Bryan Caplan  

U.S. Foreign Policy: The Swiss Perspective?

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Switzerland hasn't fought a war since 1815.  The standard explanation is Swiss neutrality.  When other countries fight, the Swiss do not take sides.  As this official Swiss website explains:

The advice of Switzerland's popular saint, Nicholas of Flüe (1417-87), "Don't get involved in other people's affairs" has been the hallmark of Swiss policy for nearly 500 years. The country has in effect been neutral since 1515, a status formally recognised and guaranteed by the great powers of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

Swiss neutrality thus has deeper roots than any of Europe's other major neutral states: Sweden (1815), Eire (1921), Finland (1948) and Austria (1955).

Neutrality is defined as non-participation in a war between other states. The rights and duties of neutral countries in time of war were laid down by the international community in 1907. In times of peace neutral states define their own rules, but take it for granted that they should stay outside military blocs, like NATO.

The status of neutrality has not only protected Switzerland from war, but has helped prevent the country from being torn apart when its different language communities might have been tempted to side with different belligerents in cases of conflict.

The Swiss experience seems like something to brag about.  I think the whole world can learn valuable foreign policy lessons from their success story.  First and foremost: Don't just do something; sit there.


Strangely, though, I've never met anyone from Switzerland who vocally shared my opinion.  At the same time, I've never met anyone from Switzerland who argued that Swiss policies wouldn't work well for other countries.  Googling didn't turn up any high-profile counter-examples.

My question: What exactly is the Swiss consensus on, say, U.S. foreign policy?  Do they think that Americans could have avoided their last two decades of troubles if they'd only "gone Swiss" after 1991?  Do they think we've sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind?  Do they see themselves as free riders on American hegemony?  Or is it just un-Swiss to even make such comparisons?

Responses from people who know the Swiss well are especially appreciated.

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Elmer Fike writes:

I am Swiss (by marriage) so you know I'm right when you read that I write that you understand that the Swiss system to works in fact in the opposite way you earlier described.

John Smith writes:

The Swiss are neutral on this issue.

Jim Rose writes:


many wars including World War 1 were products of mutual alarm and unpredictable tests of will. Schelling and others in the 1950s and after studied World War 1 to learn how to not blunder into wars when nuclear weapons now would be used.

Wars are like bar fights. Both are about not backing down.

For example, when people discuss the futility of World War 1, they under rate unintended consequences and the dark side of human rationality in situations involving collective action.

It is harder to get out of a war than get into one. The problem is credible assurances that the peace is lasting rather than a chance for the other side to rebuild and come back and attack from a stronger position.

Eugine Nier writes:

Belgium also tried being a neutral country. Unlike Switzerland they didn't have the alps as natural defenses. Didn't work out so well for them.

Even Switzerland's neutrality is I would argue partially a free ride on the willingness of relatively peaceful nations with a military to stop aggressor nations.

Carl writes:
It is harder to get out of a war than get into one.


Belgium also tried being a neutral country. Unlike Switzerland they didn't have the alps as natural defenses. Didn't work out so well for them.

Yes, if only the Belgians had been more like France: they wouldn't have been invaded by the Nazis!

Eugine Nier writes:
Yes, if only the Belgians had been more like France: they wouldn't have been invaded by the Nazis!

If they had been willing to cooperate on defense planning with France both very well might not have.

Also, I wasn't just talking about the Second World War.

Armin Mueller writes:

I'm Swiss, so I'm not neutral on this issue.

What exactly is the Swiss consensus on, say, U.S. foreign policy?

There is no consensus today. There was a rather broad consensus, maybe till the 1980s, that the US are defending the free world (and Switzerland). This pro-US-camp was eroding slowly before 9/11, jumped up after 9/11, and eroded fast under Bush/Cheney and the Irak war. I guess that today about 1/3 of the population accept and support this view. But more, perhaps up to 50% dislike US foreign policy today. There was always a core of Anti-US, but now there is an increasing number of people turning against the US because of Iraq/Torturing/NSA-Spying (and now the enforcement of US-law against Swiss banks in the current tax-dispute).
Do they think that Americans could have avoided their last two decades of troubles if they'd only "gone Swiss" after 1991?

No. The Swiss neutrality was always thought as a way for small countries. Historically it was the solution after the defeat at the battle of Marignano 1515 in northern Italy, where thousands of Swiss mercenaries fought and died on both sides. In the 20th century, the Swiss were grateful that the US was not neutral, helped to free Europe twice and protectet Europe against the Sowjetunion.
Do they think we've sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind?

