Switzerland is the only country in the world that chooses not to be a member of the United Nations. Now the Swiss cabinet wants to change this, and already parliamentary hearings have begun. The ultimate decision will be made in a national referendum.
Switzerland is a special case in the international system - with its permanent neutrality, the International Red Cross, Geneva as an important conference center, and other special peacekeeping features. Thus, it should be of interest whether it becomes a member of the UN. Would this membership change Switzerland's traditional role in the world? Would it be more able or, on the contrary, perhaps less able to make contributions to world peace?
There are good arguments on both sides, but on balance the arguments for entry into the UN are more persuasive. Yet opinion polls indicate that the outcome of the referendum may well be negative. Such a rejection would certainly make unfavorable headlines in the world press and they are nervously anticipated by the Swiss authorities.
But foreign observers should be aware of the fact that it is the Swiss populace itself which has to decide about membership in the UN. In the long run, the Swiss people are often willing to learn. We saw this with female suffrage, which was finally accepted after many rejections in referendums. As a Swiss citizen, I hope that after a learning process the Swiss people will realize that their neutrality has a different meaning in the current world context than it had at a time when it was viewed primarily in a European context.
Perhaps the most intriguing argument against membership is that Switzerland can do more for world peace if it stays outside the UN. The logic here is that, by taking positions in the UN, Switzerland would necessarily make enemies for itself. As a consequence, the task of the International Red Cross could be made more difficult in certain areas of the world. Cases are recalled where the International Red Cross was able to intervene even after the UN had failed. It is argued that such cases would become rare if Switzerland began taking sides in conflicts.
Another harmful development could be that Geneva would be less available as a conference site for negotiations because one side or the other to a conflict might be offended by a Swiss vote in the UN. Furthermore, other international missions of Switzerland might be damaged, such as representing the interests of countries when diplomatic relations are broken. For instance, Swiss diplomats look after US interests in Cuba and Iran.
According to this view, the world needs a country which interprets its neutrality in a very strict sense and is thus available for special tasks outside the UN. Meantime Switzerland can fulfill its obligations to the UN by continuing to participate in special organizations like UNESCO.
These arguments against Switzerland's entry into the UN cannot be dismissed lightly. But the biggest problem with them is that Swiss absence from the UN is no longer understood in many parts of the world. It even comes as a surprise to many otherwise knowledgeable foreigners when they learn that Switzerland is not a UN member.
The parameters of Swiss neutrality have drastically changed as the focus of international politics has shifted from Europe to a global arena. When Switzerland's neutrality first developed, it meant primarily that Switzerland would remain impartial in the many wars among its neighbors. Such impartiality was a sheer necessity for Switzerland's survival because, as a multilingual nation, it risked being divided among its German-, French-, and Italian-speaking neighbors.
Today Switzerland, despite its neutrality, is counted among the highly industrialized Western democracies. Under these new circumstances, neutrality is unselfish only if it is practiced in a much more active way, and this means full participation in the UN. As a neutral, Switzerland may even have special opportunities within the UN framework to provide troops for peacekeeping forces. It might also be recalled that a Swede and an Austrian, representatives of two other neutral countries, were secretaries-general of the UN.
Certainly there may be cases where a particular Swiss vote in the UN could somewhat harm its traditional peacekeeping missions. But by and large such damage would not be of major significance if Swiss diplomats handled their UN tasks with tactfulness.
There is still another argument against entry into the UN, namely that the organization has proved to be so ineffective that membership would be a waste of money. In these hard economic times, this may be the most powerful argument when the question is finally put to the citizens to decide. The real hurdle for the Swiss authorities will be to convince the electorate that the UN is worth the cost of membership.
It may well be that the authorities will fail in the beginning, and that it will take several referendums over a long stretch of time before Switzerland finally becomes a full member of the UN.