Neutrality as the compass, direct democracy as the basis

Thoughts about Paul Widmer’s history of Swiss foreign policy

by Dr. iur. Marianne Wüthrich

A history of Swiss foreign policy, as it had been shaped and influenced by seven personalities from 1815 until present times: historian Paul Widmer who has served in the diplomatic service himself for many years presents a fascinating overview of Swiss history to us in his book “Schweizer Aussenpolitik. Von Charles Pictet de Rochemont bis Edouard Brunner” (Swiss foreign policy. From Charles Pictet de Rochemont to Edouard Brunner). Only in the historical context, Widmer argues, the great importance of neutrality for Swiss foreign relations may be grasped. Both for the Swiss and the foreign reader this offers great insight into the unique Swiss model.
Being fully aware that the Swiss political system with its co-operative basis “[…]  does not push any individual to the forefront” but rather “[…] results from the efforts of many”,  the author still picked a representative array of politicians, diplomats and scientists: for the 19th century Charles Pictet de Rochemont from Geneva, who negotiated the international agreement on Swiss eternal neutrality at the Vienna congress of 1815; Johann Konrad Kern from Thurgau, the first professional diplomat in the service of the Swiss federation of 1848, and the Federal Councillor Numa Droz from Neuenburg. For the 20th century he chose the Professor of international and state law Max Huber from Zurich, who fought against the principle “might makes right” in the League of nations and campaigned for Switzerland joining it, Giuseppe Motta from Tessin who served as a member of the federal council during a long and difficult time, from 1911 until his death in 1940; Max Petitpierre from Neuenburg who joined the government in 1945 and was influential in shaping the policy after the war. Last but not least – Edouard Brunner, the diplomat from Berne, contemporary and companion of Paul Widmer (see foreword pages 7–10).
According to the opening chapter, the “peculiarity of Swiss foreign policy” shall be explained first. Some crucial remarks of the author from the conclusion chapter might get some people eager to read the whole book. The following article outlines the ingredients of Swiss foreign policy as it was developed during the German-French war of 1871 and later completed by the corner stones of asylum policies in the 1880ies.

Foreign policy as the connection of direct democracy and neutrality

“Neutrality and direct democracy are deeply rooted in the Swiss people’s convictions. Both have extraordinarily high approval rates.” (Widmer, p.11). Year after year this statement is confirmed by the survey of the ETH Zurich who interview a representative cohort of Swiss citizens. The recently published 2019 survey showed a record high 96% approval of neutrality and a record low 15% in favour of joining the European Union (p. 144) – which would put an end to both neutrality and crucial aspects of direct democracy.
These clear results give reason for hope. Paul Widmer confirms this finding and states that neutrality and direct democracy are “[…] anything but mythical”. “Direct democracy developed from the co-operative concept in the late middle ages, neutrality emerged from lessons learned in situations of existential threat”, such as the defeat at Marignano 1515 or the unsecured borders in the Thirty years war. “Switzerland as lived these ideas. Not in a perfect way, of-course […] But the will to shape the body politic according to peoples’ ideas and convictions never perished.” (Widmer, p.11)

“In Switzerland foreign policy has to accept the primacy of domestic policy”

What makes Swiss foreign policy so special is “[…] the peculiar balance of power between political elite and the people. Just like in all other countries the ideas of political elites (or those who think that is what they are) about foreign policy issues differ from those of the people. But there is a remarkable difference between Switzerland and its neighbours. This difference is about who will get their will at the end. In most countries this is almost always the elites, in Switzerland it is the people more often than anywhere else.” Were that not the case, the author presumes, Swiss foreign policy would have “immersed itself into the West European mainstream a long time ago.” He concludes this line of thought with the short but precise remark: “Only thanks to direct democracy Switzerland is what it is.” (Widmer p.19)
In my opinion, there is not really such a thing as “elites” in Switzerland since one citizen has one vote – but the experienced diplomat has lived many years in that group and can explain why they tick differently than the people.

Neutrality as a factor to preserve peace: the Good services

“Neutrality is by far the most important concept in Swiss foreign policy. It is the compass for the big questions of foreign relations.” There would be peace on earth were all states to adhere to the neutrality principle, i.e. refraining from waging wars of aggression or taking sides in the wars of other states. “But eternal armed neutrality is a peace factor even if only one states adheres to it” (Widmer p. 25). Here is where diplomacy and good services come into play. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) praises the latter as follows: “The Good services of Switzerland have a long tradition and play a key role in Swiss peace politics. Switzerland is able to build bridges where others are blocked out because it does not belong to any of the power centres nor will it pursue hidden agendas of her own.”

Firstly, the Good services include “peace negotiations as an uninvolved third party”, but secondly “anything a state can do for others for the sake of peace”. (Widmer p. 15). Switzerland is the host of international organisations (especially in Geneva) or acts as intermediary between hostile states. For-instance, Switzerland has negotiated on behalf of the USA with Iran for decades and has recently assumed the same role with Venezuela.
The Good services are completed by various humanitarian aid initiatives, most notably in connection with the International Red Cross.

