There are two discussions ongoing in Switzerland that deserve our attention. The first one is about the importance of public international law, the second one relates to the cooperation with great powers. I argue that the core of both these discussions is misguided.
Two recent decisions in Switzerland should spark our interest: First, the ban on the construction of minarets hints at important discussions about the role of public international law. Second, Switzerland’s decision to enable two Uighurs, both former inmates at Guantanamo, to move to Switzerland reveals important questions about the cooperation with great powers.
The discussion about the importance of public international law is, at least in Switzerland, a strange one. An argument commonly heard implies that following public international law is restricting Switzerland’s sovereignty and hindering its well-being. Only “the wish to do good” could lead one to hold to international rules. The opposite is true. Minor powers such as Switzerland have a limited ability to protect themselves. Since they can not tackle any great power, neither by joining an alliance coalition nor by their own means (read more here), avoiding or mitigating great power politics becomes vital for them. This can best be done through international law and international institutions. Following and developing public international law is thus not just “good”, but serves Swiss national interests. Switzerland, in short, has to be interested in a civilization of international politics.
Similarly, many argue in Switzerland that cooperating with great powers does not serve our interests. Only “trying to be nice” could lead one to do so. Again this is wrong. Sure, minor powers’ preferred strategy is non-alignment. But ultimately, small states such as Switzerland are bound to bond with the strongest state in the system (again more here). Cooperating with the United States, in this case by accepting two former Guantanamo detainees, very well serves this cause. It is true that there is an ongoing transition of power towards China – but for now, the United States is still much more important. Helping the US to solve its problems is not just “nice”, but serves Swiss national interests.
Remarkably, my arguments, although targeted at international cooperation and public international law, fall short of any morality. It is pure (small state) power politics that lies behind them. It is a common misunderstanding that power politics and acting “good” or “nice” are exclusive claims. Subsequently, it is also wrong to believe that minor powers in general act “better” than great powers, thus that their behavior is more substantially targeted at positive outcomes, because they are morally superior to great powers. They simply do so because it serves their interests. Funnily, those conservative and right parties refusing to cooperate and to engage in international law bring forth arguments of national interest and those who want to engage in these activities resort to arguments about being good and nice. It does not need to be like that. These claims are not exclusive. Switzerland is in urgent need of a consistent and relevant foreign policy. Therefore, it has to go beyond the ideological dazzlement the country’s political parties engage in.