Can Think Tanks Remake Switzerland's Famously 'Neutral' Foreign Policy?

Swiss policy of neutrality has always made foreign affairs everyone’s business. Which is exactly why think tanks can play such a key role in refining the policy, says Former Secretary of State Franz Blankart.

Can Think Tanks Remake Switzerland's Famously 'Neutral' Foreign Policy?
François Nordmann

Our version of direct democracy does not allow the government to pass foreign policy laws without the consent of the people. The Constitution stipulates that before Switzerland signs any international treaty, the matter must be put to a vote, through either an optional or compulsory referendum. Some concepts, including neutrality and development cooperation, strike a chord in public opinion, and the government cannot ignore that.

The government is responsible for defining and running foreign policy, in other words setting up the objectives and choosing the means to achieve them within the legal framework – which is quite ample in reality – established by the Swiss Constitution. The government is also accountable to Parliament.

Its pragmatism and good sense of balance make Swiss diplomacy stand out. Our foreign relations tend to operate on a series of logical and coherent principles. The country maintains multilateral diplomatic relations – it became a full member of the United Nations in 2002 for instance – but also bilateral relations, first and foremost with its neighboring countries and the European Union.

Parliament can exercise influence and control over foreign policy. It is also consulted through various parliamentary committees and it can participate in the budget process. In addition, let's not forget that the Swiss media and some university institutes are there too.

Finally, there are the study groups, aficionado clubs and think tanks – organizations that are in the business of carrying out specific studies, theorizing on scenarios and suggesting new ideas. The question, though, is that with the government, Parliament, media and universities already jockeying for influence over foreign policy, is there really any room for think tanks and other policy groups to contribute?

Former Secretary of State Franz Blankart faced just that question when asked recently to assess Foreign Policy Forum, a think tank established in 2009. Also known as "Foraus," the think tank brings together young academics carrying out research into different fields, including law, economics and public policy. Divided into regional groups, the academics are tasked with carrying out apolitical, objective discussions on 10 different themes related to foreign policy or national security.

Blankart believes that such independent, clear and original ideas have much to contribute to Switzerland's foreign policy choices. The former secretary of state also places a tremendous amount of faith in young people, who he believes should choose what kind of foreign policy they want, and then do everything in their power to make those ideas reach the ears of society's most influential members: top-ranking civil servants, council members' special advisers, members of Parliament and journalists.

Today, there are about 5,000 think tanks worldwide. About 30% of them are in the United States, 1,200 in Europe and several hundred in China. And they come in all different shapes and sizes. Some think tanks are affiliated with universities or specific political parties. Others champion specific political causes, or focus on specific fields of government activity, such as defense.

The organizations stand out because they are interested in public politics and because they offer scientifically, well-founded and unique analyses that lead to operational conclusions. Think tanks are supposed to share their knowledge both with government officials and the public at large. Therefore, they need to know how to communicate and intervene immediately without bias, but with conviction and accuracy.

Avenir Suisse ("Swiss Future") is one of the oldest operating think tanks in Switzerland. Financed by big industry, it has a permanent staff, produces regular publications and hosts seminars. It focuses on economic, social and energy issues as they relate to both Swiss and European policy making.

Foraus focuses on what's known as "open and constructive foreign policy." Since 2009, it has published studies about climate change – to coincide with the Copenhagen Summit, about Switzerland's collaboration with the European Union in terms of security, and about initiatives to maintain world peace. Foraus has also examined the issue of Swiss neutrality, the European Convention on Human Rights and the concept of national sovereignty.

As French philosopher Auguste Compte once said, "ideas govern the world."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Atiim Jones Photography

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