Kampfpanzer Leopard 2 beim Gefechtsschiessen
Kampfpanzer Leopard 2 beim Gefechtsschiessen

Introduction

The purpose of this local case study project is to identify, analyze and investigate a Swiss cultural or sociopolitical phenomenon.  Through interviewing Swiss citizens and experts in the field of interest, students were encouraged to create a report that combines the more interactive research with typical academic sources. These reports serve to enrich the students’ experience living and studying in Switzerland as each student engages in experiential learning by interacting with locals’ opinions.

Specifically, this paper aims to address the extent to which Swiss conscription serves as an essential quality of Swiss national security and civic engagement principles. Analyzing the nexus between Swiss armed neutrality and mandatory military service is an interesting way to observe how citizens conceptualize national security and value civil service. Through focusing on the history of Switzerland’s concept of armed neutrality from its inception to modern day application, the paper identifies some of the key pillars of Swiss sociopolitical culture that has shaped and constructed a unique Swiss identity.

The essay will first analyze the history of Swiss armed neutrality including the foundational principles of Switzerland that gave way to the creation of a conscription army, the evolving external threats during the two World Wars that tested Swiss neutrality and army functionality, and the shift in public conceptions of Swiss military necessity during the 1960s. The essay unpacks the more modern debate on whether Switzerland should maintain its conscription military or instead rely more on collective security organizations and a voluntary military. A 2013 referendum that addressed ending mandatory military service serves as an important example of the relevancy of the debate in modern Swiss society.

The essay concludes with a discussion on the potential future of the Swiss armed neutrality and mandatory military service. It acknowledges the need for more research and public polls that identify the extent to which citizens value the conscription army as a guarantor of national security. It also puts forth a few potential future changes to Swiss military strategy that may be useful for further research, including: joining and relying more heavily on other collective security organizations like NATO, providing more options for opting out of the military service, and increasing other options for civil service for young people.

 

Research Methodology

This research paper includes three personal interviews, various academic papers, and an official government document that all serve to provide a comprehensive analyses on Swiss mandatory military service and armed neutrality. Each interviewee was given information about the purpose of the interview and was informed of their right to remain anonymous.

Both professors included in this paper have experience teaching at the Military Academy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and researching specific aspects of the Swiss military. To better understand the general strategic background of Swiss armed neutrality, this paper includes an interview with Dr. Albert Stahel, a professor of Strategic Studies at various Swiss higher education institutions, and Dr. Hubert Annen, professor and Head of the Military Psychology and Pedagogy department at ETH Zurich.

This paper also includes an interview with a Swiss male university student that provides a perspective from a younger generation who has experienced the military service obligation in a more modern context. This student opted to remain anonymous, which may have provided an opportunity to be more critical and open about the Swiss military mandatory service. Although this single interview bolsters some of the trends discussed in the academic articles, it would have been useful to interview more young Swiss males currently completing their military to gain a more comprehensive understand of youth perspectives on Swiss conscription and armed neutrality. For further research about how Swiss citizens value and understand armed neutrality, it would be interesting to analyze the opinions of citizens who have previously served in the army as well as other members of society who have no obligation to serve (i.e. women).

 

Analysis

Armed neutrality has been a founding principle of Swiss national identity since the modern federation’s inception. Dr. Hubert Annen posits that Switzerland has essentially been a neutral political entity for 500 years, as the polity did not take sides in international conflicts. After Switzerland was invaded by Napoleonic France in 1798, the international community decided in the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that Switzerland should embrace permanent neutrality and autonomous security strategies. [1] [2] As Dr. Albert A. Stahel posits, the great powers of the time aimed to cut the relationships between Switzerland and France to create a neutral state that would theoretically minimize the possibility of a full European war. [3] The Swiss Federal Constitution of 1815 officially recognized the principle of armed neutrality [4] and incorporated an armed defense principle that relied more on deterrence strategy rather than functional capability to defend its borders. [5]

