Switzerland is neutral – or it won’t be Switzerland any longer

by Erika Vögeli

For more than 30 years, certain circles have been trying to realign Switzerland politically. Without neither a mandate from the people nor prior discussion, we see an incessant tinkering around at changing our understanding of the state. Just read the Federal Council’s foreign policy report from 1988 and compare it with policy from the beginning of the 1990s on. The discrepancy could hardly be greater. As late as 1988 we find a clear commitment to direct-democratic Switzerland and its neutrality. Furthermore, an integration into EU or a rapprochement with NATO or other international organisations is only considered as possible at the price of self-abandonment. Since the 1990s however, Switzerland has been constantly bombarded with defeatist accusations like “cherry-picking”, “lack of solidarity”, references to “outdated ideas” and “entrenchment in myths”. The slogan for the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991, “700 years is enough”, shows the agenda.

Where from and what for?

This medial and political barrage against Swiss identity intensified with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of the USSR and the exultant intoxication of the US power elites regarding the “victory” in the Cold War, the “end of history” and the dawn of a “golden” US age. George H. W. Bush proclaimed a “new world order”. A “new American century” was planned in which the USA aimed to achieve military superiority in all spheres around the globe.
  These developments had an impact in Switzerland as well. Some influential exponents in politics, business and the media in Switzerland seem to have been so impressed by this that they did not want to miss the “connection to history” under any circumstances. Under the slogan “rethinking the state”, as a major event in Bern at the time put it, a reform doctrine was imposed on Switzerland from administrative circles which was not oriented towards our needs, but towards the requirements of international institutions such as the OECD and the EU, among others.
  Now history was rewritten, everything previous was attacked and slandered, often solely with the argument that what had been tried and tested was not a reinvention or that Switzerland stuck in a “reform backlog” – without questioning whether there was really anything in need of reform, and without drawing on experience to weigh up even tentatively the consequences of all these “innovations” and blessings of a “new world order”.
  The state and all areas of public service, committed to the common good – and functioning quite well – had to become economically profitable and “efficient”. Under the slogan “slimming down the state”, the transformation of the state into an executive office of globally networked companies (keyword privatisation of the public sector) began – with the administration actually fattening up. Increasingly, reforms took place by way of administrative acts and campaigns such as “future workshops” and the like, instead of relying on the well-established direct-democratic processes.
  The health system – until then considered as one of the best in the world – was turned upside down. The schools were reformed, under the pretext of tuning them to “economics”, thus ruining our excellent basic primary and secondary school to a shadow of its former self. This will result in Switzerland soon be running out of the only resource it has been building on for decades, its solid education system, because a few super-pupils cannot compensate for what a broad and good education means for a healthy economy and a vital democracy. The family silver was being flogged off at the stock exchange, American management methods were adopted. And people were surprised when big foreign investors showed little interest in the small national economy. Even against the will of the people, for example in the field of electricity supply, there were attempts to curtail public service. There was a craving for centralised power taking hold of various political parties. (The appetite for centralised power took hold in various parties.)

Rapprochement with NATO
and the “debate” on neutrality

Step by step, Switzerland was being brought closer to NATO and there were attempts to discredit neutrality within the Swiss population. However, these attempts haven’t succeeded at all – quite clearly the population has repeatedly spoken out in favour of maintaining neutrality, which in Swiss feeling and thinking is deeply connected with the entire conception of the state and the existence of Switzerland. So, this strategy of dismantlement was sold as being compatible with neutrality. Instead of honestly discussing on the basis of facts, PR methods and psychological warfare with denigration and disparagement took hold. The demand for solidarity is put forward – and conceals more badly than it should the willing compliance with demands and threats in the face of the presumptuous transatlantic attacks.
  Apart from bringing out the biggest guns, the discussion has shifted to a pseudo-intellectual debate about aspects of neutrality law. Politics and the media are busying themselves with how to interpret the principle of neutrality laid down in the international law. Not only is this a poor justification for the embarrassing subordination to the demands of a would-be world hegemon in decline and its satellite in Brussels. Moreover, such a discussion turns the mind in a completely wrong direction by ignoring the very essence, the very substance of Swiss neutrality.