This is an argument sometimes used by a left-wing, urban minority.
Do they see themselves as free riders on American hegemony?

No. But there is a moral debate about neutrality. One side sees neutrality as a wise, liberal concept of non-interference, like: "let's solve our problems and let them solve theirs; we cannot and should not decide, who's right". The other side sees neutrality as a concept for profiteering, like: "look in the other direction while making profitable deals with both sides".

Riz Din writes:

Just as Swiss manipulation of their exchange rate is readily accepted due to their negligible presence on the world stage, so too perhaps they can get away with choosing neutrality due to their small size. With greater size comes greater responsibility (that sometimes involves neutrality but not always).

Thomas May writes:

Most neutral countries only really survive because they had the good luck that the 'good guys' won.

In the Napoleonic Wars the French simply annexed Switzerland. The 'good guys' won and re-established it, no thanks to the Swiss.

In WWII, the Swiss were completely surrounded and would have simply been annexed by Germany in a few years if they had not been distracted with USSR and UK. Luckily they, and the US, defeated Nazi Germany and Switzerland entered the Cold War still independent, no thanks to Switzerland.

Here they raised a huge army for their size but would have stood no chance if the Soviets had invaded Europe. In effect they were protected by French, British, and US nuclear weapons, no thanks to Switzerland.

So the moral is that you can, if there are lots of powerful 'good guy' countries willing to fight wars, be a fully neutral state and get away with it if you have favourable geography. I don't think most Swiss are under any illusions that they would be better off if the entire West followed their policies. In fact they'd be worse off because their defence strategy would suddenly become much less viable. But that's not the point - they aren't interventionists, they aren't trying to persuade others to adopt their way of life, they just want what is best for themselves.

A6 writes:

Cool for Switzerland. She has been able--and continues to be able--to free-ride on other nations' defense against Moslem, Hapsburg, Nazi, and Soviet conquest. As have other neutrals, and other states that were not formally neutral. Very nice for them.

If America adopted such a policy, the world would become more interesting--even more interesting than it has become with partial adoption of such a policy.

I here use the word "interesting" as in the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

Carl writes:

Yes, those lucky Swiss have been "free-riding" on the protection of Italy, France and Germany.....but who are they being protected from? Why, Italy, France and Germany of course!

Tom West writes:

In WWII, the Swiss were completely surrounded and would have simply been annexed by Germany in a few years if they had not been distracted with USSR and UK.

Is there *any* historical backup for that idea? I've not heard of any serious German plan for invading Switzerland, except when it was contemplated as a way to surprise France.

Frankly, what would Germany gain from invading Switzerland, when Switzerland was co-operating in almost every way that mattered to them (like Sweden)?

Married to a Swiss citizen, I can confirm that the Swiss don't like to brag about their own successes and don't like to pass judgment on other nations. But here's what I've observed throughout the years, question by question: (1) many Swiss today probably believe that the US interferes too much in other countries' affairs; (2) some would agree that America's aggressive foreign policy tends to create trouble, but the majority clearly don't think that the Swiss model applies to large and militarily active nations; (3) many Swiss probably don't see themselves as free riders on hegemons because they tend to not recognize the usefulness of hegemons; but there's public recognition that Switzerland can be positively or negatively affected by hegemons' actions; and (4) they most probably agree that making such comparisons among nations can be, well, un-Swiss.
Despite constitutional similarities with America, the Swiss utterly ignore the idea of manifest destiny and tend to reject the use of nation as an ideological construct and as a device for unification and centralization.

A6 writes:

Carl: Practice simple but powerful reading skills.

Protected from whom? Did I not write, "Moslem, Hapsburg, Nazi, and Soviet conquest"?

I left out Napoleon and some others.

You seem to find it odd, heaven knows why, that some of the same states were threats and also bulwarks against threats. Do you expect a large state's ambitions of conquest to be frustrated by a little state?

Switzerland has had the good fortune to be worth less than she costs to conquer. Props to the Swiss Army for raising that cost.

I hope she will do as well in an age with nuclear-armed Moslems.

