avoid picking sides. The dynamics are different when there are only two sides to be neutral from/against. A bipolar world, despite the attempt to add another pole.

When you think of Finland and Sweden, you really have to specify the date you are thinking about. Today both are EU members, and when you read the fine print the EU is also a defensive alliance (just not very practiced at it). During the Cold War Finland was more 'between' the West and the East than Sweden. Sweden had managed to stay out of WWII while Finland had fought alongside Germany against the Soviet Union and lost. Finland had to pay a price in reduced freedom of action. It was neutralized, it didn't decide to be neutral.

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    Austria and Switzerland are prominent neutral countries; neither have ever been members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Austria's neutrality was enshrined by treaty between the Soviet Union and NATO powers and by act of the Austrian parliament in the 1950s. So hardly a 19th century thing.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:21
  • @StuartF, not a clean cut. You mention Switzerland, their neutrality is older.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:44
  • @o.m. You're right that it is older and was already codified at the beginning of the 20th century but "feels more like a 19th century concept" still appears to suggest it is irrelevant in the 20th century. You may want to edit this to clarify what you meant.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 8:11

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