Swiss neutrality –
more than rights and obligations
laid down in international law

In the course of history, neutrality has not just been a result of the conforming application of rights and obligations laid down in international law. In fact, it is more than a guiding principle of foreign policy circumscribed by international law, it is more than a principle recognised in 1815 by the European powers of the time. It is much more: it is a principle that has grown organically in accordance with the historical development and the essence of our federal state, i.e., with all its factors. In a way, history has “taught” us neutrality – for without neutrality, the Swiss Confederacy would never have been able to survive over the centuries and it would never have become the federal state we are looking back on 175 years of existence this year.
  Actually, it was not so much “wise foresight” that led our ancestors to neutrality, but rather historical necessities and often enough hard lessons they had been learned. What guided them – often quite intuitively – was the never abandoned and timeless, yet essentially human purpose: to preserve the freedom of the small unit, which has also been preserved in the form of the Swiss federal state. Having emerged from the intentional federation with the other cantons developed by contract, the Federal Constitution of 1848 preserved communal freedom and, with federalism, the far-reaching autonomy of the cantons. These have more sovereign rights than many an autonomy status in other countries. Furthermore, in addition to direct democracy at the communal level in the form of direct referendums and initiatives, direct democratic participation has been developed at the cantonal and federal levels, too.

Will to freedom as the driving force

This federal structure, which has grown from the bottom up, has enabled us – in all modesty – to enjoy the highest degree of freedom and participation, and to deal with differences of interest and conflicts in a civilised manner. It could not have developed without the principle of neutrality, which has asserted itself time and again – and on the other hand, this neutrality is also the expression of a history in which, in the end, the will to preserve the greatest possible freedom has always found a way.
  Thus, Swiss neutrality has emerged in the course of a history in which the natural desire of all human beings for freedom and self-determination was a driving force – but not in terms of its modern-day variant of a completely (pseudo-)independent individual striving for mere self-performance, without any obligation to the fellow human beings. First and foremost, man has always been and still is a member of a community without which human life is inconceivable. Freedom doesn’t mean to be free to do whatever you want without regard for everything and everyone. It means to fully develop my human abilities and possibilities within the framework of this community, to contribute to the shaping of life together – to help shaping it where it concerns me, because that is what constitutes my dignity, the dignity of men.
  The cooperative principle of self-help, self-responsibility and self-administration – which, by the way, can be observed in history and currently throughout the world and could certainly be described as an anthropological constant – is, to a certain extent, the pre-state form of human coexistence, which doesn’t have to serve power, but all members of the community and their lives, i.e., the individuals as they are – long before any democratic constitutions. Preserving this freedom within the own framework was an essential motivation of the voluntary Swiss Confederacy, which basically consisted of numerous and different treaties of alliance and which had been expanding over the centuries. There were historical lessons to be learned: the experience that this freedom was always at risk and that preserving it required compromise and renunciation of all far too one-sided interest-driven politics.
  An awareness had to develop that such a diverse, loose structure as the Confederation had been for centuries could only be maintained if the self-determination of the other confederates was respected: You couldn’t have freedom unless you refrained from disregarding excessively the other’s freedom. Neutrality in the interior, so to speak.

Freedom needs
the principle of “right before might”

But it was only possible to preserve the freedom of this federation and with it the possibility of self-determination for its members throughout all this time, if one knew how to prevent the individual confederates from being taken over by the surrounding great powers. The loose confederation resulting from the will to the greatest possible self-determination, always had to beware of the efforts of the surrounding great powers to absorb it. Its continued existence depended to a large extent on resolving the certainly existing inner conflicts by means of legal provisions, negotiations, treaties or arbitration. It was not by chance that arbitration as a mechanism for settling disputes among the confederates as well as the rejection of foreign jurisdiction were anchored in the Federal Charter from the very beginning – the recognition of the principle of law before might and force proved to be a compelling element of self-preservation. It imposed restraint on the members of the Confederation in the way of dealing with their conflicts of interests, if they wanted to maintain the common confederation to defend themselves against the great power politics ambitions of their neighbours.
  With this also developed the prohibition that prevented the individual “Stände” or “Orte”, as the single states of the confederation, today the cantons, were called at the time, to make pacts with foreign powers without the consent of all others. The “Do not meddle in other people’s quarrels.” of Niklaus von Flüe was existential for cohesion, because the foreign quarrels would inevitably have led to internal discord and strife due to differing partisanship. Only the subordination of foreign policy to domestic policy has allowed us to develop and maintain all the liberal institutions that we value so much.
  In other words, the “historical education” in resolving conflicts of interest by compromise and contracts shaped domestic policy – and put foreign policy at the service of domestic policy. It made the state the custodian of the freedom of the individual and the community in which we live and thereby set it the necessary limits. From this developed – in a sense as empirical value and concomitant phenomenon of the lessons history taught us, a certain attitude towards the state, which is, however, far too little reasoned out and reflected up to day. Wolfgang von Wartburg called it a basic attitude which he described as “political humanism”1. This basic attitude denies any self-purpose of the state, but refers it to the ultimate task of every community building and organisation: the creation of conditions for the free development of all people living in it. Power politics, even great power politics, domination of others, interference in their conditions and ways of life are definitely not part of it.
  One expression of this is the form of direct democracy as it has been able to develop in Switzerland – the only form that is actually thinkable under the premise of the responsible citizen. Of course, this does not guarantee a perfect social coexistence at all: The fact that the real existing form of this state has never fully corresponded to the ideal in history, nor does it fully correspond to it at the present time, lies in the nature of human, human-historical development.

