with Dr. René Roca
Swiss historian and Director of the Research Institute for Direct Democracy,
Member of the initiative committee of the popular initiative “Preservation of Swiss Neutrality“ a.k.a. neutrality initiative (which is explained in the interview).
Felix Abt: Dr. Roca, when people in Asia hear “Switzerland,” they think primarily of cheese, chocolate and watches. Beyond that, they think of banking secrecy and numbered accounts, although the latter were abolished years ago under pressure from the US, which has become the absolute world champion in tax evasion and money laundering, something most people are unaware of. More important features such as direct democracy and neutrality are also unknown. Can you set the record straight for us?
Dr. René Roca: I think that has to do with the fact that the Swiss population is relatively modest, they don’t advertise their political system to the world, yet the citizens have developed democracy over the last 200 years into a model that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Direct democracy is an integral part of the political culture and the decisive foundation for the country’s economic success.
A discussion of political systems would be of great benefit, especially with regard to Asia, as China, with its Confucianism, holds similar ideals to Switzerland, and India, for example, has built a federal state very similar to that of Switzerland. Switzerland will certainly have to be more aggressive in representing its core ideals, such as neutrality and direct democracy, in the future.
Since the end of the last Cold War, Switzerland has repeatedly buckled, especially vis-à-vis the USA, instead of clearly representing its own position. At best, there is an upset, but the USA only understands a clear language. The Swiss authorities of today, especially the Federal Council, are always bending over backwards and are very eager to meet the demands of the USA immediately (see also the merger of the leading Swiss banks UBS and CS). In this, the big banks play a fatal role by putting pressure on the Federal Council again and again, since the USA threatens sanctions if their demands are not met.
The mainstream media does not usually address this; an exception here is the English Daily Mail, which points to the favorite paradise for all sorts of sinister characters. (Screenshot headline Daily Mail)
Felix Abt: The major European powers recognized Switzerland’s neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1814/1815. Today, the continent’s great powers, especially the European Union, are putting pressure on Switzerland to abandon its neutrality, as has just been demonstrated in connection with the Ukraine conflict. Why this change of heart?
Dr. René Roca: The great European powers recognized perpetual neutrality at the Congress of Vienna, and the Russian Tsar in particular, who was taught by Swiss private tutors and knew the country well, supported Swiss neutrality. It must be emphasized, however, that the Swiss representatives, although divided, expressly wanted perpetual neutrality themselves, so it was not graciously granted to Switzerland, as is repeatedly claimed.
Moreover, it should be emphasized that these agreements under international law are still valid today. Switzerland would therefore be breaking international law if it were to abandon its neutrality now simply because of the Ukraine conflict (in fact, however, it has already done so). Many media in Switzerland serve us an actual one-size-fits-all pap and support the attacks of the EU and the USA. The EU wants Switzerland to join, because Switzerland is still a vivid example that you can have more success without being a member of the EU.
Felix Abt: Switzerland was once a magnet for famous immigrants from around the world who became Swiss citizens. These include Albert Einstein, who settled in the Alpine republic as a teenager, attended schools there and taught as a physicist before becoming world famous, but also Lenin, who prepared the Russian revolution in Zurich and traveled from there by train to St. Petersburg to implement his plans, courtesy of the German emperor.
Immigrants and engineers Walter Boveri and Charles Brown were the founders of the ABB Group, today a world leader in automation and electrical engineering,
Frankfurt-born Heinrich Nestle founded the world’s largest food company in Switzerland, and Belgian March Rich founded Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trading and mining company, on Switzerland’s Lake Zug.
And then, a few years ago, the successful businessman Melnichenko settled in Switzerland with his family „because of the rule of law, neutrality and freedom,“ as he explained. He was born in Belarus. His mother is Ukrainian, his father Belarusian. At a young age, he took part in numerous science competitions and won the Russian “Physics Olympiad” at the age of seventeen. A shrewd entrepreneur, he first founded a bank at the age of twenty-one and then built up manufacturing businesses. Melnichenko owns EuroChem, a world leader in fertilizer production, and coal companies. His companies, managed by a Swiss-domiciled holding company, employ 130,000 people worldwide.
