Given that no one likes Switzerland’s banks, coo-coo clocks, high prices, smugness, dull cities, cheesy foods, or yodeling, I realize that it is too early to speak politically about “the Swiss Model.” But it needs to be pointed out that while the European Union evaporates and Homeland America goes for broke, the world’s second oldest democracy (1291) has trade and budget surpluses, a multi-lingual population, a green network of trains and buses to every village, excellent public schools, and a federal-style government that is closer to Thomas Jefferson’s America than the bureaucratic monarchy that gives the king’s speeches in Washington.
Yes, the Swiss recently voted against the construction of minarets (NIMCP or “not in my cow pasture”) and for the eviction of immigrants convicted of serious crimes. (Would you vote “for” protecting the immigration rights of the rapist next door?) But a quarter of the students in Geneva’s public schools are foreign, and—in the age of focus groups and slick pollsters—the democracy remains in the hands of its citizenry, for better or for worse, which every two months votes on the referendums of the critical issues. On this month’s ballot is gun control.
A mythical Swiss story involves a man on a morning bus, chatting with someone standing near him, exchanging pleasantries about work and the weather, and discovering that his commuting friend is also the president of the Swiss confederation.
I had a similar experience. I had arrived at the Geneva Press Club on my bike, and discovered that the woman sitting near me was also the president, Micheline Calmy-Rey. To be clear, she was at the front of the room, and I was in the audience. But her unassuming manner was that of a bus commuter, and had she walked into the room unescorted, I would not have marked her as the leader of the country.
In a way, she is not. To be president of Switzerland is to be the head of a seven person federal council, whose members are apportioned according to the political parties in the parliament. Real power in the country remains vested in the villages and in the twenty-six cantons. Think of the Swiss president as the unlucky committee person who has to keep the minutes.
After the European revolutions of 1848, Switzerland adopted a federal constitution, in part modeled on the American system, although instead of the imperial presidency (which Jefferson called “a bad edition" of the Polish king), the Swiss went for an executive council. Benjamin Franklin had the same idea earlier for the U.S., but lost out to the more presidential Adams and Madison.
Each year, the members of Switzerland's federal council draw straws for the presidency and the other executive offices, such as the portfolios for justice, sport, and economics. Technically, the chief executive is composed of the entire collective.
Recent presidents include Hans-Rudolph Merz and Doris Leuthard (often the Swiss president is a woman). The Merz administration, however, proved the limits of a referendum democracy in the fast-paced, somewhat dictatorial age of globalization.
From the German-speaking part of the country, and regarded by his critics as a small town politician, Merz had the misfortune to horse trade with Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. The diplomatic row began when Hannibal, the son of the Libyan president, was arrested in a Geneva hotel for having mistreated his servants.
No one in Geneva doubts that Hannibal Qaddafi’s servants were treated little better than Arab slaves. The staff at the posh hotel reluctantly called the police to intervene. Warming to the Ali Baba-like themes of the crime, the local press published Hannibal’s mug shot, and the crisis was off to the camel races.
After picking up two Swiss businessmen in Tripoli with expired visas, Father Muammar — Qaddafi, that is — threw them into solitary confinement and vowed to release them only if the Swiss punished the Geneva police, apologized to Hannibal, and groveled inside the colonel’s tent.
Agreeing to Qaddafi’s terms, because the great Swiss trait is accommodation, Merz flew to Tripoli, thinking he had a Clintonian deal to return triumphantly to Bern with the Swiss hostages.
Instead, the colonel-for-life lectured Merz on the finer points of visa legislation, and the Swiss president flew back to Bern with only the hostages’ luggage, which had been loaded onto the presidential executive jet. The hostages had to serve humiliating prison terms, and a grateful nation watched Merz retire at the end of 2009. A government of “sapeur pompiers” (volunteer firemen) is not without its comic charms.
As she was then minister of foreign affairs, Calmy-Rey was not blameless in what the press calls the “Affaire Qaddafi,” but that didn’t prevent her from becoming president this year, her second time in the position.
At a press conference, she admitted, in so many words, that a rotating federal council perhaps wasn’t the best way to deal with erratic strongmen. Her actual words were much more diplomatic; she suggested that the council had lacked the “resources” to manage the crisis.
In person, I liked Calmy-Rey much more than I expected. Her image in the press is as a glad-hander, someone unwilling to tell Swiss detractors to stick it. She wore a head scarf to meet Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In person she’s thoughtful, well spoken, conversationally direct, up on the details of government, ever-so-slightly humorous, and modest, as if she were mayor of a small commune, which is another way to understand Switzerland.
I have been in Washington press conferences, and they are like a Versailles levée compared with a Swiss question-and-answer session. Calmy-Rey shared the modest dais with two officials and the head of the press club, as if they were panelists at a Rotary meeting.
Her formal remarks were confined to a budgetary review of the pluses and minuses of supporting “international Geneva,” the sprawling network of UN-related organizations that have come to roost in the city. At the cost of billions, laid on in office infrastructure and tram lines, the hope is that peace becomes part of the Swiss brand.
Everyone in the room who wanted to ask a question did, and Calmy-Rey stayed as long as it took to recite the liturgy on Brazilian floods, Middle East protest riots, banking secrecy, bilateral relations with the European Union, Kosovo’s future, nuclear Iran, building plans at the United Nations, Armenia and Turkey, the surplus of the federal budget, and more, until the room felt like a class eager for the break.
The conference hardly made the daily papers. The only sound bite was her answer to a question about whether the Swiss were prepared to give asylum to the WikiLeaks founder and publisher, Julian Assange. Calmy-Rey gave a broad, politically evasive smile, and said, in somewhat fractured English, “We cannot give what we have not been asked to give.”
Meaning: Neither Assange personally, nor any government, had approached the Swiss to grant him asylum. If I had to guess, I would say the Swiss would pass on granting asylum to Assange, just to avoid more aggravation with the Americans, who routinely use the Swiss as punching bags on banking secrecy and their nonaligned status in world affairs. In another context Calmy-Rey said, “We know we’re alone,” and that was a weakness in dealing with Qaddafi.
I found Calmy-Rey realistic and self-effacing on Switzerland’s diplomatic nether world. The country has to straddle “international Geneva” and its many world agencies with another Swiss impulse, which, in the words of George Washington, is to avoid “foreign entanglements.”
Switzerland has come through the recent economic horrors with its budget in surplus ($3 billion), and without any of the Euro debts that followed the long weekends in Ireland and Greece. Power remains in the cantons and the communes, which decide what to teach in the schools, how much tax to collect, and who lives in the villages.
Refreshing, as well, is that the Swiss president can travel in a motorcade of one (I noticed that her driver is a woman), if not on the bus. When Calmy-Rey was in her first term as president, my daughter Laura was in high school. One night at dinner she described shopping after school in a discount department store. In the checkout line she stood next to Calmy-Rey, who, by herself, was buying a blouse.
Photo by Juerg Vollmer; Micheline Calmy-Rey, Zuerich, 2009
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland.