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Swiss-Made Neutrality

July 25, 2002

The American mind--or many American minds anyway--contains lots of spotty information about Switzerland. Let's remedy that.

First, the country's name is really the Swiss Confederation. Heidi lives there, of course. So do grown men in shorts blowing long horns on grassy mountainsides. The Swiss used to make the world's only quality watches. Never mind all the cheese, the Swiss still forge chocolate to die for, cough drops with that funny name and ingenious pocket knives you can't carry onto airplanes anymore. Switzerland also guards the pope and offers numbered bank accounts for really rich people who might need to leave another country quickly.

One thing everyone pretty much understands is that Switzerland is neutral. The Swiss are extremist neutrals. Neutral about almost everything anyone could disagree about except Swiss neutrality. No neutrality on neutrality. So it's a historic moment now that--after 354 years of very official neutrality, two generations of debate and a national referendum--Switzerland, or rather the Swiss Confederation, has quietly decided to stop being neutral about the United Nations and take the bold step of joining an organization that isn't always neutral.

In September, Switzerland (and East Timor) will up United Nations membership to 191 nations. This won't set off widespread yodeling. Truth is, it's long seemed that much of the U.N. is already in Geneva. Indeed, 19 intergovernmental organizations, including nine U.N. bodies, call Switzerland home, as do 170 nongovernmental organizations like the Red Cross and the Olympics. There's something about being landlocked astride historical transportation and invasion routes and mountain passes that spawns a let's-get-along-and-avoid-others'-fights vision, a sometimes dicey but often profitable position.

Despite all the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity (65% speak German, 20% French and 10% Italian) in a country half the size of Maine, the Swiss get along--with their neighbors and with each other. Who's got much bad to say about a neutral country that invented Alpine beauty, owns the Matterhorn and runs all-electric trains on time?

The problem with Switzerland is its 10,000 annual avalanches, forecast on the radio like weather or traffic reports. But those massive snow slides (the thick forests above Swiss villages are not there by accident) are probably caused by French skiers anyway.

Imagine a diverse democracy that works, where voters get along. We're not neutral about that. Thank goodness Switzerland is bringing this approach into full U.N. membership. Maybe some Swiss ways will rub off.

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