The Swiss Case: How Federalism, Neutrality, and Direct Democracy Shape Foreign Policy


Opening Speech by Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America

On the Occasion of the Lecture at the Fletcher School, Medford, Massachusetts


Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden; United States of America


Ladies and gentlemen, 

I am grateful to be back at the Fletcher School for the second time since the beginning of my term as Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States. The last time I was here, I talked about humanitarian challenges throughout the world. This time I was asked to speak about how federalism, neutrality, and direct democracy shape Switzerland’s foreign policy. I am especially looking forward to an interactive discussion after my lecture. 

Switzerland is a country with four languages and much diversity in the middle of Europe. As a nation, Switzerland is not defined by language, ethnicity, religion, or even by a uniform culture. Most Swiss belong to a broader European culture: either German, French, or Italian culture, but they are not German, French or Italian. That differs from most European countries, which typically have a predominant language, culture and often a distinct religious denomination as well; take the examples of Hungary, Finland, and Spain. 

That is a characteristic feature that makes Switzerland somewhat similar to the United States, the other old republic which the Swiss often refer to as their Sister Republic, recalling the time when both countries were the only republics in the world. Like Switzerland, the United States is not defined by ethnicity and religion and does not even have an official language enshrined in the Constitution. 

At the core of the United States and Switzerland, there is a great, defining political idea: the quest to be independent and free, to decide their fate on their own through democratic institutions, and by government of the people, by the people, and for the people.


Neutrality and Direct Democracy 

In the case of Switzerland, that characteristic feature is deeply rooted in history. Switzerland’s geographic situation as a passage between the Mediterranean and the European North gave the mountainous country strategic importance in Europe and made it susceptible to political pressure, to serving as a crossway for military campaigns and a token in European big power games. From the late 13th century onward, the Swiss have tried to stay out of European politics and to avoid being dominated by major European powers. Most of the time, the strategy was successful, sometimes it failed. 

Against that background, neutrality emerged as a strategy of noninvolvement in European power politics and as a strategy to prevent interference in our internal affairs as well. 

For a nation as diverse as Switzerland, the organization of society and public institutions from the bottom up and solid local institutions with citizens’ participation were and are important to national cohesion. The principle of subsidiarity is enshrined in the Constitution and legislation, but even more deeply in the minds of Swiss citizens: public issues should be decided and resolved as close to the citizens as possible and citizens’ autonomy should be preserved.

That allows each citizen to participate and take responsibility in public life starting from his or her immediate surroundings, where it often matters most. 

That is why the Swiss usually do not feel dominated or marginalized, even when they belong to a group that is less numerous than other groups. First of all, Swiss citizens are citizens of a village or town, then of a canton (state), and ultimately of Switzerland. I am a citizen of Zurich, Switzerland, and not a citizen of Switzerland born in Zurich. 

Direct democracy is an important part of the citizen-oriented Swiss political culture. People typically always have the last word in political affairs. Laws are deliberated and decided by parliament. However, they can be put to a popular vote and reversed relatively easily if that is the wish of a majority of voters. Likewise, changes to provisions in the Constitution are quite easy to put to a popular vote by collecting 100,000 signatures. The Swiss vote often; it happens every couple of months, in other words, continually. 

That form of direct democracy has a deep impact on the political system and culture. The executive and legislative branches of government are forced to come up with widely accepted legislation and decisions. Otherwise they would constantly be overturned by a popular vote.

That is why it not only matters what citizens vote on in Switzerland. When legislation or any issue does not come to a vote, it is almost certain that it is acceptable to the majority. 

Direct democracy is something completely different from plebiscites which are top-down and where governments selectively seek legitimacy for a far-reaching political decision. 

In direct democracy, broad and inclusive consultation is indispensable. That cannot be emphasized enough; the constant pressure on the government by the governed makes it almost impossible not to include major political forces in government. That is the reason why the executive branch of the Swiss government at the federal level has been a coalition government for a very long time. 

Swiss direct democracy makes citizens deal with political issues on a constant basis. That explains why the Swiss exercise their voting power very responsibly.

The risk of unreasonable outcomes is low. Past votes on abolishing taxes or on additional weeks of vacation had little chance in a popular vote.