Switzerland’s armed neutrality has made the country arguably the most impressive and successful neutral state in history. As defined by the Swiss government, Swiss neutrality is permanent, self-determined and armed.[6] Its neutrality is present only as long as the citizens and government decide to remain neutral and as long as a defense organization is prepared to bolster the state’s neutrality and national borders. Stahel contends that Switzerland’s neutrality is a means of protection, not a protection in and of itself [7]; to provide security, there must be a strong defense organization prepared to protect the nation and not just a reliance on an international acceptance of neutrality to protect the nation. Switzerland’s policy of neutrality includes “all measures that [it] takes at its own discretion to safeguard credibility and effectiveness of its neutrality;” [8] effectively, mandatory military conscription and a militia-style army forms part of Switzerland’s policy of neutrality. Furthermore, Annen highlights the importance of Swiss neutrality in playing a substantial role in international conflict resolution and multiparty reconciliation.[9] The “system wide collective good” aspect of Switzerland’s armed neutrality benefits other countries because it provides a framework for communication and negotiation between combatants.[10]

The specific requirements of Swiss conscription today demonstrate a high level of commitment to civic engagement and service. Compulsory military service for Swiss males aged 19-26 lasts at least 260 days. [11] Conscripts undergo 18 weeks of training followed by seven 3-week intermittent obligations for training for the following 10 years.[12] Females are able to volunteer for military service. Citizens who are deemed unfit for military service are exempted from service but pay an additional tax. [13] Citizens who have a conflict of conscience by serving in the armed service may decide to perform community service as a substitute. This civil service is 1.5 times longer than armed service (390 days)[14] and therefore requires more commitment. [15]

Conscription and the militia-style defense system is a deeply rooted concept in Swiss society.[16] The “voluntary commitment of society and sense of duty as a citizen” [17] to uphold the concept of neutrality has integrated civil values and ideals within the armed forces and has created a strong and positive civil-military relation.[18] Swiss citizens have “viewed autonomous self defense as the only security posture compatible with its foreign policy” which substantiates the interdependency between armed neutrality and public support. [19] Stahel posits that conscription not only provides education and an opportunity to bring together young men from across the multilingual nation, but also serves as a mechanism for civic integration. [20] Annen argues that conscription is an essential quality of Swiss national security because to have sufficient manpower to uphold the necessities of the armed forces, conscription is required. “The concept of the citizen in uniform” [21] reinforces a strong interconnectedness between Swiss citizens and its military as they are one in the same; society is the militia and the militia is the society.

Throughout history Switzerland’s neutrality has been tested and tried, but the integral component of Swiss national identity continues to exist. During the First World War, Switzerland’s different linguistic regions sympathized with their respective “foreign compatriots [which] threatened Switzerland’s domestic stability” [22] and reliance on a unified defense organization despite the linguistic separations within the federation. The Second World War posed another threat as the expansionist Axis powers tested the neutrality and military capability of Switzerland; Switzerland was able to maintain its borders. In the 2003 United States’ decision to invade Iraq, Switzerland’s Federal Council passed a resolution that prevented belligerent aircraft from flying through Swiss sovereign territory and also introduced provisions to prevent private companies based in Switzerland from exporting military equipment to either side of the war. [23]

Although armed neutrality has persisted throughout centuries, the impact and relationship that the armed forces have had on society has changed substantially. Annen mentioned that during the Cold War, Switzerland had about 800,000 enlisted active reserve members and the men remained enlisted until the age of 50. [24] As such, children growing up during this time period had seen their fathers and other male figures in their lives go serve in the military. [25] Military companies would perform their exercises in villages, maintaining strong visibility within the general Swiss populace. After the Cold War, however, there was a reduction of personnel for economic reasons, which entailed making the end of required enlistment the age of 30. With a declining visibility of the Swiss armed forces throughout the 20th century, the military has been seen as not having as much of an integral part in everyday life.[26] In an effort to sustain a level of positive civil-military relations and military visibility, the army nowadays presents itself in specific exhibitions or visits local communities in road shows. [27]