Wojtek Grabski writes:

Bryan, you've kind of answered your own question. The Swiss have self-imposed neutrality as a way to resolve strong differences in internal cultures. There is a strong potential for the 'taking of sides' to create civil unrest. This has probably morphed into some larger philosophical self-aggrandizement, but the truth of the matter - at least as perceived by the rest of us Europeans -- is that nobody ever really wanted to invade Switzerland -- so neutrality is an internal policy, rather than a foreign one.

The only foreign aspect to universal neutrality is that the Swiss, being land-locked, can only maintain reliable access to the ports, waterways and fertile lands of Europe by staying in everyone's good graces. This certainly doesn't disprove that such a policy is universally effective, but merely that it's continued success for the Swiss is a matter of necessity rather than some magical decision back in the 1500s.

On my earlier point about internal peace, Canada, where I am now a citizen, will probably soon too have to adopt a neutral stance on foreign conflict. We have a large number of resident culturally disharmonious groups whose political say will only increase with time. If Canada is to remain peaceful within, than taking sides in disputes between cultural kin without will have to stop, and probably rather soon.

Matthew Gunn writes:

How feasible would have neutrality been for whoever resides on the Bosphorus? To what extent is lack of Swiss warfare a consequence of the Alps?

Sir John Keegan's A History of Warfare has several beautiful passages describing the role of geography in defining where war is and isn't fought. Like modern highways take similar paths to old Roman roads, more recent battles have tended to be fought in the same locations as ancient ones. Eg. Adrianople in Turkey has been the site of 15 battles from AD 323 to 1913.

And on inhospitable terrain Keegan writes, "Military manuals may contain entries on 'desert' or 'mountain' or 'jungle' warfare, but the truth is that to attempt to fight in terrain that is waterless or roadless defines nature and that such fighting as does take place is usually mere skirmishing between expensively over-equipped specialists."

We know geography matters! To what extent does the Swiss experience stem from geography? To what extent from its politics? And to what extent is Swiss international politics an endogenous result of Swiss geography? These are difficult, hard to conclusively answer questions.

Tracy W writes:

Tom West: The Swiss and the Nazis book suggested there was a lot of evidence that the Nazis were planning an invasion of Switzerland, even after they'd conquered France. (It's a rather pro-Swiss book, but I've not come across any view that says it's factually completely out of whack).

As for what the Nazis would have gained - Swiss wealth (Hitler's economic policy was dismal) and eliminating a refuge for escaped POWs and downed airmen and the like. Not perhaps a good enough reason for an objective cost-benefit analysis, but I don't think objective cost-benefit analyses explain many of Hitler's decisions.

B.B. writes:

Enough about Swiss "policy." Talk about how Switzerland enforced its policy of neutrality. It was a militarized nation. Every able-bodied male was part of the army or reserves well into middle age. Universal military service. The country is well armed. Military men keep advanced weapons at home (NRA take note).

A mountainous country is not easy to invade. It has lots of bridges. The Swiss kept permanent explosives available to blow every bridge necessary to stop an invasion.

They spent over 6% of GDP on the military, despite having no navy.

Switzerland was neutral, but it was not pacifist. It would fight ferociously to defend its independence.

Neutrality did not protect Belgium in 1914 nor protect the Netherlands in 1940.

John B writes:

Neutrality, like for example, locavores and organic farming, are minority persuits which can only exist because of the majority who guarantee Swiss neutrality, import food from elsewhere when local supplies fail due to weather, disease, etc and so guarantee food supply, and where traditional farming provides an abundance which allows organics to serve a niche market at an affordable... to some... price.

If we all took Switzerland's stance, what would happen to Switzerland if another State decided to march on it and the rest stayed neutral?

stu writes:

I have always marvelled at how Switzerland,a country with multiple languages and cultures, has a singular face to the world. Does geography trump culture? Anyway I love visiting and enjoying the beauty.

Roger McKinney writes:

The greatest enemy of the US in the 20th century, the USSR, collapsed without a shot fired. And along with it its empire in Eastern Europe collapsed. It took 50 years , but was that worse than the cost in lives and destruction that a full blown war would have caused? A broader view of war should force us to learn some lessons:

1) The great UK historian Butterfield warned that we must exercise humility when planning the futures of other nations. Japan and Germany threatened the world before WWII; the USSR and China afterwards. Were the Soviets and Chinese really better choices than the Japanese and Germans? Humility argues for neutrality in most wars. For that matter, was Europe post WWI better than pre-war? No. It was far worse.