Neutrality creates freedom
for the citizens and solidarity

This “subordination of foreign policy to domestic policy”, however, has nothing to do with isolation or disinterest in the fate of others. First of all, there is no other foreign policy for an actual constitutional state that adheres to the principles of international law. The preservation of peace and of the freedom of its citizens, the promotion of their common welfare – this and only this gives the state its justification. In Switzerland, state neutrality – as many have pointed out many times – has nothing to do with neutrality of opinion for the citizens anyway. On the contrary, as Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre pointed out 1948, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation: “Switzerland has always rejected moral neutrality. It has always held the view that there is only a neutrality of the state, the limits of which are determined by law and which, in a democracy, does not extend to the individuals, whose personal judgement remains untouched.”2 It is precisely the state’s obligation to neutrality in foreign policy what sets the necessary domestic political limits against pretension of power and arbitrariness. Great power ambitions and alignment with a great power, on the other hand, will sooner or later lead to the attempt of influencing and governing the opinions and the freedom of thought and speech of the citizens in the sense of the interests of the hegemon.
  State neutrality, which demands strict impartiality vis-à-vis all belligerents, does not restrict the feelings and thoughts of its citizens. As a free man, he can express his solidarity with whomever he wishes. The Swiss international law expert Emer de Vattel (1714–1767), who, as Pirmin Meier points out, “came forward long before Pictet de Rochemont as a theorist of the integral neutrality of the Swiss Confederation”3, described this inter-relationship as follows: “I was born in a country whose soul, wealth and fundamental law is freedom. By my birth I can be the friend of all nations.”4
  Genuine solidarity requires this freedom. Subordination to a great power, an integration into a military bloc inevitably strangles it. It was neutrality that Switzerland became a “diplomatic superpower” in the Second World War5. The confidence in the unconditional integral and armed neutrality made it possible for the Swiss diplomats and the representatives of the ICRC to act discreetly but effectively humanitarian on behalf of countless people in many different countries which where hostile against each other. Such missions are genuine peace policy: even if they cannot influence the war, they leave behind traces of humanity that point beyond war by reminding all those who experience them of the better side of being human, of what really makes human beings human.
  Instead of belittling Switzerland and its neutrality and to defame it in a defeatist manner, we would do better to rethink it anew – in terms of its content and its potential for a more humane, more peaceful world.

Without neutrality no direct democracy

Above all, however, we must realise that Switzerland, as a country of direct democracy, in which we have comparatively materialised the highest degree of possibilities of political participation and co-determination, cannot continue to exist without neutrality. The abandonment of our own identity – and that would be the surrender of neutrality, if we were to eye it in the light of the entire development from the beginnings to the present day – would mean the end of the Switzerland as we know it. Of course, it could continue to exist by name as part of a power bloc, e. g., as a territorial area or an administrative unit of an EU or as German, French or Italian region.6 But as a country that has historically grown from the bottom up and as an independent model which held its ground for centuries as defence against great power ambitions, it is inconceivable without its neutrality. Neutrality is a central element that gave the Swiss state structure that “measure of the human” which, in its federalist, bottom-up, subsidiarity-based direct democracy, is best suited to human nature among the forms of state organisation that have existed up to now. To preserve this model “as an unrelenting sting against money-grubbing great power politics”7 would be true solidarity with the maltreated peoples of this world and the most meaningful contribution to peace. •

