Globalists vs Tribalists: The false debate over ‘Switzerland First’

Parliamentarians have been battling over the question of whether national law or international law should have primacy in Swiss affairs. Can the recognition that we now live in a globalized world be reconciled with tribal, patriotic emotions?

This content was published on June 11, 2018 minutes

“Who should have the last word concerning laws within our country? Swiss citizens and the cantons or international organizations and foreign judges?” asked Roger Köppel of the conservative right People’s Party during a recent heated debate in the Swiss parliament.

“One puts the law of the European Union above our constitution!” exclaimed a scandalized Hans-Ueli Vogt of the same party.

“Why so much hatred?” responded a left-wing politician. 

“Five thousand commercial treaties were not submitted to the people for votes,” added a colleague. He argued that a People’s Party initiative seeking to establish the priority of national law over international law would cause enormous insecurity and call into question Swiss trustworthiness.

The issue was not decided that day in parliament. As with most divisive national questions, it will probably be decided by Swiss citizens and the cantons next autumn.

Daniel Warner is a Swiss-American political scientist and former Deputy to the Director, Graduate Institute, Geneva. Courtesy

The question of whether national law or international law has primacy is not just a Swiss dilemma. Nor is the question of submitting the issue to the people of major importance. No, the core of the debate is whether the recognition that today we live in a globalized world can be reconciled with tribal, patriotic emotions.

Interconnectedness and national identity

Are you a globalist or a tribalist? You can’t be both, according to last week’s Swiss debate. In United States President Donald Trump’s inner circle, for example, being called a globalist is a strong insult. The US, after all, considers its constitution and federal laws to be above international law, a rather bizarre position considering the important if not dominant position of the country in world affairs.

That Switzerland’s economy is intimately woven into foreign trade is not significant for those who fear foreign interference by non-Swiss judges. The fact that Geneva is considered the Rome of multilateralism has little traction with those who wish to preserve a national identity in spite of a cosmopolitan population.

An emotional response

In the 21st century, new walls are being built to protect sovereign territory while at the same time technology has allowed us to live in a borderless world. I have to show no passport to connect with friends and colleagues around the world.

This technological openness has caused an emotional backlash around the world. Whether against southern migrants moving north or eastern countries fearful of western interference, emotional reactions are defending national interests against growing internationalism.

There are many examples of this emotional reaction. “The West has always tried to impose itself on Russia,” said a prominent academician at a recent meeting in Moscow. “Your imperialism continues, this time with the expansion of NATO and the European Union. But like with Napoleon and Hitler, this will fail.”

My friend certainly had a point. During my first visit to Moscow years ago, I had been taken to a museum that showed the historic battles that defended Moscow against invasion during the Second World War. During a different visit to Volgograd, I had been shown a panorama depicting historic resistance to invasion. Russian patriotism was and is crucial to national identity. The pride in being Russian, severely threatened by the end of the Soviet Union, is an important part of Vladimir Putin’s success, as is Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America great again” in the face of rising Chinese economic power.

Prioritising Swiss identity

In spite of growing interconnectedness due to technological advances and in spite of increased trade and travel, the desire to belong to some tribe has marked the beginning of the 21st century. Populism is a manifestation of the desire for tribal membership since national identities have been destabilised by globalisation.

To be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of no place in particular. The Swiss debate is a clear example of renewed efforts to prioritise Swiss identity. Votes against “mass migration” and closer ties to the EU are other obvious examples.

Can one be a globalist and a tribalist at the same time? As with all binary choices, is there no middle ground? Today, binary mathematics, with its excluded middle, is being challenged by quantum physics. There are people with multiple passports who feel affinity towards more than one national identity, just as there are people who can sing more than one national anthem. (It may be difficult to choose sides if the two countries play each other in a football match.)

Switzerland has signed many multilateral treaties. Most Swiss national laws conform to international law. The argument over foreign judges is a false argument because Switzerland is already legally and commercially interconnected with the rest of the world. The emotional appeal of the proposed initiative contradicts objective reality.

The initiative against foreign judges will hopefully be defeated this fall as part of a recognition that a campaign of “Switzerland First” has no place in the 21st century.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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