Don’t Mess With Switzerland

To the world’s most formidable natural defenses, the Swiss have added F/A-18 Hornets and a new slant on neutrality.

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The listening friar is inscrutable. Ten years is a sizable commitment. Yet he must wonder: Why just 10, when you are one of only about 160 professional military pilots in all the land?

Without a cold war to give some direction to the notion of threat, many Swiss have begun to wonder just what the armed forces protect them from. For their part, the Swiss military seems to find the slack in the new world order uncomfortable, and it is trying to redefine Switzerland’s place in it. The new catch phrase is Security Through Cooperation, and it represents a stiff shot of Swiss politics: Without the possibility of nuclear war, there is no longer a reason to impose on the citizens the huge burdens of the past. Cooperation with other nations is the road back to stability.

“We face the same problems as France, Germany. We have things like Yugoslavia,” explains Brigadier Paul Kälin, the Swiss air force chief of staff. “You think crisis management. In the long term, we always have to be ready to defend the country. We don’t know what happens. But nobody is able to build up an armed force in…” and he snaps his fingers.

Kälin is a compact, middle-aged man, dressed in a blue business suit. He is also an interesting example of how the system works here, where the professional officer corps is filled not from a Swiss West Point or Air Force Academy (there is none) but from the militia. In the early 1980s, after 32 years as an electrical engineer, he decided to jump from the militia to a full-time military career. His office, in what people jokingly call “the Pentagon,” a six-story cruciform structure in Bern where the air force occupies one floor, is adorned with diplomas and trophies, including a certificate from the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama.

“During the cold war,” he says, “we were really prepared to fight. Now you have to think in a different way. You have to talk to your neighbors. We are neutral, we will stay neutral.”

Neutrality with an attitude can take many forms. Swiss soldiers could escort Swiss products through Eastern Europe in 1919, and it was perfectly okay for Switzerland to join the League of Nations in 1920—but also okay to bail out eight years later, after the league’s efforts to sanction Italy failed. The Swiss greeted the advent of World War II with symmetry: insistence on neutrality plus general mobilization. When the war ended, they celebrated like victors, which, in a sense, they were.

The Swiss have sent military observers along the armistice line in Korea since 1953, and they are abroad today in the Middle East and some rough corners of the former Soviet Union. Neutrality was flexible enough to allow the Swiss to endorse economic sanctions against Iraq and grant transit rights for equipment and personnel heading for NATO-led multi-national forces in Bosnia, where a Swiss logistics unit serves. It did not allow overflights of NATO combat aircraft en route to the Balkans, but did allow Swiss air force teams, with Super Pumas, to help out in Albania.

Kälin sees this kind of outreach as the harbinger of greater international involvement. In a year or two, he believes, the popular vote will put Switzerland into the United Nations, which it has supported but never joined. But he doubts that the Swiss will vote for more than bilateral ties to the European Union. There is simply no way a neutral Switzerland can join the European Defense System or NATO, but the country will continue its membership in international security organizations, like NATO’s Partnership for Peace, that do not require from members a commitment of military assistance during war.

While peering outward, he says, the Swiss armed forces are also experiencing fundamental change—their ranks have been cut from 600,000 to 400,000, and more of these have chosen the military as a profession. The term of compulsory military service will probably be shortened so that men just hitting their stride in the private sector don’t have to interrupt their careers. Yet Kälin envisions a much more active role in international peacekeeping.

Nothing is certain. Like California, Switzerland is liberal in its use of referenda. All it takes is 50,000 signatures to secure a national vote on anything the government wants to do, and all constitutional amendments are voted on by the people, not parliamentary representatives. It means nothing can be done without the approval of the governed—and thus nothing can be done quickly. “We have to do anything in Switzerland step by step,” Kälin explains. “Convince the population. That’s the way it should be. Even the best idea—in Switzerland—needs time.”

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