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The Swiss illusion

At the end of last week I attended the Riga Conference, an annual Transatlantic foreign-policy conference that goes back to the 2006 NATO summit. For me one of the most extraordinary moments of the conference came during a panel discussion on the diminishing importance of Europe and the future of the West. The panelists included Julianne Smith, deputy national security adviser to US Vice President Joe Biden, and Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, a former German ambassador to Russia and the UK. During the discussion, a member of the audience asked whether Europe might be becoming a greater Switzerland – rich but neutral and strategically irrelevant. Von Ploetz’s simple response was: “Switzerland is not such a bad country!”

It was a joke, right? Perhaps not. Eberhard Sandschneider is the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the leading German foreign-policy think tank. In 2011, he published a book called Der erfolgreiche Abstieg Europas (“The successful decline of Europe”). In it, he argues that although Europe faces relative decline as power shifts from West to East, this is “not automatically something negative” because international relations is not a zero-sum game. The key, he argues, is to manage decline. Sandschneider says explicitly – and seriously – that his model is Switzerland, which he says has influence “beyond traditional power politics”.