Neutrality as a crucial principle of Swiss sovereignty

Paul Widmer stresses the uniqueness of Swiss politics of neutrality – which has constantly been challenged from abroad: “This paradox, that neutrality is endorsed as a principle but questioned in moments of existential threats, has walked with neutrality since it has grown up as if it was its shadow. And Switzerland feels it ever since her neutrality was internationally accepted.” (Widmer p.26). In no other European country has neutrality ever survived longer than two or three generations. “And today the neutral countries who where partners in the second half of the 20th century seem to be eager to get rid of neutrality. Austria and Sweden distance themselves more and more, they want to water neutrality down to the lack of membership in any alliances, Finland just waits for the right moment to join NATO. No wonder discussions in Switzerland start, too, about whether neutrality still can be maintained in the current context of security politics.” (Widmer p. 31)
But: “Unlike the other three former neutral states Switzerland never joined the European Union and in security questions only cautious steps away from the traditional line are made.” The reason for this: “An overwhelming majority of Swiss citizens don’t want to hear anything about neutrality being restricted, let alone abandoned, as polls show consistently.” This reflects historical experience which always proved in hindsight that maintaining neutrality had been a wise decision. (Widmer p. 31)
For the other countries the Swiss neutrality status is reason for hope: “With its commitment to non-violence the Swiss state contributes to international co-operation furthering long-lasting peace at a   smaller level, just like the UN at the global level.” (Widmer p.35)

Which way should we as Swiss citizens lead our country?

“Since the end of the Cold war Switzerland has been shaken in its very foundations”, the experienced diplomat states at the beginning of his concluding remarks. “Suddenly it was sucked into foreign turmoils.”
This clear language regarding the often questionable Swiss foreign policies since the 1990ies is comforting and should prompt us as citizens to voice our concerns more loudly.  

  • Neutrality: “When Switzerland joined the UN sanctions against Irak it abandoned its neutrality. In the years to come Switzerland took part in most economic sanctions imposed by the UN but also the EU. The Federal council had switched sides without further ado.”
  • Security issues: “Without being legitimised by a people’s referendum the federal government decided to join NATO’s ‘partnership for peace’ in 1996”. Moreover, Switzerland contributed to UN and OSCE operations mainly in Kosovo. “Only a few years earlier it would have been unthinkable for Switzerland to join a mandate passed by the UN but almost exclusively carried out by NATO in order to secure peace in a country against which NATO had just waged its first war in history.” (Widmer p.  417)
  • Integration policy: The people endorsed the bilateral agreements with the EU in the early 2000’s and our joining the UN in 2002, “which had been clearly rejected just 16 years prior to that.” (Widmer p.417) On the other hand, people and estates had rejected joining the European economic area in 1992.

Those Swiss citizens who have a tendency to give in facing foreign pressure and the compliancy of some of our own politicians are reminded of the power of people’s rights in direct democracy by Paul Widmer: Switzerland would have joined the EEA and probably even the EU decades ago, “[…] were it up to the parliament only to authorise the policy of the federal council. However, the people decided otherwise.” (Widmer p. 418)
And he warns: “As long as Switzerland maintains its essential identity and continues to live direct-democratic rights, federalism and neutrality as matters of conviction, it will bear witness to a unique political system. It has managed the difficult task to integrate several confessions, languages and nationalities into one state over centuries, only because of the conscious decision to abstain from projecting political power abroad but to concentrate on a peaceful domestic development instead. Her citizens don’t regard linguistic or religious affiliation as their defining identity but in their shared opinions about right and freedom.”
In conclusion we should agree with the author of this impressive history of Swiss foreign policy that this Switzerland will certainly be able to yet again keep the necessary balance between international requirements and self-assertion – provided her citizens make it a matter of their hearts.     •

* The historian an philosopher Paul Widmer is a lecturer for international relations at the University of St. Gallen. He studied in Zurich an Cologne, he joined the diplomatic service in 1977, first in New York and Washington, from 1992 as Ambassador to Berlin, Croatia, the Council of Europe in Strassbourg and finally until 2014 the Holy See.

Asylum policy in the young federal state: A worthy example against interference from outside

mw. In the 1880s, the Neuchâtel Federal Councillor Numa Droz became head of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In his article “Du rôle international de la Suisse“ of 1882, he named the cornerstones of Switzerland‘s current asylum policy: “We want our country to continue to be respected as asylum for the defenders of all inferior affairs; but if we grant them the most generous hospitality, we also expect to remain master in our own house; and we do not tolerate conspiracies by foreigners any more as demands from outside. (Widmer, p. 163)
Using the example of asylum policy, the Confederation showed the major powers that the rule of law is not negotiable in their territory. At that time there was no internationally recognised right of asylum for politically persecuted persons, and the Federal Council had to defend itself repeatedly against massive attempts by the German Reich to interfere. In 1878, on request of Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the
Reichstag had imposed “an exceptional law against the Social Democrats which made it impossible for them to publish within the German Reich“. (Widmer, p. 163) Several leading Social Democrats fled to Switzerland and published the newspaper “Der Sozialdemokrat“ in Zurich, which they smuggled back to Germany. On Bismarck‘s orders, the German ambassador intervened several times in Bern against this – but in vain: “However, Switzerland hardly reacted to the visits. From our own legal system, there was no reason to do so.“ (Widmer, p. 164)
What subsequently took place between Germany and Switzerland took on grotesque characteristics and culminated in the arrest of an agent provocateur appointed by Bismarck, who was expelled by the Federal Council of the country, whereupon the Reich Chancellor threatened to terminate the settlement treaty and reintroduce passport enforcement at the border (Widmer, pp. 164–167). (This reminds us of the “punitive actions“ at our borders after the adoption of the popular initiative against mass immigration in February 2014.)
Paul Widmer summarises that the Federal Council, headed by Numa Droz and supported by Parliament and the population, had repeatedly defied Bismarck: “Foreign countries also followed this unequal struggle closely. Switzerland left the arena with a great increase in prestige“. It had proved “that it was willing to defend its sovereignty, even if this seemed daring in the light of the naked balance of power […]“. (Widmer, p. 167) – This steadfastness is recommended for imitation by today‘s Swiss authorities.

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