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Hail, Switzerland!

December 13, 2001

Whenever I hear someone brag that America is “the greatest country on earth,” I want to ask, “Have you ever been to Switzerland?”

Well, I have. I spent a whole week there once. Very dull. No war, no international crisis, no crime, none of the things that give life its savor for red-blooded people like us. Nobody even knew who the president of the country was. The Swiss have never even had a great president. Their national hero is still that guy with the crossbow. Their national pastime is yodeling.

I don’t intend the blasphemous suggestion that Switzerland is the Greatest Country on Earth, but it has a fair claim to be the sanest. It has had less history over the last thousand years than most African countries have had in the last generation. You know the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” The Swiss have no memory of interesting times. They have a proud history of not making history.

Switzerland sat out two world wars, for which it is resented by the sort of people who think war is a duty. The Swiss seem to feel that the rest of the world can enjoy mutual slaughter perfectly well without them. They have never joined the United Nations, NATO, or the European Union. They are content to hunker down within their sheltering Alps, while Americans will cross two oceans, simultaneously if necessary, to get into a good war. Nor do they have troops, battleships, submarines, and military bases around the world. And no nukes.

In short, the Swiss are what all right-thinking people have learned to call “isolationists.” They have stubbornly maintained their independence. As a result, an awful lot of Swiss didn’t die violent deaths in the twentieth century.

[Breaker quote: A proud history 
of not making historyOh, by the way, the Swiss aren’t afflicted by terrorism. Osama bin Laden has probably never heard of Switzerland, unless he stashes his money there. It may not be the Greatest Country on Earth, but nobody calls it the Great Satan, either.

Not that the Swiss aren’t ready to defend themselves. The men are required by law to serve in the militia and to keep firearms in their homes. But when they say “defense,” they mean defense — not empire, not New World Order, not “global leadership.”

They have a federal system of government, and in Switzerland federal still, oddly enough, means decentralized. Each canton treasures its independence. The national president has little power, little opportunity to achieve “greatness.” The Swiss franc is one of the world’s most stable currencies. Swiss banks are the world’s most secure vaults.

Naturally, a country like that, free, peaceful, and prosperous, isn’t going to be left alone. A few years ago there was an outcry against Switzerland as a repository of “Nazi gold,” which turned out to be a scam, an attempt to blackmail the Swiss. They were given a choice between coughing up billions or facing international opprobrium and sanctions. It later transpired that the Nazi gold was mythical, the accusations a cynical smear campaign.

Independence is always hated by centralizers and internationalists. The papacy is hated because the Pope, unlike politicians and journalists, can’t be bought or bullied. Switzerland is hated because it remains aloof from the “international community.” I’d offer other shining examples of resistance to the pressures of internationalism, if I could think of any.

Switzerland has enjoyed the kind of history Americans once hoped for. But while America has been drawn back into the quarrels of the Old World its people had hoped to escape, Switzerland has in effect managed to secede from that world’s strife without leaving the continent. If you want excitement in Switzerland, you just have to roll your own; the state won’t provide it for you. You can sum it up by saying Switzerland is a country that has lost more lives in skiing accidents than in war.

The story of Switzerland is the greatest political success story of the modern world, yet we never hear about it. Why not? Because it puts all other states to shame. Most rulers want to Americanize their countries; but if they really cared about their people’s welfare — lives, liberty, property, and all that — they would try to Swissify. It’s a sign of the times that I am forced to coin this indispensable verb.

Joseph Sobran

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