Swiss diplomacy at a historic crossroads

Maison de la Paix, Geneva (Credit: Hennings.iheid via Wikimedia Commons)

Troubled by ambiguous relations with the EU and weakened on the international stage, Switzerland would benefit from capitalising on other forms of diplomacy, writes diplomat Theodor Winkler in his latest book, reviewed by François Nordmann.

The final chapter of Theodor Winkler’s latest book devoted to the global geostrategic situation, opens with this point: the world, and therefore Switzerland too, is “at a fundamental turning point”. The author is not just anyone: he is one of the pioneers of strategic thinking within Switzerland’s defence department and the architect of the security policy that Switzerland has been practising since the 1990s.

In addition, Ambassador Theodor H. Winkler founded the three centres for international cooperation in security policy – the dedicated GCSP (Geneva Centre for Security Policy), the International Centre for Humanitarian Demining and the Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, which he directed for sixteen years. He has just published a book available in German, Zeitenwende. Russlands und Chinass Griff nach der Weltmacht, Editions Lit on the background to Putin's aggression against Ukraine and the consequences for world order. He warns his readers against further escalation: the Ukrainian conflict could prompt China to retake Taiwan by force, which could worsen and turn into a world war. But what about Switzerland in all of this?

“Switzerland has lost a lot of ground internationally in recent years. The reason is the continuing lack of clarity in its relations with the European Union.” European policy has been littered with mistakes since rejecting the European Economic Area in 1992. Relations with Brussels have become an emotional issue. We have lost sight of the fact that what is at stake is the Swiss economy's access to the world's largest domestic market, to international scientific cooperation and the possibility of solving the major problems we all share, starting with electricity supply... Normalising our relations with the EU is all the more critical as liberal democracies adapt their institutions – the EU and NATO – to the new situation created by the Russian invasion. They also want to coordinate with the Americans to broaden the scope of the alliance towards Asia. “We are therefore marginalised in Europe, losing our attractiveness to the Americans and running the risk of missing the train to Asia…” The author goes on to describe the lamentable state of the army. His lines read like a preamble of the report published on 17 August by the head of the Swiss army on strengthening Switzerland's military capability: “Reality is brutal,” says our author, “the rebalancing of the Swiss armed forces will still take time”.

However, Winkler feels that we do have a trump card: the centres he helped set up at Geneva's Maison de la Paix could play a more dynamic role in the reconstruction of Ukraine. There’s also an opportunity to amplify the approach taken with the creation of GESDA (the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator): identifying the problems that new technologies pose for the multilateral system. This type of service is the modern form of good offices. Geneva has the expertise and institutions to exercise leadership in the cyber domain.

Read also: Alexandre Fasel: we must prepare for technological upheaval

It's high time to get moving: things are speeding up. Last month, the International Telecommunication Union and Switzerland organised a key debate in Geneva on the proper use of artificial intelligence, but it was the United Kingdom that seized the moment. On the UK’s initiative, the Security Council held its first meeting on artificial intelligence for international peace and security on 17 July. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has convened a summit conference in London next November on AI governance to banish potential abuses. The secretary general of the United Nations is working on an international convention to ban autonomous lethal weapons and is also proposing the creation of a global artificial intelligence agency along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We'd like to hear that it could be based in Geneva…

This article was originally published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.