2) Bad economic policies will destroy the enemy as much as war; it will just take longer while savings many lives. The USSR, its hegemony over Eastern Europe and China’s radical communism ended for economic reasons. Germany’s attempt at European domination would have ended in a similar way. But to understand this, we have to take a long term view and exercise humility, both of which politicians and people in the press have a shortage.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

The policy of armed vigilant neutrality has worked well for Switzerland. I do not see this as anecdotal data in favor of pacifism.

The key facts for Switzerland are:
- defensible and strategically irrelevant geography
- having a military tailored for their own defense
- expansionist great powers distracted by higher-priority requirements.

There is no question that several great powers could have crushed Switzerland, profitably. But Nazi Germany was having trouble with the British and then the Soviets, the Soviets were having trouble with its existing satellites and the USA etc. So the Swiss model is really one of, offer just enough of a poison pill that the big guys will leave you alone, for now.

Swiss policy is not easily transferable to other minor powers. Belgium, for instance, is less defensible and sits on strategically important land. There is no policy that would have protected Belgium from rape in either world war.

Neither is Swiss policy transferable to a great power. For great powers, inaction is an act, one subject to probing by other powers, and, especially for the USA, the whims and cycles of the electorate. There is no chance of the USA embarking on a multi-century Swiss-type armed neutrality.

Tracy W writes:
The greatest enemy of the US in the 20th century, the USSR, collapsed without a shot fired.

You mean apart from Aghanistan, Vietnam, Korea? And I suspect I'm deeply ignorant of a lot of proxy wars in Africa and South America.

For that matter, was Europe post WWI better than pre-war? No.

That depends on your point of view. Lots of states got independence from the collapse of existing empires, eg Poland, the Balkans, the Czech-Slovakians. Furthermore, it only takes one to start a war. Would a military-successful Germany, occupying most of Western Europe, really have been a better outcome in the long-run than WWI? Or might Europe have seen just a different WWII?

but was that worse than the cost in lives and destruction that a full blown war would have caused?

A hard question to answer, given the millions that died under Stalinism, or the links between the Soviet Union and North Korea, and the impact of the collapse of funding from the Soviet Union on North Korea's and Cuba's economy.

2) Bad economic policies will destroy the enemy as much as war; it will just take longer while savings many lives

I find myself rather doubtful about which side has the life savings, considering how long the suffering has gone on in North Korea and that both Mao and Stalin died of old age. Bad economic policies kill people too.

Rolf Andreassen writes:

I observe that one of the obligations of neutrality is to retain the power to retaliate against those who violate it. Norway - another small, mountainous country in Europe - tried to be neutral in both the Great War and in WWII. Now, the advantages to Germany of U-boat bases along that long coast, and to Britain of a fleet base threatening the openings of the Baltic, are obvious. (Not to mention the ability to supply Russia through Finland.) Yet in 1914-1918 nobody appears to have even seriously thought about invading Norway, while in 1940 it was one of the first things Hitler did. Why? Because in 1914 Norway took its obligation seriously, went to a half-mobilised posture, and looked ready to be a costly fight - while in 1940 the government was full of pacifists who thought that it was sufficient to declare neutrality, without any effort to defend it. (And when they did have to defend it, they used the same guns they'd had in 1918.) The Swiss, to their credit, never made that mistake.

> Did I not write, "Moslem, Hapsburg, Nazi, and Soviet conquest"?

Not quite with you on the Hapsburgs; the Swiss Confederacy was founded precisely to resist Hapsburg claims to the mountains, and it did so on famously bloody battlefields. As for the Nazis, I rather strongly suspect that if the Swiss had made the mistakes Norway made, and let their defenses lapse, they'd have suffered the same occupation. After all some of them spoke German, so there was clearly a casus belli! (NB: Sarcasm.) Finally, if the Swiss free-rode against Moslem conquest, so did everyone who wasn't Austria; it had nothing to do with their neutrality.

Thomas May writes:

"Is there *any* historical backup for that idea? I've not heard of any serious German plan for invading Switzerland, except when it was contemplated as a way to surprise France.

Frankly, what would Germany gain from invading Switzerland, when Switzerland was co-operating in almost every way that mattered to them (like Sweden)?"

There was no serious plan to invade while they were still at war with dangerous countries to whom they might lose. That would waste resources on a militarily worthless goal.

