Switzerland’s Mind-Your-Own-Business Wisdom

Small, landlocked Switzerland has all the imperialist restraint in the world. Prosperous and intact, Switzerland’s staunch keep-it-to-ourselves strategy appears to have worked out in their favor with great historical success. The differences in vision between America and Switzerland are glaring. Switzerland never set out to improve the world or to export their ideology. They adopted an impressive strategy of neutrality paired with a strong defense. Offense, crucially, did not figure into this national strategy.

Switzerland also stayed true to their republic origins and did not metastasize into an empire like their American counterpart did. Military reticence also accounts for Switzerland’s admirable lack of sticky foreign relations. Importantly, this was not pacifism that Switzerland ascribed to, but rather a policy of militant conservatism in entering the conflicts of other countries. A third and curious trait of the Swiss region is the temperate political climate and its relative stability when surrounded by the frothing tensions of neighboring countries.

When I think about what defines Switzerland, I suspect one of its most meaningful components is its quality of non-intervention. Though technically non-interventionist, Switzerland’s free trade conviction is very liberal and much of their economic well-being depends on porous borders and friendly relationships with trade partners. This seeming polarity is actually mutually reinforcing and awfully compatible.

When one compares nations it begs the question, why doesn’t the rest of the world follow Switzerland’s example? The country boasts a stable economy in a sea of quaking European currencies. You would think that Swiss military reticence, as well, would look appealing, as would its more civil political climate. Some might say that Switzerland is a useless experimental comparison to their own countries because of any number of differing variables. Switzerland’s economic prosperity, however, is interesting in light of some seeming hindrances. For example, Switzerland was never resource-rich and never had a robust agricultural sector. It lacked sea ports unlike many of its coastal counterparts. And yet today, Switzerland boasts one of the highest GDP-per-capitas in the world and thrives off of a highly developed service sector.

The Swiss Republic & the American Empire

America as it stands today has an influence and a presence that stretches across the globe. There is hardly a country that does not bear witness to our rumblings. We make ourselves heard. We want to make ourselves heard. It would be of interest to know how the rest of the world truly sees us. Though many of us find it immediately a little jarring to use this word, technically speaking, America is a modern empire. We spread our influence thickly over the rest of the world, issue threats and ultimatums, dispatch troops to a slew of countries, maintain an arsenal of 800 military bases, and fight wars against ideas, most recently, “terrorism”.

When America was founded, the intention was for the nation to maintain the status of republic. We’ve certainly strayed from those humble origins now. I won’t pretend to know to what degree “becoming an Empire” was advantageous or alternately, damaging, but I will speculate that it was likely some combination of the two. I would also add that what we find advantageous now might come back to bite us down the road.

As Americans, we often claim that our success is due to precisely these influence-smearing moves and our increasingly louder voice in the global community. But who ever said one had to be loud and invasive to also be successful? It would make sense that we would rationalize these actions, however, as an explanation for our prosperity. But that doesn’t guarantee it is true.

Consider Switzerland, who looks like an inviolate haven in contrast. Switzerland enjoys quiet success. Not the glory of empire, sure. Rather, the sort of unostentatious, respectable prosperity that few would harbor suspicions regarding its procurement. And yet, it is wondered, if Switzerland had shunned all these seemingly vital imperial benefits, then how were they not destitute? How could it be that they were wealthy and yet did not have the world-swallowing aspirations that so characterized the U.S.?

Maybe, if we did some self-reflection, we would come to the realization that America and its zest for “empire”, essentially, is not exactly the recipe for eternal success. Is it not true of Americans that we make the mistake of assuming that the rest of the world wishes to be Americanized? We convince ourselves that the rest of the globe is secretly longing to be us.

It is not unlike being the popular kid at school. Sure, there are some that might viscously yearn to be the popular kid but there are others that balk at this identity, and still others that are largely indifferent. But modern-day America cannot conceive that anyone would want to be left alone. Or, that perhaps it would behoove us to leave them alone, if only for the sake of our own preservation and the goal of long-term wisdom.

The Merits of Rationalism

What I find distinctive about Swiss ethos is the tenor of rationalism inherent in it. For example, despite a longstanding commitment to military restraint, Switzerland maintains one of the most crushingly efficient, quickly mobilized armies in the world. To Americans, this sounds contradictory. Our military exploits are endless and are not without flash and splash. To have an army and not use it? Why? To the American soul, this sounds almost, well, unexciting. Some might even catch themselves thinking “unpatriotic”. But is it not the heights of wisdom to have military preparedness and yet be economical in utilizing it? It’s rational to have a defense strategy and yet to be conservative in drawing it out, is it not?

There does appear to be an American binary of sorts which on one end lists confidence and on the other, cowardice. America greatly champions confidence and frames many of their moves in the international sphere as a choice between just this robust, hearty American boldness and the obviously unattractive option of weak, spineless cowardice. In theory the latter would color our national prestige and this is reason enough for her to always choose the first option. Obviously, “confidence” is excellent, convenient cover for a host of questionable motives and deeds. I don’t mean to discredit American confidence, simply to point out the ways in which we do perhaps capitalize on this particular American method of framing things.

