Switzerland, the world's oldest democracy, may soon be joining the United Nations. The Swiss parliament recently voted to hold a referendum on the question before the end of 1983. The Swiss didn't decide until 1977 that it was in their interest to become a full- fledged member of the international organization, and the government has relayed its views to parliament in a special report.
Although small in size and in population (around 6 million people), Switzerland stands as the:
* First among industrial nations in per capita income.
* Fourth among industrial nations regarding foreign investments.
* Fourth in foreign reserves.
* Eleventh in terms of its GNP.
Switzerland is already participating in the work of all the major UN agencies -- United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Labor Organization (ILO) -- but contented itself with the status of observer at UN headquarters with regard to the General Assembly.
The Swiss have a deep-seated feeling for their neutrality.
Even though it was invaded in 1799 by Austrian and Russian troops, Switzerland has throughout its existence from 1921 owed its survival to having systematically and obstinately refused to side with the European major powers.
Disappointment with the performance of the prewar Geneva-based League of Nations and deeply ingrained fears of getting involved in ever more dangerous international crises, have contributed to strengthen Swiss attitudes in this regard.
The Swiss government and the major newspapers in Switzerland (Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Journal de Geneve, La Suisse) are now supporting Switzerland's entry at the UN. They point out that the UN has now become a universal body. When it was founded, it was -- as its name makes clear -- a group of allied countries that had defeated another group of countries. Thus Swiss neutrality demanded that Switzerland not join a clearly partisan association.
Nowadays all 154 established governments are members of the UN and, in the words of one Swiss diplomat, "It is not longer suitable for us to have the same status as, say, the PLO, or the Holy See."
Privately, Western diplomats have increasingly taunted their Swiss colleagues for "ordering a la carte and not the menu at the UN" -- that is, requested Wesern support when it suited them but not supported its Western partners at the General Assembly where the Swiss vote would have been needed. "The Swiss want to have their cake and eat it," says one Western ambassador in this regard.
Swiss diplomats have come to realize in the recent years that the dividing line between UN specialized agencies and the general Assembly has become increasingly blurred and that the real negotiations in many instances, and particularly regarding economic matters, take place at the General Assembly.
Considering the wide range of Swiss interests in the third world, it has thus become increasingly self-defeating for Switzerland not to have its say in the decisionmaking process. Furthermore technological, military, and economic developments in recent years have rendered a purely static form of neutrality obsolete. Many Swiss diplomats realize that the neutrality game must be played nowadays in a dynamic fashion. Sweden, Finland, Austria, Mexico and o thers are trying to do just that.