Furthermore, the public conception of the necessity of Swiss conscription underwent a decline in the 1960s and 1970s based on shifting social values, which has played a substantial role in current debate about the necessity of mandatory military service. Whereas serving in the military was once highly valued, social pressure for military service decreased as the values of obedience, discipline, and subordination were replaced by autonomy, self-determination, and self-development in the 1960s and early 1970s. [28] Annual national surveys demonstrate a “change in civil values [that] strongly influenced the decreasing support of the armed forces in society.” [29] In 1983, 87 percent of the electorate upheld the necessity of the Swiss armed forces but by “the end of the cold war only 70 percent on average regard the military as necessary.” [30] Interestingly, one can also observe the declining relevance for military service and rank in terms of current job opportunities; [31] a Kern survey demonstrates that “90 percent of human resources (HR) managers think that the relevance of military rank rather decreased in the past ten years.” [32] Nowadays, companies are less actively supportive of the military career of their employees in Switzerland. As economic competition has increased, companies are more averse to having military-related absences within their workforces.[33]

Individual cost-benefit analyses of serving in the military also play a substantial role in military participation. While the military is an opportunity to learn alongside other young citizens from across the country, individuals also often take into account the opportunity cost of working or studying instead of serving in the military for the required 260 days. As an anonymous Swiss young male student suggests, serving in the military can be a time intensive and competing option to attending university or an apprenticeship. [34] Although serving in the military is useful and constructive for some Swiss youth, conscription is not as useful or essential for others, he argued. [35] However, if an individual only takes into account his self-interest when examining a military career, “the military loses its role as an agent for social cohesion.” [36]

Throughout the past three decades, there have been numerous initiatives to abolish or drastically modify the Swiss army, but none have ever succeeded. The “Group for Switzerland without an army” is the most outward advocate for the “’civilizing’ [of] Swiss society by abolishing the army.” [37] [38] In 1989 the Group put forth a plan to completely abolish the army, which received over 30 percent of approval, and in 2001 a similar proposal received 22 percent of approval. [39] More recently, in September of 2013, 73 percent of Swiss voters rejected a referendum that would aim to “abolish conscription and make the military service voluntary and adequately paid” [40] [41] In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the Federal Council recommended not accepting the proposal because the current use of conscription best satisfies the goals of the army and to make the army voluntary “would make the country’s safety dependent on people’s willingness to serve and go against a deeply rooted civic duty.” [42] This third initiative within the past 25 years suggests that the topic of conscription and armed neutrality, although deeply engrained in society, still is faced with some skepticism and criticism.

With the prevalence of a substantial network of international collective security organizations, some Swiss academics and citizens argue that Switzerland should shift from a self-defense national strategy to one that accepts more dependence on these multilateral security organizations. DeVore and Stahli posit that Switzerland’s security strategy has already become increasingly reliant on international organizations and bilateral cooperation; [43] security today relies more on the contributions of international organizations and foreign states than the typical policies and institutions associated with Swiss armed neutrality. [44] “Broad structural factors [rather] than conscious political choices” to rely more on international security institutions mean that Swiss policymakers have little ability to alter the situation. [45] However, because self-defense is such a strong tradition in Swiss society, relying on foreign security dependency will prove a difficult concept to accept and support. Stahel argues that joining a collective security organization like NATO would jeopardize the Swiss ideal of neutrality insofar as it would prevent Switzerland from service as a neutral bridge for countries at war. [46] Similarly, Annen argues that the Swiss populace is generally suspicious of attempts to interact with NATO because it would be seen as incompatible with the concept of autonomous armed neutrality. [47] However, Annen did suggest that a majority of the population is supportive of having the military act in more peace-keeping operations and working alongside the UN to engage in similar opportunities worldwide. [48]

 

Conclusion

Swiss armed neutrality has not only affected domestic opinion about the role of the individual in serving in the armed forces, but also how individuals conceptualize and understand Swiss national security and national identity. Throughout Switzerland’s history, specifically within the 20th century, the relationship between the army and society has undergone substantial change. While the military was once a highly visible and revered career opportunity, today different social values have reshaped how citizens and employers regard a military career.  These trends, however, surely have more nuanced and less obvious causes that should continue to be examined and explored. Public opinion polls and in depth analyses of Swiss citizens’ opinions on conscription, armed neutrality, and self-defense strategy would provide further insight into how the relationship between the army and society has changed over time.

