WHEN trains laden with NATO supplies passed through Switzerland to the Balkans earlier this month, the world hardly noticed.
But the gesture signals that Switzerland, which has been neutral for centuries and does not even belong to the UN, might soon reconsider the price of its aloofness.
With economic and security pacts crisscrossing Europe, the Swiss are entertaining a once-heretical idea.
''In some ways, we can't be neutral anymore in the traditional sense,'' says Roland Bless, a government worker in Bern. ''With the nature of some conflicts today - when the entire world seems united against one aggressor - you have to join.''
''Neutrality was useful during the cold war, but it has lost its function a little,'' says Curt Gasteyder, director of the Program for International Security and Strategic Studies in Geneva.
''Adopting a more flexible attitude toward neutrality is necessary for us. Already other neutral powers, such as Austria and Sweden, have joined the EU,'' he says. ''The moment we realize neutrality is counterproductive it will be thrown overboard.''
In fact, a government paper published last year, ''Swiss Security Policy in Times of Change,'' says that this country might need to change its international status.
According to the paper, the day may arrive when membership in an overall European system of collective security will have to be examined - especially if the European Union also expands into Eastern Europe: ''It is possible that the Swiss people will then regard neutrality as a principle hindering our political participation in Europe.''
One government policy observer says the fact the government has put this issue before the public through the paper is no small step. After all, armed neutrality has deep roots here.
Some historians trace the country's military neutrality to 1515, when the French army of King Frances I, which included Swiss mercenaries, defeated the Swiss at Marignano during the Milanese campaigns. Tired of fighting each other, the already 300-year-old confederation withdrew from the military alliances. Today, the Vatican's Swiss Guards are the only Swiss ''mercenaries'' left.
However, the country's neutral status didn't become international policy until the 1815 Vienna Congress. The superpowers of the time, including Great Britain and Austria, guaranteed Switzerland's neutrality, but obliged the nation to defend itself.
During World War II, bridges and tunnels were mined so everything could be destroyed in case of invasion. Now armed neutrality means every building has a bomb shelter and every capable 18-year-old male must join the military. Young soldiers are often seen at train stations and airports with assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
With this proud past, it's no surprise the idea of non-neutral Switzerland doesn't grab the hearts of everyone.
''Now we're 100 percent encircled by European Union powers. Maybe it's just a matter of time before we have to join the United Nations, but I think it's too soon to stop being neutral,'' says Catherine Meutier, a teacher in Lausanne.
Others say the time has already arrived. ''The country has always been known as the protector of neutrality, having skilled diplomats, and things like that,'' says Raymond Loretan, secretary-general of the Christian Democrat Party.
''But now it's time the Foreign Ministry, and we, get more active. It needs to rediscover its role if the country is to remain credible,'' he adds.
Allowing NATO to transport material to troops in the Balkans is one way, sending foreign aid to Eastern Europe and Palestinians are others. And since the Swiss foreign minister is the current president of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Switzerland can be more visible.
Although the OSCE may be considered a lightweight in some circles, it's really Switzerland's only chance to fully participate in a multilateral organization, Mr. Loretan says.
Yet some say that Switzerland enjoys credibility around the world precisely because of its neutrality.
Since the country acted as a buffer state between East and West during the cold war, it can mediate conflicts today, says Jean-Phillipe Tissieres, spokesman for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.