How the Swiss Opted Out of War

by , February 02, 2012

Switzerland has not been in a foreign war of any kind since 1815. This would be astounding, even miraculous, for any nation. But Switzerland borders Germany. And France. And Italy. And Austria. And Liechtenstein. Now the Vaduz regime has rarely lashed out in blitzkrieg in a desperate bid to reign über alles, but all of Switzerland’s other neighbors have spent their histories invading other countries.

In addition to the encircling foreign marauders, Switzerland itself is composed of four different language groups (German, French, Italian, and Romansh) that get along as well as, well, Germans and French.

The Swiss finalized their no-wars policy of armed neutrality in 1815. Their decentralized citizen army was good enough to keep them out of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, World War I, and other European gang fights. In 1934, they addressed the looming threat of aerial bombing by starting a massive civil-defense effort. They maintained their citizen army and kept out of World War II, even while provoking Hitler by letting Jews hide their assets in secret Swiss bank accounts. Many Jews only escaped the Holocaust because they had their money where Nazi tax authorities couldn’t get it.

Hitler was in fact very provoked by the Swiss. His generals even got as far as giving the invasion of Switzerland the name “Operation Tannenbaum” and drawing lines on maps for it. However, no matter how they drew the lines, they couldn’t overcome the reality that there were no critical central targets for mechanized blitzkrieg to disrupt. Every house in Switzerland was a center of resistance. The Wehrmacht paratroopers couldn’t beat a defense that covered every square centimeter of the country with accurate rifle fire, and they knew it.

At the end of World War II, some Russian refugees took shelter in Liechtenstein. The Soviets demanded they be turned over to the NKVD, and Liechtenstein blocked them (so occasionally the fury of Liechtenstein is unleashed, after all). While the United States and Britain helped the Soviets herd millions of people onto trains to Siberian death camps, the citizens of Liechtenstein (and its ally Switzerland) faced down Stalin.

In 1962, noticing that the Cold War world was not getting any safer, the Swiss started building nuclear shelters. By the early 1990s, the program was complete. Every home, school, and business in Switzerland has a blast shelter in the basement, with a filtered air system. Hospitals have fortified wards, and local governments have underground command centers. Every citizen is trained in civil defense and knows where to find a radiation meter and/or gas mask. If the rest of Europe turns itself to glowing rubble, the Swiss will spend two weeks playing cards underground and then get back to work.

All this defensive infrastructure also limits the destructive potential of terrorist attacks. Dirty bombs are useless against people with shelters and fallout meters. Every citizen has anti–chemical weapon masks and equipment. Even nuclear bombs would only kill people in the immediate blast area; survivors would escape to the shelters. Any attempt to terrorize citizens with Mumbai-style attacks would be met with the assault rifles and rocket launchers of every Swiss household.

How much does all this security cost the Swiss? Not very much. In the 1980s the Swiss spent about $33 per capita annually on civil defense. Since the completion of the shelter program, they spend less; in fact the Swiss federal government now leaves all civil defense spending to the cantons. Estimates put total Swiss military spending at 0.9% of GDP. The US spends 5–6% of our much larger GDP to achieve almost total vulnerability.

The Swiss solution makes Swiss society more resilient against other natural or man-made disasters as well. A reactor meltdown is trivial to a nation that is built to withstand direct nuclear bombardment. Even asteroid strikes or megavolcanoes are less threatening to a nation only steps away from shelter and stockpiles. Whatever the future brings, the Swiss people will face it squarely and deal with it.

The American Way: Permanent War and No Defense

As Jon Huntsman said before dropping out of the primary race, the United States spends about as much as the rest of the world put together on “defense.” Our on-budget military spending is around 45% of world defense expenditure. But then we have a ~$75 billion black budget, a Veterans Administration budget of $132.2 billion, on-budget foreign aid of $53.3 billion, and off-budget Federal Reserve foreign aid in frankly unbelievable amounts. So a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and we end up spending as much as all the rest of the world’s armies and air forces put together.

The United States has military programs to address threats that don’t even exist. We have the F-35 to face the now-defunct Soviet air force, Trident submarines to launch missiles at now-friendly Russian cities, and aircraft carriers to fight no one, as no other country is dumb enough to pile $20 billion onto one fragile, indefensible “missile magnet.”

So we must be pretty safe, right? We must have really good anti-aircraft defenses — oops, no, even civil airliners can just fly right into the Pentagon, even with lots of warning time. But we must have missile defense, after all the money we’ve spent? Not so much. We have around 30 interceptor missiles that protect Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force base — as long as the enemy promises not to use any decoys or electronic countermeasures. U.S. cities are wide open to attack by any nuclear power, including the French.

But the only military threat recognized by mainstream media nowadays is terrorist bombs, delivered by Chevy Suburbans or the UPS man. So the United States must have a really well-developed civil defense system to protect citizens against fallout, nerve gas, or biological agents. All citizens must be well-trained in nuclear, biological, and chemical defense and have their radiation meters, masks, and protective suits in their car trunks.

