Switzerland’s Choice of Friends

By Assaf Sagiv


Given Europe’s bloody history of conflict, Switzerland can perhaps be proud that it arouses no particularly intense emotions. Certainly no one hates it with the passion generally reserved for the Americans or the Jews—but then again, no one really adores it, either. For the most part, criticism of Switzerland goes no further than noting that its contribution to humanity has been fairly modest and that the country is, well, rather boring. Even the sharpest tongues have found little in Switzerland to infuriate: “I don’t like Switzerland,” declared Oscar Wilde. “It has produced nothing but theologians and waiters.” Dorothy Parker, the wisecracking poet and journalist, once wrote that “the Swiss are a neat and industrious people, none of whom is under seventy-five years of age. They make cheeses, milk chocolate, and watches, all of which, when you come right down to it, are fairly unnecessary.” And who can forget the words of the great film director Orson Welles in The Third Man? “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The Swiss have earned their reputation for blandness: For centuries, they distanced themselves from the turmoil of world politics, as well as from the wars that tore neighboring European countries to pieces. With few exceptions, they refrained from joining any league or alliance that might obligate them to take a political, military, or economic stand. And although Switzerland is home to numerous international organizations, it held off joining the United Nations until 2002 and is still not a member of the European Union. Yet this calculated aloofness, far from exasperating the world, seems instead to have played to its advantage: Even now, after the echoes of Europe’s most recent wars have died down, Switzerland is still viewed by many as an island of calm, stability, and sanity.
What a pity, then, that Switzerland’s pastoral image has come at the price of ignoring many of the basic values that any enlightened nation is duty-bound to uphold. In recent months, a series of controversial diplomatic moves have reflected a disturbing eagerness on the part of the Swiss government to appease some of the world’s greatest despots and terrorists, casting doubt (and not for the first time) on the public integrity and political insight of those who advocate a policy of neutrality. Indeed, these actions illustrate the vast moral chasm facing those who may be tempted to follow the Swiss example—a temptation with dangerous implications both for the future of the West and for freedom-loving peoples everywhere.
In late April of this year, Switzerland played host to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, generally known as Durban II. Though the UN took care to bill the gathering as a prestigious event, several leading Western democracies boycotted it, for reasons self-evident to anyone who recalled Durban I. Although the previous conference, held in South Africa in 2001, purported to promote tolerance, enlightenment, and love of mankind, it quickly dissolved into a grotesque festival of Israel-bashing. As signs increased that the ugly spectacle was set to repeat itself this year, the United States and Israel—along with Canada, Germany, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia—announced their intention to stay home.
Their decision was vindicated on the conference’s opening day, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—a Holocaust denier who openly calls for Israel’s annihilation—addressed those assembled on the subject of the Jewish state’s “barbaric racism.” Dozens of European Union representatives, in an act of public protest, walked out on his speech. Switzerland, however, took a different tack: Its president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, was all smiles and warm handshakes, even meeting with Ahmadinejad for several hours that same day. To be sure, the pair had good reason for this mutual show of affection. Only one year earlier, the Swiss energy company EGL had contracted to import 5.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Iran annually between 2011 and 2035 at a price of close to $40 billion—a move, it should be noted, that undermined American efforts to put economic pressure on the Islamic regime in an attempt to slow its push toward nuclear armament. Faced with international criticism for his country’s affability toward Iran, Merz fell back on its old, foolproof motto: “Switzerland,” he declared, “is neutral.”
Less than two months later, it was Hamas’s turn to enjoy Swiss hospitality. A delegation headed by one of the organization’s leaders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, visited Geneva at the invitation of a local research institute. Both the United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group, and forbid its members to set foot on their soil. This, however, did not dissuade high-ranking Swiss diplomats from meeting with its emissaries. When the international media learned of the visit, Switzerland’s Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey rushed to justify her government’s conduct by declaring that “Hamas is a major player in the Middle East, and one cannot ignore it.”

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