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Many states across the world strive to be “a Switzerland”. There is the “Switzerland of Central America”, which mountainous Costa Rica boasts to be, or the “Switzerland of Eastern Europe”, as Belarus absurdly tried to brand itself last year. While imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, few nations come close to emulating Switzerland’s brand of soft power. But more should make an honest effort at trying.

To me, a born-and-raised Swiss, the combination of “Switzerland” and “power” in one sentence sounds odd, however “soft” said power may be. A peculiar contradiction is ingrained in Swiss collective identity: we take pride in Switzerland as a gorgeous, prosperous nation of democracy and stability. At the same time we are taught to modestly think of our country as small and of little significance – as a unique, neutral state surrounded by more powerful neighbours. In short, we perceive our country as neither powerful nor powerless. We are thrilled when someone notices us. We consider Switzerland “special” – and this informs how Switzerland perceives and portrays itself on the world stage.

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A prize-winning cow showing that its topside is its best side at a Swiss livestock-fair photo shoot

Soft power rests on culture, political values and foreign policy. People around the world associate Switzerland with a number of cultural aspects: sophisticated watches and precision tools, delicious cheese and chocolate, stunning landscapes and pristine mountain slopes. Switzerland’s economy is considered highly competitive and its education system outstanding: eth Zürich, where I work as a researcher, repeatedly ranks as the best university in continental Europe. These well-known and undisputed features have helped to foster a reputation of Swiss excellence and serve as global ambassadors for the country.

Curiously, this soft power also seems to work on Swiss people themselves. Anyone wandering through Swiss supermarkets and department stores must assume this country to be worryingly nationalist: a Swiss flag – a white cross on red – splashes across many packages. Overall, though, there is an appreciation for longevity, craftsmanship, orderliness, and – increasingly – environmental sustainability that gives Swiss brands a certain edge.

Increasingly, the Swiss government is not only aware of the world’s positive associations with the white cross on a red square, it is actively advertising with it. Switzerland has begun campaigning to be elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2023-2024. Its campaign slogan? “A plus for peace”.

This relates to the other two pillars of soft power: political values and foreign policy. In the realm of political values, Switzerland does qualify as a “special case” among states. Its political system is uniquely participatory and inclusive. Federalism ensures a high degree of regional autonomy. Several times a year its direct democratic system calls the Swiss voting population, which has only included women since 1971, to the polls. Switzerland’s government is a council of seven equals, representing all major political parties. Some of these councillors have been the most visible and trusted figures during the pandemic.

This political setup has fostered stability and enabled the balancing of a diverse country with four national languages. Its underlying political values have also been mirrored by foreign policy – in particular, its neutrality, which has repeatedly proven controversial. Switzerland has abstained from many multilateral initiatives including the EU, Nato, and even the UN until it joined in late 2002. Accordingly, neutrality has impeded Swiss soft power: how can you influence others if you stay out? While being an island of peace and prosperity in the heart of Europe has its beauty, it also quite simply means being an island.

To alleviate this, Switzerland has used its neutrality to foster good relations with all states. It has contributed to global peace and prosperity, hosting many international institutions in Geneva, including the UN, the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross. As bridge builders, Swiss diplomats and ngos facilitate negotiations and help to mediate many conflicts around the globe.

At the same time, particularly among Switzerland’s neighbours, more tangible regional and economic issues – its participation in the Schengen zone and EU market, as well as its stance on immigration, for example – have caused tensions. The role of Switzerland as a tax haven and a seat of many banks and commodity traders – some of which have questionable business ethics – has partially tarnished its reputation.

Ultimately, Switzerland proves that communication is the key to projecting soft power. A good reputation attracts international partners, investors and visitors. This communication cannot all be chocolate diplomacy, though. It has to be critically reflected and its contradictions acknowledged. Perhaps this should serve as the biggest lesson to other nations. Switzerland has to back its “plus for peace” identity with actual substance – with its political steadiness, the good quality of its products and its solidarity as a responsible global actor. After all, soft power is more easily lost than won. And it only works in co-operation with others. 

Zogg is Monocle’s security correspondent and senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.

Images: Younès Klouche

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