But if the Nazis now own the whole of Europe including the UK and Russia West of the Urals, and US has peaced out, why would they leave a small island of independent territory in the middle of their Empire? Invading Switzerland on its own would be no drain at all on their resources.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

One quick observation: if Ploesti had been in Switzerland rather than Romania, then the Swiss would NOT have been allowed to be neutral in WW2, or probably WW1.

If they sold oil to the Germans, they would have been bombed. If they didn't, they would have been invaded. So, the success of Swiss neutrality is more a remarkably unique confluence of factors, and not a general principle of pacifistic non-intervention.

D. Beinart writes:

Oh, please. I drove from Germany into Zurich without scaling any mountains. Obviously, Germany could have taken banking capital Zurich any time. But it was more useful for them to allow the Swiss to play "neutral" and provide financial services to the Nazis while their Jewish neighbors were murdered.

Shane L writes:

Ireland has avoided wars since its brief civil war on initial independence in the 1920s.

Ireland had been colonised by waves of Anglo-Norman and later English invaders. When World War II broke out, the Irish government was eager to remain neutral. After all, much of its government had actually fought against Britain two decades earlier and there was some anti-British sentiment among the population still. The IRA attempted to win Nazi German support for another war to seize Northern Ireland and Germany sent several agents to meet them. Germany drew up plans to invade Ireland, but the Irish government was equally concerned that Britain would pre-empt Germany and invade Ireland first.

Thus, far from free-riding on British militarism for Ireland's defence, the state was preparing to defend itself from renewed British aggression!

During the Cold War I think Ireland was unofficially but firmly in the anti-communist camp. Cultural and familial ties with the US and UK were strong. However outside UN peacekeeping I don't think there was much appetite for military action.

I would add that I doubt many small European countries are really safer today because the US or other NATO countries are doing the fighting for them. On the contrary, I suspect unnecessary interventionism by the US and its allies increase the risk to European countries of being targets of terrorism. The strong military defence of Western Europe during the Cold War was probably more meaningful.

Anyway there seems to be little debate in Ireland over its foreign policy; the present course is uncontroversial. However I doubt it is considered to be something that all countries could enjoy. It is just right for this country at the moment. Ireland enjoys a geographical advantage: allied liberal democracies to east and south, ocean and then US and Canada to west, and ocean and then ice to the north.

Scott writes:

Pointing out that Belgium was neutral but still got invaded by the Nazis is like pointing out that people wearing seat-belts still die in car crashes. No defense or foreign policy stance can guarantee security. France; an interventionist, partisan, and militarized nation aided by its allies was also invaded by the Nazis.

This cuts both ways of course. But I would consider the following: Of past foreign interventions and alliances that the United States has conducted or been a part of, how many can we be fairly certain prevented a cost (such as invasion, terrorist attack,) that would have exceeded the cost of the intervention/alliance? Vietnam, Korea, Grenada, Panama, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan... None of these interventions prevented invasion, that seems certain. It seems unlikely that the cost of terrorist attacks originating in Afghanistan would outweigh the cost of waging a war there for ten years - before one even considers the blowback effect, the reduced ability of terrorists to carry out attacks given increased security, intelligence efforts, and vigilance, or the ability of terrorists to move out of Afghanistan or continue to operate there covertly even after invasion.

Even WW2 did not obviously protect the United States. It might be that Nazi Germany would have conquered all of Europe and then successfully invaded the United States. Or it might be that Nazi Germany stayed on its side of the Atlantic, an intercontinental attack on a rival superpower being beyond its capabilities or simply too costly (probably resulting in a cold war not unlike the one we experienced in reality).

Or Nazi Germany might have fallen apart internally before any attack could be launched, having over-stretched itself and unable to control its subject populations, or simply as the result of a sniper's bullet on Hitler's victory tour of London.

Or, even if Germany had indeed attacked the United States, it might still have lost. It is not clear that fighting Germany in Europe was better for the United States than fighting Germany across the Atlantic. After all the United States dominated Germany in the air war across the channel and scarcely even needed to deploy its fleet against the Kreigsmarine. If anything it seems likely that a war characterized even more so by air and naval power, production and technology, would have been easier for the United States to win than the one it actually fought. In addition, a war-to-completion with the Soviet Union followed by a sea invasion of Britain would have been extraordinarily costly to Germany. It seems unlikely it would have had the manpower, resources or the stomach to mount an unprecedented cross-Atlantic invasion.

There is The Bomb; perhaps Germany would have developed it first and built an intercontinental rocket or bomber, but who knows.

A related article that just came out:

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