A Checklist for the next Foreign Policy Strategy

In recent decades, foreign policy has contributed greatly to the security, prosperity, and independence of Switzerland. In drafting the Swiss Foreign Policy Strategy 2024-2027, policymakers are thus advised to maintain four key strengths of Swiss foreign policy: having clearly defined goals, principles that contribute to attaining the goals, compatibility between the principles, and a certain flexibility in strategy execution.

by Janis Näpflin

The time horizon of the current Swiss Foreign Policy Strategy ends next year. Therefore, the process of drafting the strategy for the years 2024 to 2027 will start soon. Over the past decades, Swiss foreign policy has contributed greatly to the security, prosperity, and independence of the country. Maintaining the following four key strengths of Swiss foreign policy could enable the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) to employ an effective strategy in the future.

1) Goals are clearly defined
A set of clearly defined goals serves as the basis for every strategy as it leads the way for an expedient choice and balancing of principles. Swiss foreign policy has been oriented towards the fundamental goals of external security, economic prosperity, and political independence. Past foreign policy strategies have explicitly listed these three elements as the “principal interests that Swiss foreign policy is intended to safeguard” (FDFA, 2012). More recently, this understanding has been reiterated in the ‘Foreign Policy Vision 2028’. Looking ahead, it appears desirable to maintain a clear set of goals. To achieve this, the Swiss government may want to consider recent debates about the selection of goals (e.g., calls for making environmental sustainability a priority) and the level of governance on which to pursue them (e.g., maximizing security at the European level). Whatever goals are defined, policymakers having a common understanding of them will be critical to attaining the qualities detailed next.

2) Principles contribute to attaining goals
The strategy should define foreign policy principles that have a direct and positive effect on attaining the defined goals. To be able to do so, the strategy must be tailored to both internal capabilities and the external environment. Switzerland’s principles of political neutrality, military autonomy, economic openness, and diplomatic contributions have all contributed to attaining the fundamental foreign policy goals. For instance, political neutrality and the derived tenet of non-affiliation to political organizations have contributed to the goal of political independence both in periods of global segregation (1960-1989) and integration (after 1990). During the Cold War, neutrality justified the non-integration into political institutions, which meant that Switzerland was not bound by UN resolutions, NATO’s collective defense clause, or the ECJ’s adjudications. The restraint in terms of political integration continued after 1990, enabling the country to maintain a relatively high level of independence in deciding on its foreign, security, and economic policy. Policymakers are thus advised to carefully analyze what principles may contribute most to attaining the defined goals.

3) Principles are compatible
A foreign policy strategy is more effective if its principles are complementary and mutually reinforcing. If one principle helps the other to better achieve its goal, the strategy as a whole will perform better in terms of goal attainment. In Swiss foreign policy, an example is the interaction between political neutrality and military autonomy. The former provides a rationale for staying out of security alliances while assuring other countries that Switzerland does not pose a geostrategic threat. This has allowed the Swiss armed forces to maintain strong defensive capabilities and minimize exposure to international conflicts. In turn, military autonomy makes political neutrality credible as it limits military dependencies and makes the country less susceptible to outside pressure. This credibility of neutrality has been translated into a low level of political integration and a high level of political independence compared to other small European states. This illustrates that the compatibility of principles can play an important role in ensuring the overall strategy achieves its goals.

4) Principles leave flexibility
When the set of principles does not provide clear and useful guidance, a certain flexibility in interpreting and applying the principles may help to attain the defined goals. Swiss foreign policy has demonstrated this quality repeatedly in the past decades. For example, the Federal Council adjusted its interpretation of neutrality to prevent becoming isolated. Policymakers had feared after the Cold War that not applying UN sanctions may cost the country access to key export markets such as the EU or the United States. The Swiss government reacted by interpreting neutrality less restrictively henceforth, which allowed the country to adopt UN sanctions. Yet, Switzerland to this day does not apply all EU sanctions. In this way, a form of neutrality has been maintained and economic openness protected. The compromise preserved a certain discretion in which sanctions (not) to apply while also enabling the country to create prosperity through international trade. Allowing for flexibility in strategy execution may thus make the strategy more effective.

In the volatile and complex international environment, an effective foreign policy strategy can play an important role for Switzerland. The FDFA may thus benefit from keeping the four outlined qualities in mind when drafting the new Foreign Policy Strategy 2024-2027.



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