Maybe in some alternate universe. In the 2012 United States, the only civil defense is whatever people provide for themselves. Our trillion dollars or so of “defense” money is spent mainly on serving as mercenaries to the various warlords that we support around the world. Meanwhile, America herself is the most vulnerable target in history, full of single-point failure modes, glass cities, and panicky “Homeland Security” bureaucrats.

A few guys with box cutters caused us to attack ourselves with “security” measures that cost us many times the expense of the physical damage of the 9/11 attacks. Then we made a follow-up strike on ourselves by launching several wars, which cost another $4 trillion or so. That was our response to losing two buildings.

A serious terrorist attack wouldn’t involve suicide bombings with hijacked airliners. There would be far more dangerous non-suicide bombings using nerve gas, Ebola, flu, or nuclear bombs.  Or bargain-basement terrorists could simply make simultaneous conventional explosive attacks on dams (at flood stage), refineries and chemical plants (during smog-weather inversions), the Internet backbone (anytime), etc.

Americans have to be honest with ourselves. If there were a real attack against the United States, would we bravely handle it with a stiff upper lip and recover? Or would our “Homeland Security” apparatus choke the economy of our country to death in panic, with crazy travel restrictions and nonsensical strip searches of old women and children? I think the answer is clear: the United States would cease to exist in anything resembling a functional state if even one city were seriously attacked.

America Could Be Safer Than Switzerland

Switzerland, of course, is a small, landlocked among other nations with long criminal records, and it has a smaller military budget than any one of its potential attackers. The United States has none of these problems. If we applied the Swiss model, we could ensure that our society, our Constitution, our freedoms, and most of our people would survive even a major attack. And if someone thinks you’re certain to survive and hunt them down, they’re less likely to attack in the first place.

We have technical advantages the Swiss do not. We could expand our missile defense program and help the other powers to do so as well. No decent person wants to see the children of Kiev, Mumbai, or Beijing burn in nuclear fire for some politician’s agenda. A thin defense shield against rogue missiles for every country that wants it should be encouraged.

We could also have a real air defense against bombers or drones tomorrow. All we have to do is fly our F-15s home from Saudi Arabia and use them to guard Washington, D.C., and Peoria instead of Riyadh. Our Patriot missiles could be placed around U.S. cities instead of scattered around the Middle East. (Those who doubt the Patriot missile’s effectiveness should note that it has confirmed kills in 2003 against an RAF Tornado and an F-18 Hornet — by accident, of course, but there’s no doubt they can shoot down planes.)

If our Navy weren’t busy blockading Iran to raise the price of oil, it could add its Aegis cruisers to defend our coastal cities. Our naval forces would still fight piracy and maintain freedom of the seas, but we don’t need Cold War–size forces in expensive Bahrain bases for that. As far as pirates go, all we really have to do is allow the merchantmen to arm themselves.

Of course, if we applied a noninterventionist foreign policy, the number of groups motivated to attack us would be greatly reduced. Right now, we are involved in most of the ethnic and religious conflicts around the world. Far too many political factions would benefit from a distracted and damaged United States. If an attack were anonymous, how would we retaliate? Last time, we “retaliated” against a nation (Iraq) that wasn’t even involved in the attack. They didn’t have WMDs, but what if our next president accidentally lies us into attacking someone who does? Like France?

This brings up another Swiss policy: their president can’t launch wars by executive order. In theory, neither can ours, and we need to start applying that theory (and the rest of the rule of law) in practice again.

The Swiss recipe for peace is simple, but it requires all elements in order to work.

1. Power must be decentralized so that your own politicians cannot aggress against other nations. It’s too obvious to need stating, but you can’t stay out of wars if you keep starting them.

2. Defense must be decentralized as well. The Norwegians also had a militia system in World War II, but the weapons were piled in central armories. The Wehrmacht paratroopers dropped right on the armories and used the Norwegians’ own artillery against them.

3. Defense must be focused on defense and protection of civil society. Adding your troops to every ethnic and religious conflict on earth is not going to make your society safer.

Refusing to Face the Real Threat: Bankruptcy and Monetary Collapse

Our national defense debate is taking place in Media Wonderland, where the United States has infinite resources and there are no costs or consequences for any action. According to Newt, it’s time for us to spend a few trillion on a government-run moon base, while Mitt just wants to spend those trillions on new Mideast wars. These are supposedly the “mainstream” views. The only noninterventionist candidate is summarily ignored.

Back on planet earth, the United States has an on-budget debt that is larger than our GDP, and government accountants don’t count Social Security, Medicare, the prescription-drug benefit, or Federal Reserve bank bailouts. Professor Laurence Kotlikoff, using CBO figures, calculates the real U.S. debt at more than $200 trillion. Our huge “defense” budget is borrowed month by month from foreign powers, hardly a sustainable situation.

If we eliminate corporate welfare and bailouts, get out of our illegal undeclared wars, reduce and redirect military spending to actual defense, and free the U.S. economy to recover, the 21st century could see an American Renaissance. Otherwise, our economy’s fall is inevitable, and all the king’s tanks and all the king’s planes won’t put it together again. An America involved in every conflict, with no resources to support any of them, is the legacy we have given our children.