In an interview he told the Swiss “Weltwoche” (the only European newspaper interested in his fate): “I am being punished because I am Russian and rich.” Overnight he became persona non grata in Switzerland. Yet he is neither an “oligarch,” nor does he belong to “Putin’s inner circle,” as the European Union and Switzerland claim. Even his wife, a Croatian model, has been sanctioned. His assets (funds, houses, cars, etc.) have been confiscated by the European Union and Switzerland, and he is not allowed to return to the Alpine republic where his children went to school.
Now you have to explain to us what has happened all of a sudden to the previously neutral and cosmopolitan Switzerland, which, like an lawless state founded on injustice, treats miserably in a night and fog operation (without legal hearing) the foreigners who lived inconspicuously in Switzerland and contributed to the prosperity of the Swiss?
Dr. René Roca: I think it is an absolute scandal how Russian people who live and work in Switzerland or are guests here are treated. The rampant Russophobia is unbearable, but it is also ably supported by the mainstream media. Fortunately, there have now been prudent legal voices that clearly state that such events are to be condemned in a democratic state governed by the rule of law.
Felix Abt: The abolishers of Swiss neutrality are not only in Brussels and Berlin, but also in Switzerland. The country’s media and political elite is tired of neutrality and argues that neutrality is a “fetishism,” that Switzerland was protected by NATO after the end of World War II, and that in the case of illegal wars of aggression, one must show solidarity with the attacked and (even in defiance of Swiss laws) also supply weapons. Opponents of neutrality speak of an epic struggle between good and evil – and not being on the side of the supposed good is tantamount to doing evil oneself. What is wrong with this line of argument?
Dr. René Roca: It is a myth that Switzerland was protected by NATO after the end of the Cold War. Switzerland was part of the Western democratic states, but neutral. Because of its understanding of neutrality, it even researched a nuclear bomb until the 1960s and buried this project only in the 1970s. The argument for a nuclear bomb was precisely that Switzerland had to have its own nuclear deterrent because it was neutral and did not want to come under the NATO umbrella.
However, Switzerland was not passive in foreign policy, on the contrary. It repeatedly contributed its good offices and was able to mediate in wars and work diplomatically in the background. Switzerland did not make a big fuss about many of its actions, many of them did not make the headlines, but its quiet diplomatic work in the background meant that conflicts could be resolved in many cases. I would therefore argue that Switzerland was a “diplomatic superpower” during the Cold War.
With regard to illegal wars of aggression: Who showed solidarity with the Serbs in 1999? That was an illegal war of aggression by NATO. It was based on war lies. Who showed solidarity with Iraq in 2003? That was an illegal war of aggression by the USA with allies. The basis was war lies. There would be some more examples.
[Ed.] Article 185 (1) of the Swiss Federal Constitution states the following objective of the Confederation: “The Federal Council shall take measures to safeguard the external security, independence and neutrality of Switzerland.”
Felix Abt: One argument that opponents of neutrality like to use is that the Swiss became opportunistic war profiteers during World War II thanks to their neutrality. What is true about that?
Dr. René Roca: During the Second World War, Switzerland was in an extreme situation. It was surrounded by totalitarian powers and its existence was massively threatened. It had to choose a path between adaptation and resistance, and the country and its people coped very well overall. The perpetual armed neutrality was an important reason why Switzerland was not occupied, although the German attack plans were available and were always adapted to the war situation. In the end, Switzerland was also lucky that Nazi Germany focused on the attack against the Soviet Union. It was then the Soviet Union that suffered the most casualties, but also provided the decisive turnaround in the war.
What was never at stake for Switzerland, even if it made mistakes, was the humanitarian commitment (ICRC) and the country’s Good Offices. Within the framework of the Good Offices, 1200 people were in charge of 319 individual mandates for 35 countries at the end of the war. An incredible achievement! Unfortunately, there is little research on this subject.
