Bern, 13.11.2018 - Keynote address by Walter Thurnherr at the Young Leaders Conference, November 13, 2018
Dear Young Leaders (and not so young leaders…)
One of the best known American philosophers in Switzerland, Groucho Marx, once launched into a speech with the words: “Before I speak I have something important to say”… Well, I’ll just skip the first part and launch into my own speech…
Because this evening I have just one message for you, a single, simple idea. It is an idea which makes our country very easy to understand. And it also makes Switzerland very special. Switzerland is not “a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma”. That’s what Churchill said about Russia in 1939, and even Russia is slightly less mysterious nowadays. In many respects, Switzerland isn’t that special either: There are deep blue lakes in a lot of countries, and steep mountains too. Excellent universities, competitive businesses, even decent chocolate can be found elsewhere in Europe – although the really good stuff, of course, can only be found here.
What makes Switzerland special is how we deal with political power. We are world champions in fragmenting power. In restraining and keeping a check on power. Yes, the summits of our mountains are high, but power is spread as thinly as honey on a slice of bread. There’s a bit everywhere, right up to the edges. But not too much in any one place.
We have never had a king, a Führer or a General Secretary at the top. We do have a president, but we replace them so frequently that many Swiss don’t even know who the current one is. Not only does Switzerland have checks and balances, as you do in the US, but wherever the law defines who has the right to decide, we also establish who that person has to consult first: The political parties, the cantons, businesses or trade unions – or all of them jointly. The Swiss political system is just one perpetual consultation process.
Amendments to laws proposed by the government are put through this process at least 80 times a year – and that’s just at federal level. Sometimes we get so carried away with consulting each other that we even forget to take a decision. And after each consultation a final report needs to be written, and the findings published. And after all that, we even consult the public. 622 popular votes have been held at federal level alone over the past 150 years. I believe we are the only country in the world to have held a referendum on the salary of its ambassador in Washington. Yes, in May 1884 voters were asked whether our ambassador to the US should be paid 10,000 francs a year. They resoundingly opposed the idea, by 61.5%. I think the current incumbent probably earns a bit more than that now though. It might even be as much as 12,000 a year…
We spread power nice and evenly over the bread because we think it’s a bad idea for someone to take too big a bite, or enjoy it for too long. We establish rules to limit power instead of hoping that a genius with unlimited power will save the country in some way. So that’s why it’s not the president who has the most power. Or the government, or parliament. In Switzerland, those who have the most power are those who exercise their political rights. They might launch an initiative to change the constitution. They might collect signatures to stop a law from coming into force. Or they might stand up and make themselves heard, give a speech, write letters, or start a political movement.
We are past masters at dividing up power and sharing it out, because we are a country composed of very diverse parts. Switzerland is less than a tenth the size of California, and even if you were to iron it flat, as Mark Twain suggested, and make it “a mighty big place”, it would still be smaller than South Carolina. But we have many different regions in this small area, and we have four national languages. We have remote mountain regions and modern cities. We have Catholics and Protestants, who spent several hundred years fighting each other. You probably know that Switzerland was not always a rich and united country. Quite the opposite: we probably spend so much time consulting each other today because in the past we almost tore each other apart. And if we hadn’t decided to go in for power-sharing, we might well have disintegrated altogether.
Ladies and gentlemen, history teaches us that it is a good idea to restrict power at international level, too, by establishing rules, treaties and agreements. And that these should be respected, by everyone. There are those who claim the right of the strongest simply because they believe that they are right and others are wrong – such people may even get their own way. But their success leaves a bitter aftertaste in everyone else’s mouths. And success that tastes like that is usually short-lived.
Of course, you are all aware after the weekend’s commemorations that the First World War came to an end 100 years ago. Why did it start in the first place? Because all sides were convinced they were right. And because there were no rules about how to resolve conflicts. And even though a lot of responsible politicians at the time had no wish for war, suddenly it seemed inevitable. You also know what the outcome was: every day, for four long years, an average of 6,000 young soldiers died each day. At the end of the war, France had lost a quarter of its young men aged between the ages of 18 and 30. In Germany, the figure was over 30%. 40,000 km of trenches. Over 5,000 gas attacks. Several million civilian casualties. It was a war with losers on all sides, throughout Europe. No wonder it was said at the peace talks in Paris that nothing like it should ever be allowed to happen again. Borders must be redrawn. The right of self-determination should be introduced.
You all know this. But here’s a little-known fact: at that time, a 29-year-old Vietnamese man named Ho Chi Minh was working as a kitchen hand in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. He sent a petition to the victorious powers: seeing as self-determination was being granted to others, how about granting his small country independence from France? France paid no attention. But fifty years on, another war broke out, this time in Asia, a war in which more bombs were dropped than in the first and second world wars combined.
Wars don’t spring up out of nowhere. There is always a build-up. And they often come about because people forget how closely power is linked to responsibility. And how much easier things are when everyone feels responsible. And how much more peaceful things are when we set rules about how what responsibility and power should entail.
In this small country here, we have learned over the centuries that it can be a good idea, in life as in politics, to collect things, set aside reserves, create wealth. But it is different with power. Power needs to be spread out. Everyone should have a share in it. Because nothing is surer to generate frustration, militancy and hostility than a feeling of impotence.
We don’t know these things instinctively – we have to learn them. Either by bitter experience, or, as you are doing, by travelling. By reading. By talking. At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned Winston Churchill and something he said about Russia. On another occasion, at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation luncheon in 1953, Churchill said something far more important to a young American student. Churchill advised him: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft”. Here in Switzerland we are a little less direct with our advice. We say: “If a book and a head are knocked together and there’s a hollow sound, it’s not necessarily because of the book.” So read!
Anyway, I welcome you most warmly to Switzerland. Enjoy our country. Talk to the people. Then buy a book on the history of this continent; and you’ll learn everything you need to know for your future political lives.
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