Open to International Trade and Cooperation 

Switzerland is a country that is poor in raw materials. Water is almost the only natural resource. The country’s topography makes extensive agriculture difficult. Therefore very early on, Switzerland invested in human skills and educating its population. The watchmaker’s trade provides an illustrative example of this. Although making a watch does not require much iron or other material, a large amount of skilled labor is necessary. Even today, this paradigm applies to the Swiss economy with its research and skilled labor-intensive production and the important role of trade in services. The pharmaceutical and biotech industries and the very specialized manufacturing of sophisticated industrial components serve as excellent examples. 

With a comparatively small domestic market and a highly specialized economy, Switzerland favors free trade to make full use of its comparative advantages. Switzerland earns roughly every other Swiss franc abroad. Total exports account for almost half of Switzerland’s GDP. Comprehensive and global trade rules that create a level playing field are best to generate wealth for Switzerland and for our partners as well. 

Switzerland, which is very skeptical about the use of power in international relations, is a strong advocate for the rule of law in international affairs. Agreed upon international law and norms should enable good relations among countries and make them predictable. 

Switzerland prefers multilateral cooperation to resolve problems together with other countries. Switzerland is a strong supporter of the multilateral system. That does not mean that the existing multilateral institutions and international organizations are perfect. Far from it! But it means that we seek to improve it together with others to the benefit of all. 

Neutrality is still an important element of Swiss foreign policy. Swiss neutrality is armed and permanent, and it is deeply valued by the Swiss population. Opinion polls regularly show that more than 90 percent of the population backs this century-old concept. 

Neutrality does not mean that we seek to be a political hedgehog or that we are turning our backs on the world. We certainly refrain from taking sides in armed conflict. At the same time, we are committed to helping prevent conflict and to promoting reconciliation and humanitarian action. 

From very early on, Switzerland has played an important role in humanitarian affairs, and it still does. That is one of the most obvious results of Switzerland’s neutrality. The Red Cross Movement originated in Switzerland, and Geneva is the world’s humanitarian capital to this day. 

Those elements are expressed and elucidated in the article on foreign policy in the Swiss Constitution. The wording is somewhat clumsy since we did not have genius drafters such as those of the U.S. Constitution: 

The Confederation shall ensure that the independence of Switzerland and its welfare is safeguarded; it shall in particular assist in the alleviation of need and poverty in the world and promote respect for human rights and democracy, the peaceful coexistence of peoples as well as the conservation of natural resources. 

The article in the Constitution is about objectives such as independence and promoting human rights and democracy. It is not about the means to achieve them. That is the reason why important elements of Swiss foreign policy such as neutrality and the commitment to multilateralism are not mentioned. They are means toward achieving those objectives and not objectives in themselves.


How is the constitutional provision put into practice? 

Switzerland, like many other countries, regularly issues foreign policy strategies, that is, policy papers outlining how the government sees the current challenges and opportunities in international affairs, what the specific priorities are, and what ways and means the government is embarking upon to achieve them. Such a strategy is not a firm plan that is subsequently rolled out. It is instead a description of the government’s perception and intentions. Foreign policy is always volatile and interacts with specific constellations that may swiftly change. For smaller countries like Switzerland, that is even more the case than for a country like the United States.


Foreign Policy Strategy 

The current Swiss Foreign Policy Strategy 2016–2019 defines four priorities: (1) European Union and the member states of the EU and the European Free Trade Association, (2) Global Partners, (3) Peace and Security, and (4) Sustainable Development. 

Those four objectives already reveal a mix of geographic and thematic priorities; some reflect beliefs that have been there forever, others obviously reflect ongoing developments in the world or have been taken from international agendas. 

On the basis of the strategy, the government reports to the parliament and the broader public through a foreign policy report each year. The report is a useful compilation of recent developments with explanations on positions and actions taken, sometimes on intentions as well. 

It is not my objective to analyze the Swiss Foreign Policy Strategy now. I would rather give you an overview that will hopefully be useful to our subsequent discussion.


European Union and EU and EFTA Member States 

The foremost challenge and priority in Swiss foreign policy is our relationship with the European Union. The member states of the European Union are our most important partners in a wide range of issues, going much beyond economic exchanges. It is also the group of countries with which we share values and history. 

Our relations with the European Union have become more challenging with the enlargement of and with the political fissures within the European Union. 

Switzerland and the European Union have concluded a great number of bilateral agreements in all areas. The political objective in our relations with the European Union is the consolidation and renewal of that bilateral approach. Switzerland aims to ensure a regulated relationship with the EU based on partnership allowing scope for development, and to strengthen and promote our close ties with the EU and EFTA member states. 

Membership in the European Union is not a Swiss foreign policy objective. It is also not a realistic option because it would not have a chance in a popular vote. 