[Ed.] Swiss citizens vote three to four times a year on a wide range of national, cantonal (state) and municipal issues. At the municipal level, for example, they decide on education (kindergarten and elementary school), waste disposal, municipal roads, local infrastructure, cultural and sports centers, municipal police, spatial planning and forest management, citizenship rights and municipal taxes.
The Swiss also have the right to a referendum, which they can use to confirm or overturn decisions by parliament, and they can use the additional right of popular initiative to push through changes to the constitution. For example, a popular initiative to ban tobacco advertising in places where it is visible to children and young people was recently approved by 56%. These two key political civil rights in Switzerland allow citizens to directly influence policy by preventing or obtaining changes in the law.
In addition, any constitutional amendment proposed by Parliament must be approved by a majority of the people and the cantons in order to take effect.
Direct democracy has limited centralization and the accumulation of power and led to moderate and more targeted public spending and a small, more citizen-friendly bureaucracy.
Felix Abt: Neutral states must be strong enough – militarily and ideologically – to withstand criticism and threats from all sides of a conflict and maintain their independent position. Even a large country like India, which has far more resources than Switzerland, has been pressured by the West to take sides in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (though it has not succeeded).
Maintaining an independent policy that does not follow the wishes of the warring parties (whether in an armed war or a trade war) is extremely difficult and requires constant engagement with all parties to the conflict, adherence to principles, and diplomatic skill. This includes the credibility that Switzerland demonstrated during World War II when it threatened to blow up its infrastructure in the event of a German invasion and announced that it would defend itself vigorously.
As early as 1815, Switzerland had explicitly recognized that its neutrality would serve peace and stability in Europe by buffering the Austrians and French – a role it later played during the World Wars. However, by adopting the European Union’s sanctions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Switzerland became a party to the West’s economic war against Russia and was no longer considered neutral by the latter and accepted as an honest broker in the Ukraine conflict.
In World War II, Switzerland successfully defended its neutrality and independence; in the Ukraine war, it did not, unlike India, to cite just one example. Why did it work in one case and not in the other?
Dr. René Roca: I very much regret that Switzerland has taken over the EU sanctions against Russia and continues to do so, and is thus a party to the war. The great powers, first and foremost Russia, no longer have confidence in Swiss neutrality, which I understand. Swiss neutrality has massively lost credibility, I even say Switzerland has abolished its neutrality. Why? The Swiss population has increasingly forgotten how to defend its values; prosperity and a certain comfort are probably to blame for this. But it is also important to note that since the 1990s, a lot of pressure has been put on Switzerland, especially from the United States. Switzerland would have to build up an “intellectual national defense” as it did during World War II and defend itself vehemently against attacks from outside. Our political elite is too hesitant to do so and is often entangled in foreign dependencies and networks.
During the Second World War, there was an “anti-totalitarian consensus” in Switzerland that was broadly anchored in the population. This consensus was based on the commitment to perpetual armed neutrality and the will to remain independent and free. When the Federal Council began to waver and wanted to adapt to the new European conditions, General Guisan reacted correctly and re-established this consensus and immensely strengthened the will of the population to resist.
That is why we have now launched the “neutrality initiative”. I am on the initiative committee that has drafted the text. At the moment we are collecting signatures. We need 100,000 signatures for the constitutional initiative in 18 months. Soon we will have collected the signatures and then we will have a vote. At the moment, neutrality is only mentioned in passing in the Swiss Federal Constitution. We would like to add the following article to the constitution:
The Federal Constitution is amended as follows:
Switzerland: multicultural, direct democratic and neutral. And a quote from Albert Einstein, who settled in the Alpine republic as a teenager and received Swiss citizenship.