For those who argue that Switzerland should rely more on international collaborative security mechanisms rather than a national armed force, it will be important to conduct research on how this drastic shift in national security strategy will affect general understanding of civic engagement. Without conscription, Switzerland may have to maintain its foundational principle of civic engagement in other ways. This may include promoting increased youth voting or mandatory civil service for males and females.

Furthermore, as modern threats like transnational terrorism continue to pressure the global community, a prepared national armed force may be deemed necessary to protect the nation from any and every external threat. In light of the changing international sphere of security that now includes cyber-related activities and economic threats, a physical armed force may not prove as essential as it once was for the small, landlocked nation. Strategic foresight studies and analyses would be useful in equipping Swiss policymakers and the populace with knowledge and suggestions on how to best provide safety for the years to come.

 

Bibliography

Annen, Hubert. Personal Interview. 14 October, 2016.

Annen, Hubert, Stefan Seiler, and Klaus Jonas. “Military Psychology in Switzerland.” Swiss Journal of Psychology 69, no. 2 (2010): 75-82. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000009.

Anonymous University of Geneva Student. Personal Interview. 7 October, 2016.

CIA.”CIA World Factbook: Switzerland.” The World Factbook. Accessed Oct 15, 2016.

“Community Service Instead of Military Service: What Is There to Consider?” Zivil-dienst. 2014. Accessed October 15, 2016.

Devore, Marc R., and Armin Stähli. “From Armed Neutrality to External Dependence: Swiss Security in the 21stCentury.” Swiss Political Science Review 17, no. 1 (March 02, 2011): 1-26. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1111/j.1662-6370.2011.02003.x.

Dreyer, John, and Neal G. Jesse. “Swiss Neutrality Examined: Model, Exception or Both?” Journal of Military and Security Studies 15, no. 3 (2014): 60-83. Accessed October 13, 2016.

GSoA. “English | GSoA – Gruppe Für Eine Schweiz Ohne Armee.” Gruppe Für Eine Schweiz Ohne Armee. Accessed October 15, 2016. http://www.gsoa.ch/english/.

Jacquin, Jérôme, and Marta Zampa. “Do We Still Need an Army like in the First World War? An Argumentative Analysis of a Television Debate on Abolishing Compulsory Military Service in Switzerland.” Discourse & Communication 10, no. 5 (2016): 479-99. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1177/1750481316659176.

Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview. 12 October, 2016.

Swiss Confederation. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Accessed October 13, 2016.

The Associated Press. “Swiss Vote to Keep Mandatory Army Service.” The New York Times, September 22, 2013. Accessed October 13, 2016.

Tresch, T. S. “The Transformation of Switzerland’s Militia Armed Forces and the Role of the Citizen in Uniform.” Armed Forces & Society 37, no. 2 (2011): 239-60. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1177/0095327×10361670.

 

Socio-demographic characteristics of interviewees

 

Interviewee name Estimated General Age Current Occupation Sex Nationality
Dr. Albert A. Stahel 60+ Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Zurich Male Swiss
Anonymous university student 18-25 University of Geneva student Male Swiss
Dr. Hubert Annen 50-60 Professor and Head of Military Psychology and Military Pedagogy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) Male Swiss

 

Interview Summaries

 

Dr. Albert Stahel, a professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Zurich and the Military Academy at ETH Zurich, unpacked the social background and integral aspect of armed neutrality in Swiss national culture. He emphasized that neutrality does not guarantee security but rather serves as a means to national protection. When asked about whether or not mandatory military service is an essential part of Swiss national security, Stahel posited that the tradition of conscription has been and continues to be an ideal rooted in society. Conscription not only allows for broad education for young men and an opportunity to bring together young men from different linguistic areas of Switzerland, but also serves as a process for integration for young citizens to feel connected to Swiss culture and society. Stahel characterized the relationship between the army and society as very strong. With regard to the future of mandatory military service, Stahel mentioned that he does not foresee Switzerland joining a collective security organization like NATO and consequently eliminating Swiss conscription because it would completely change the security strategy of the nation in a way that does not have public support. Relying on a different organization for security would jeopardize the country’s foundation of neutrality and ability to serve as a bridge between countries in times of conflict.