1 von Wartburg, Wolfgang. Geschichte der Schweiz (History of Switzerland), p. 247
2 Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre. “Betrachtungen über die Neutralität” (Reflections on Neutrality). In: Schweizerische Demokratie 1848–1948. Hundert Jahre Schweizer Bundesstaat (Swiss Democracy 1848–1948. One Hundred Years of the Swiss Federal State), p. 168f. (emphasis in the original).
3 Meier, Pirmin. “Ein Plädoyer für Schweizer Philosophen” (A Plea for Swiss Philosophers). In: Hirt, Walter; Nef, Robert; Ritter, Richard C. (ed.) EigenStändig. Die Schweiz – ein Sonderfall. (Independent. Switzerland – a special case). Zurich 2002. p. 308
4 quoted from Meier, Pirmin. op. cit. p. 308. (For de Vattel’s considerations on international law, see: Le droit des gens ou principes de la loi naturelle. 1758. German translation: Walter Schätzel. (Ed.) In: Die Klassiker des Völkerrechts. (The Classics of International Law.) Volume III. Emer de Vattel: Das Völkerrecht oder Grundsätze des Naturrechts (The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law). Tübingen 1959.
5 Rings, Werner. Advokaten des Feindes. Das Abenteuer der politischen Neutralität (Advocates of the Enemy. The Adventure of Political Neutrality). Wien und Düsseldorf 1966. p. 9
6 cf. Mattmann–Allamand, Peter. “Der eigentliche Zweck der Militärgesetzrevision: Das Tabu ‘Neutralität’ brechen”. (The actual Purpose of the Revision of the Military Law: Breaking the Taboo of ‘Neutrality’). In: Zeit–Fragen. Special Edition on the vote from 20 June 2001. April 2001. p. 5.
7 Vögeli, Erika. “Friedenspolitik – welche Aufgabe hat die Schweiz” (Peace policy – what is the task of Switzerland). In: Zeit–Fragen. Special Edition on the vote from 20 June 2001. April 2001 p. 3

«A great opportunity – for Switzerland as well as for this world»

“Precisely because we have declared our neutrality to be perpetual and therefore do not change our foreign policy position in the flowing changeabilities of international circumstances, we are protected from the accusation to float with the tide for the sake of advantage. We bear the heavy burdens of our armed neutrality without any intention of exploiting changed political constellations to gain power, very much in contrast to the merely occasional neutral or ‘non-belligerent’”. (Edgar Bonjour. Die schweizerische Neutralität. Ihre geschichtliche Wurzel und gegenwärtige Funktion (English version: Swiss Neutrality. Its History and Meaning). Bern 1943. p. 28)

“Neutrality, then, does not merely serve to preserve Switzerland’s external existence; it serves to preserve its nature. – But also to the rest of the world, Switzerland can mean more if it remains true to its tradition as if it was abandoning it in favour of some other principle. The fact that Switzerland is not burdened with any power politics gives it an international prestige to it that it would never have gained as a power. It has always used this prestige in the interest of humanity. In numerous cases, from China to France, Swiss people mediated between hostile parties during the last war, with or without a mandate from the state. Only the international confidence and reputation for impartiality enjoyed by Switzerland made the effectiveness of the International Red Cross possible. It has done immeasurable things to alleviate the misery of war.” (Wolfgang von Wartburg. Geschichte der Schweiz. (History of Switzerland). p. 250f.)

“After the terrible wars of the 20th century, bellicose great power politics can only be enforced where democratic control mechanisms do not exist or can be suspended. Peace can flourish where renunciation of size and violence is taken for granted and where the state is built up from bottom up in manageable units by direct popular decision. Switzerland, too, is at a turning point. It can join the Atlantic superpowers, whose compass is still set on war, betray its origins and thereby perish. Or it can courageously fulfil its historical task within Europe, live up to its principle of law before force, as laid down in the neutrality maxim, and therewith pursue the best peace policy possible today!” (Peter Mattmann-Allamand. “Der eigentliche Zweck der Militärgesetzrevision: Das Tabu ‘Neutralität’ brechen” (“The real purpose of the military law revision: breaking the taboo ‘neutrality’”); in: Zeit-Fragen. Special issue on the vote of 20 June 2001. April 2001. p. 6)

“Saying good bye to the empire would be the most important learning step. No country in the world should have the right to expand its economic and political power by force at the expense of other countries. Law before force instead of force before law (as NATO proclaims today)!  In this context, the basic maxims that the Swiss Confederation has been trying to live up to for centuries are not outdated relics of a selfish nationalism, but state-of-the-art and forward-looking foreign policy concepts.” (Peter Mattmann-Allamand. “Der eigentliche Zweck der Militärgesetzrevision: Das Tabu ‘Neutralität’ brechen” (“The real purpose of the military law revision: breaking the taboo ‘neutrality’”); in Zeit-Fragen. Special issue on the vote of 20 June 2001. April 2001. p. 6)

“Finally, neutrality: a word in which one finds all the letters of the word nature. Neutrality is our nature. It shapes the tone of life in our country. Switzerland does not like conflicts. And simultaneously, it takes courage to remain a constant force of peace for humanity, as our constitution wants. It is certainly not easy to conduct a foreign policy in an unstable and multipolar world that is at the same time independent, specific, impartial. But this is also a great opportunity, for Switzerland as well as for this world.” (Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter. “Excerpt from the speech on 1 August 2017”; quoted in: Current Concerns of 27 August 2017).

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