If America has a binary of confidence and cowardice, Switzerland might have one between, say, rationalism and recklessness. There’s a noticeable lack of vanity in the Swiss binary, I must admit. There’s pride bound up in the American example — a kind of emotional investment, while the Swiss example is pragmatic and practical, drained of sentiment and absent of megalomanic impulse. There’s some real wisdom in that.

Switzerland doesn’t overextend itself like America does; it conserves its resources and refrains from inserting itself either territorially or politically. It does not try to take on the whole world — but America does. These things do not make Switzerland any less ambitious, it should be said, it is simply that the Swiss have almost entirely domestic preoccupations which includes an interest in preserving and improving their way of life. It is of little consequence to them that they should send troops flocking to remote third-world countries or go about injecting foreign aid like America does. The Swiss do not harbor secret convictions that they ought to police the world. They do not try to actively advance any particular ideas on the world stage.

Rather, they keep their eyes focused on their own internal well-being as a country and on private, domestic matters. Adhering to a principled creed of neutrality appears to work just fine for them. Historically, instead of being trampled on by conquerors ready to seize this seemingly “pacifist” state, the rest of the world actually appeared to honor this decision and adopted a hands-off position. Switzerland has not fought a military battle in over 500 years. In contrast, America, in the 50 years following the resolution of WWII engaged in a staggering 111 military actions. And what did America reap from all that exactly? Are we truly better off? Were all those battles inevitable….wise decisions….obligatory — what other rationalizations are there?

One would think this small, hedged-in country’s geographic position flanked by European powers would have surely made them vulnerable. And yet over the centuries, as Europe waged war outside the Swiss borders, none of it came to grace the state lines. Perhaps this is because Switzerland did so little proclaiming and instigating, other than declaring itself a neutral country, that is. They are quiet, not loud.

In doing so, the Swiss vacuumed out tension from neighboring nations whom might have otherwise been wary or itching to try their hand at conquering it. By not inserting themselves into political turbulence and not taking a stance, Switzerland dissipated any potential threat the rest of the world was watching to see if they had. By remaining quiet and observant and politely refusing active participation in the grisly action that the European continent had seen over its history and particularly in the past century, the Swiss smartly protected themselves.

Surely their impressive military preparedness was the necessary deterrent to prevent invasion, it must be pointed out. After all, Switzerland was rational and knew that to eschew military might and to just lay vulnerable would be plain stupid and they wouldn’t be doing themselves any favors.

Allegiance to Economics Over Politics

Switzerland has an incredible track record with decentralized government and has managed to maintain one of the world’s oldest democratic republics. Technically America falls into this category, but we did not stick to our constitutional origins quite as admirably. It is implicitly understood in Switzerland that the country will always be wed to free trade. There is little political squabbling over this matter. Free trade, after all, is vital to Switzerland’s prosperity and everyone knows it.

Despite being conservative with its policy of intervention, Switzerland has long had a liberal stance in trade. They are not terribly self-sustainable, but depend quite heavily on the imports of food, commodities, and fuel. Natural resources, after all, are not one of the Swiss region’s specialities. Mountainous regions aren’t good for farming and the country engages in basically zero oil production precisely because there just isn’t any oil to be found.

That said, the Swiss maintain a principled pact with free trade because this is the source of much of their national wealth. If imports got disrupted, they would quickly find themselves in a dilemma. So naturally, they are careful not to let this happen. What appears to set Switzerland apart is their dogged insistence on rationalism and their incorruptible stance towards (and what looks like a lack of appetite for) visions of imperial grandeur.

By this same straightforward philosophy, Switzerland also cleverly avoids war. The Swiss understand war as a barrier to economic progress and so have a self-interest in dodging it. It would be counterproductive to create more adversaries than is needed, after all. Wars and taking certain stances in the foreign relations realm both involve political action, both of which are dangerous to vulnerable economies. With foresight do the Swiss realize their imperative to protect their economy at all costs and to avoid the inflammation of political sentiment in the domestic sphere.

Both war, and more generally, foreign relations, contribute to societal destabilization, unrest, and conflict. Emotions run high, and there usually materializes disagreement, protests or heated political debate. Money is thrown around and resources are dispatched. The Swiss manage to avoid a great deal of all this upheaval. They also probably understand the wisdom of protecting a stable, civil society.

I think many of us Americans fail to understand that a simple excess of politics is often to blame for societal turmoil, not the failure of this or that politician to “unify” us. It is from that line of thought that I cannot help speculating that a mind-your-own-business strategy (in regards to war/foreign relations) could translate to less political contention and from there, to better citizen relations (and even race relations) and thus a more “stable” society.

The Swiss practice domestic preservation and demonstrate a lack of imperialist hunger. They are rationalist and avoid conflict and are careful to keep economics above politics.

All this said, do the Swiss know something we don’t?

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store