One of the most challenging debates going on in Switzerland is whether Switzerland should enter into negotiations on a framework agreement with the EU which would allow us to develop our relations in a more structured way and avoid continual negotiations and adaptations to existing agreements. The European Union favors a framework agreement with Switzerland. While the Swiss government does not rule it out, the modalities matter a great deal. What the overwhelming majority of Swiss would not like is to encounter a situation where EU legislation becomes applicable through such an arrangement in Switzerland without us having much to say about its content. 

That being said, Switzerland and the EU have a shared interest in maintaining stable bilateral relations. 

As an important economic partner, and acting as a bridge between Europe’s north and south, Switzerland is more closely intertwined with the EU than some of the member states themselves. The challenges that currently affect the entire continent—such as combating terrorism and organized crime and handling the refugee crisis—underscore the importance of having close and constructive cooperation with the EU. 

Swiss cooperation within Europe is not limited to our bilateral relations with the European Union, its member states and other European countries.

It has a significant multilateral dimension as well, for instance, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), in the Council of Europe, the NATO Partnership for Peace, in the European Free Trade Association, and with subregional cooperation bodies. 


Relations with Global Partners 

Switzerland is a country with global exposure and a global footprint. In promoting Swiss interests, our worldwide relationships matter to us. 

Our relationship with the United States is particularly important, not only in economic terms (Switzerland is among the top 20 trading partners of the U.S. and the 6th largest foreign direct investor in the U.S.). The United States is a country with which we have shared many interests and values for a long time. With its commitment to NATO and European security, the United States is a strong player in Europe, that is, in our immediate environment as well. 

Swiss foreign policy is based on the principle of universality, which means that Switzerland not only maintains relations with major and regional powers, but also with smaller and medium-sized states, with regional organizations, and even with non-state actors. 

With a number of countries—the United States, Japan, the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), Turkey, and other countries—Switzerland has entered into strategic partnerships which provide a format for dialogue and exchange. 

Multilateral institutions are key to our global cooperation. I have already mentioned that Switzerland is a strong supporter of the United Nations. Geneva is home to the United Nations European Headquarters. 

Regional organizations are carrying increasing weight in the political and often also economic spheres. In recent years, Switzerland has augmented its presence in those organizations through cooperation if our interest is reciprocated. The Organization of American States (OAS), to which I am the Swiss Observer, is among those organizations, the same holds for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the League of Arab States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, and other bodies.


Peace and Security 

As a highly globalized country with an export-oriented economy, Switzerland depends on a stable environment and a viable and just international order for its security and prosperity. Switzerland plays a role in shaping its environment through comprehensive and creative forms of engagement. 

It is autonomous in its commitment to peace and security. Switzerland can build bridges where others cannot, working together with a wide range of partners and developing its own initiatives. 

Switzerland’s good offices are a long-standing tradition.

Switzerland has been the protecting power for the United States in Iran since the diplomatic relations between the countries were broken off in the early ‘80s. Switzerland therefore provides a communication channel between Teheran and Washington, and Switzerland takes care of U.S. nationals in Iran. Until 2015, we had a similar role in U.S.-Cuban relations. The end of that role, which we had for more than half a century, will be a lasting memory for me of my term in Washington.


Sustainable Development and Prosperity 

The poverty and distress of others have a negative impact on us as well. It is in our enlightened self-interest to make the world a better place. That is why Switzerland is striving for a world without poverty and promotes sustainable development.

The Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 will become an integral part of Swiss foreign policy.


As the former head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, I was directly involved in the negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals. I am pleased that the SDGs now have a firm place in Swiss foreign policy.

Their core philosophy of emphasizing social (poverty), economic, and ecological objectives at the same time and operationalizing them in partnerships was not a given from the beginning of the negotiations. However, that approach has guided Swiss development cooperation for a long time.


Ladies and gentlemen, 

Swiss foreign policy is based on our historical experience as a rather small and democratic country in an environment which has not always been as peaceful as it is (or might seem) today. We developed strategies to survive and thrive. Even though Switzerland has not always been a rich country, we have been a country which has had to rely almost exclusively on brain power for a long time. Only when you look at our history can you understand why Switzerland is a neutral country, why our foreign policy relies so heavily on rules and international cooperation rather than on power, and why we value free trade and try to influence with soft power. You will also understand why we value democracy and freedom so much. 

Thank you and I am looking forward to our discussion.


Chech against delivery