An anonymous, male University of Geneva student provided an important perspective about the relevance and impact of Swiss conscription in the 21st century. The student said he had attended only a week at the military service camp before deciding to come back to focus on full-time studying. He posited skepticism for the necessity of mandatory military service if Switzerland is neutral. While military service is useful for some people (who do not study in a university), he argued that it is not necessarily paramount for all Swiss males.

Dr. Hubert Annen, Head of the Military Psychology and Pedagogy and professor at the Military Academy at ETH Zurich, described the integral and widely supported concept of neutrality in Swiss culture. Annen presented basic information about how neutrality has been a socio-politically accepted characteristic of Swiss security strategy for 500 years. He also elucidated about some changes that civil-military relations have undergone in the past generations. The impact and visibility that the army has in Swiss daily society has changed and morphed throughout the 20th and 21st century, but despite these changes, there remains little opposition to the foundation of neutrality in Switzerland.

[1] Devore, Marc R., and Armin Stähli. “From Armed Neutrality to External Dependence: Swiss Security in the 21stCentury.” Swiss Political Science Review 17, no. 1 (March 02, 2011): 3. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1111/j.1662-6370.2011.02003.x.

[2] Dreyer, John, and Neal G. Jesse. “Swiss Neutrality Examined: Model, Exception or Both?” Journal of Military and Security Studies 15, no. 3 (2014): 62. Accessed October 13, 2016.

[3] Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview. 12 October, 2016.

[4] Devore and Stähli. “From Armed Neutrality,” 4

[5] Ibid. 76

[6] Swiss Confederation. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Accessed October 13, 2016.

[7] Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview.

[8] Swiss Confederation. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

[9] Annen, Hubert. Personal Interview. 14 October, 2016.

[10] Dreyer, John, and Neal G. Jesse. “Swiss Neutrality Examined,” 76

[11] CIA.”CIA World Factbook: Switzerland.” The World Factbook. Accessed Oct 15, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jacquin, Jérôme, and Marta Zampa. “Do We Still Need an Army like in the First World War? An Argumentative Analysis of a Television Debate on Abolishing Compulsory Military Service in Switzerland.” Discourse & Communication 10, no. 5 (2016): 481. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1177/1750481316659176.

[14] “Community Service Instead of Military Service: What Is There to Consider?” Zivil-dienst. 2014. Accessed October 15, 2016.

[15] Jacquin, Jérôme, and Marta Zampa. “Do We Still Need an Army,” 481

[16] Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview.

[17] Tresch, T. S. “The Transformation of Switzerland’s Militia Armed Forces and the Role of the Citizen in Uniform.” Armed Forces & Society 37, no. 2 (2011): 239. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi:10.1177/0095327×10361670.

[18] Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview.

[19] Devore and Stähli. “From Armed Neutrality,” 1

[20] Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview.

[21] Tresch, T. S. “The Transformation of Switzerland’s Militia,” 239

[22] Devore and Stähli. “From Armed Neutrality,” 4

[23] Swiss Confederation. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

[24] Annen, Hubert. Personal Interview. 14 October, 2016.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Tresch, T. S. “The Transformation of Switzerland’s Militia,” 245

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, 246

[31] Ibid, 248

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Anonymous University of Geneva Student. Personal Interview. 7 October, 2016.

[35] Anonymous University of Geneva Student. Personal Interview. 7 October, 2016.

[36] Tresch, T. S. “The Transformation of Switzerland’s Militia,” 254

[37] Jacquin, Jérôme, and Marta Zampa. “Do We Still Need an Army,” 418

[38] GSoA. “English | GSoA – Gruppe Für Eine Schweiz Ohne Armee.” Gruppe Für Eine Schweiz Ohne Armee. Accessed October 15, 2016. http://www.gsoa.ch/english/.

[39] The Associated Press. “Swiss Vote to Keep Mandatory Army Service.” The New York Times, September 22, 2013. Accessed October 13, 2016.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Jacquin, Jérôme, and Marta Zampa. “Do We Still Need an Army,” 481

[42] Ibid.

[43] Devore and Stähli. “From Armed Neutrality,” 2

[44] Ibid, 21

[45] Ibid, 2

[46] Stahel, Albert A. Personal Interview.

[47] Annen, Hubert. Personal Interview. 14 October, 2016.

[48] Ibid.

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