Felix Abt: It looks like Switzerland is still the most democratic country in the world. Surveys have shown that the Swiss (and perhaps surprisingly, the Chinese) are the most satisfied with their system of government. In China, there are about 500 demonstrations a day, which usually end with a compromise between the dissatisfied and the local authorities; in Switzerland, citizens take less to the streets and more to the ballot box to correct what they think is going wrong. Still, there are many doubters among Switzerland’s political and media elites, who argue, for example, that relatively few citizens participate in direct-democratic decision-making or that voters are overwhelmed by many substantive issues. How do you counter them?
Dr. René Roca: I am a history teacher at a highschool. Important subject matter is Swiss history and civics. Education has an important task in creating mature citizens who are capable of dealing with complex issues. This is central for direct democracy. Unfortunately, the subject of history, and with it civics, is in a difficult position today. At the elementary school, the subject history was abolished and integrated into a so-called collective subject. Civics is also no longer compulsory. At Swiss universities, there is no longer a chair for Swiss history, and certainly not for neutrality. We have to look to Japan, where there is a chair for neutrality research. So we have to invest more in education again, then more citizens will participate again.
Felix Abt: To summarize: For a long time, neutrality has brought peace to Switzerland, a country without mineral resources, without access to the sea and with relatively little arable land (and thus without food security), direct democracy has brought a lean, citizen- and business-friendly administration and (in addition to neutrality) a high level of prosperity.
On the other hand, Finland’s membership and Sweden’s application to join NATO, formerly neutral states, give the impression that neutrality is not in good shape. Even the Non-Aligned Movement is moving toward and will probably be at least partially absorbed by BRICS, a bloc, if one can call it that, led by China and Russia. Can the successful model of Swiss neutrality still be applied to other countries, and if so, to whom would you recommend it?
Dr. René Roca: I would recommend it to all countries. If all countries were permanently neutral according to the Swiss model (which we now have to re-establish) and made it clear that they would defend this neutrality armed, there would be no more wars.
I see the development with the BRICS countries very positively. Now new countries have joined them. These states are working on a multipolar world. It is interesting that only the Western countries have adopted sanctions against Russia, while the rest of the world (Latin America, Africa and Asia) have not. These countries are in the majority and are fed up with having everything dictated to them by the USA. Here we are witnessing an important “turning point” in history. One must take the time to study, for example, speeches by the Indian Foreign Minister or the South African Foreign Minister on the subject of global world order. I find it amazing and very encouraging how confidently these politicians argue against the background of the colonial and imperial past and make it clear that they want to go their own, self-determined way today. Of course, it would be good if these states were to enshrine perpetual armed neutrality in their national constitutions.
Felix Abt: On a more geopolitical note, what difference does it make to the United States whether Ukraine is neutral or not? When Dwight D. Eisenhower, former general and commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in World War II, was U.S. president, he ultimately welcomed Austria’s neutrality. He argued that “we do not have the resources to defend all these (non-neutral) countries.” Isn’t his reasoning just as valid then as it is today?
Dr. René Roca: Eisenhower probably underestimated the value of neutrality. Neutrality must – as I said – be armed. A neutral country must not depend on a protective umbrella, but must be able to defend itself autonomously.
After various army reforms, the Swiss army is no longer capable of defending the country. So corrections are urgently needed in this area as well; Switzerland must once again increase and massively strengthen its military defense readiness at all levels.
Felix Abt: Can a neutral country still play a constructive role in the new global conflicts or will it be marginalized?
Dr. René Roca: Especially in a multipolar world that is now emerging, neutral countries have an important role. Conflicts will continue to exist. Countries are needed that stand for balance and reconciliation and are clearly committed to peace.
Felix Abt: Is there anything else to add in connection with direct democracy and neutrality as peacemaking elements?
Dr. René Roca: In Switzerland, we now have to develop staying power to defend direct democracy (especially vis-à-vis the EU) and restore neutrality (see neutrality initiative). But I am confident that we can do this, especially with the young generation, and thus become a role model for the world again.
Dr. Roca, thank you very much for the interview.
(The interview was first published by the Asian Internet magazine Eastern Angle.)