23 June, 2012

I love the Swiss...

Boeing F/A-18 Hornet of the Swiss Air Force Ax...
Boeing F/A-18 Hornet of the Swiss Air Force Axalp Shooting Demo 2006, Axalp-Ebenfluh Bombing and Gunnery Range, Switzerland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
...in part, because of their tradition of armed neutrality.  Neutrality isn't something you just "declare" (sorry, Berkeley and Boulder), it's something you have to be able to defend.  So how do you do that without becoming a threat to others?  Without, to use the expression from political science, triggering a "security dilemma"?

One way is to make it damn expensive for anyone who might want invade, protecting the civil population even as it joins in the job of defending the country, and blocking entry points to the extent that the country can "button up" and remove itself from the outside world.

And this is what the Swiss did--and still do.  Those beautiful mountains?  Honeycombed with military installations.  The scenic bridges?  The tunnels?  Mined and ready to collapse.  The pretty little houses overlooking the roads?  False fronts for artillery.  The rifle hanging over the fireplace?  That's not for show--everyone has military training.

The Swiss have natural advantages.  But that is not enough.  They also have the will and the tradition of making the most of what they have.

There's a story--perhaps apocriphal--that a Nazi official threatened a Swiss diplomat with invasion.  "We outnumber you," he said.  "Even after your defenses, if we invade we'll outnumber you two to one."

The diplomat replied, "In that case, each of us will shoot twice."

And that is how you maintain your neutrality.

BLDGBLOG: Various forms of lithic disguise


Anonymous said...

During the WWII most neutrals in Europe were attacked and occupied by Germany. The only neighbors of Germany that escaped this fate were Sweden and Switzerland. What distinguished them from other neutrals were not their natural defenses (both were more vulnerable to attack than Norway) or readiness to fight (see the Ohi Day in Greece), but their accommodating attitude and usefulness to Germany.

During the war the economy of both countries worked for the Axis. German industry relied on Swedish ore. Switzerland was useful for trading gold robbed from conquered populations. There was simply no compelling reason for Germany to invade these countries while the war with the Allies was still going on.

The annexation of Switzerland (“renegade German province” according to German government) could be safely left until the war with the Allies was over. Would Switzerland dare to fight for its independence then? I doubt it. Given the German tactics of bombing civilian population to force military capitulation (worked great in Netherlands and Yugoslavia), all those mined bridges would have been of little use to the Swiss.

As the events turned out, the Allies won and paid a dear price for their victory. So, in retrospect, the decision of Swiss and Swedish governments to stay away from the conflict while trading in stolen goods might have been an act of wisdom. But personally I find it hard to love them for this wisdom.

Daniel McIntosh said...

I see your point. On the other hand, if you can find somebody else to do your fighting for you, that can be a pretty good policy.

As for helping the Germans, neutrality means working with ("helping") everybody, so long as it is profitable to do so. There were Americans who made their deals with the Swiss, too.

If the Germans had won, would the Swiss have fought? I suspect they would have, but we'll never know. Just as, during the Cold War, they maintained and expanded the facilities to protect themselves in case of a third European war. Was is all bluff? Hard to know. Would the US really have risked an attack on American cities to defend Paris? I doubt it, but a lot of effort was put into making the threat credible--and who knows, we might have done it. What we can say is the Swiss made the effort, at considerable expense, to provide civil defense and to threaten to raise the costs for a potential aggressor. Now that the perceived threat is reduced, some of that infrastructure is not longer getting the support it once was. But if similar circumstances were to arise, I suspect they'd get back to preparing for the worst.

I should also mention in passing is that one of the things I most admire about the first century of American foreign policy was its skill in playing the great powers of Europe against one another to maximize American freedom of action. We probably can't do it now, but Washington's dictum to reject entangling alliances, while not a forgone conclusion, was the smartest thing we could have done: balance of power maneuvering in defense of liberal ideals. One of the things that made it work was we were so big and so far away. Another was the perception (and as 1812 showed, the fact) that we would fight.