NATO chief visits neutral Switzerland

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Swiss government ministers AFP

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has met with three ministers during a trip to Switzerland to discuss Swiss cooperation with the defence alliance.

This content was published on March 2, 2017

After meeting with Doris Leuthard, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency, Stoltenberg held talks with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter and Defence Minister Guy Parmelin in Bern on Thursday. The trio discussed the European security situation, including the role of Russia, and the issue of cyber security.

Both ministers “called for renewed talks on conventional arms control in Europe as an important confidence-building measure”, the government said in a press releaseExternal link.

Switzerland is not a member of the transatlantic military alliance but it joined the 22-member Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1996 and became a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.

Switzerland says it has made a contribution to peace and security through its Maison de la Paix institutes in Geneva, which is home to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining and the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

Switzerland has also established the Centre for Security Studies of the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) and its army personnel contribute to the Swisscoy contingent to NATO’s KFOR military mission in the Balkans. The government has previously asked parliament to extend Swisscoy’s mandate to 2020.

Credible partner?

Despite these contributions to security, Swiss newspapers question whether Switzerland is a freeloader when it comes to European security and defence.

“Unlike Russia, NATO believes in the principle that every state should decide its own path in a sovereign manner. As a Norwegian, I know a lot about countries that don’t want to join the EU,” Stoltenberg told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) and the Tages-Anzeiger in an interview this week.

“Switzerland is a very close NATO partner,” the former Prime Minister of Norway added.

The NZZ writes of an “à la carte” cooperation, adding that Switzerland is always slightly embarrassed by its relations with the military alliance – “ultimately Bern has been under the NATO umbrella for decades without being a member”.

Security expert Albert A. Stahel doesn’t mince his words. “Switzerland is simply unworthy of NATO following the disarmament of the army heralded in 1995,” he said, referring to reforms made to the Swiss army by the then Defence Minister Adolf Ogi.

“Switzerland more or less represents – along with Austria – a military vacuum in Europe,” he said.

Russia & the US

There was no mention in the Swiss press release of closer cooperation between Switzerland and NATO during Stoltenberg’s visit. The NATO head touched on the 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) that members agreed in 2014 to spend on defence. But he had nothing to say about the 0.8% of Swiss GDP that goes towards the military.

Stoltenberg visited Switzerland at a time of great uncertainty. NATO is going through a rough patch, coming under pressure because of doubts over US commitment. But he denied that US President Donald Trump could jeopardize NATO, knowing that the alliance is good “for Europe, but also for the United States”.

Questioned in Geneva about the challenges posed by Russia, he said ‘we don’t want a war’ with Russia, adding that the alliance should maintain its open dialogue with Moscow and transparency to avoid ‘incidents’. NATO has deployed three groups of multinational forces to the Baltic States and to Poland for preventive purposes and to maintain a ‘credible dissuasion’, he added.

Switzerland and NATO

Participants at the Munich Security Conference last month agreed that the world was experiencing greater uncertainty than it had for a long time. This also has consequences for Switzerland, as Defence Minister Guy Parmelin told Swiss public television, SRF, in Munich.

“Obviously we’re neutral, but we’re located in the middle of Europe. If our continent is destabilised, that has an impact on Switzerland,” he said.

Parmelin announced more military cooperation, in particular with neighbouring states.

Speaking ahead of Stoltenberg’s visit, Parmelin deflected questions about Switzerland’s relatively low defence expenditure during his SRF interview.

“First of all we’ll listen and see what Stoltenberg has to say,” he said. “NATO knows there are limits for neutral Switzerland. Close links to the military alliance are a highly sensitive issue.”

Indeed, the idea of closer cooperation with NATO isn’t particularly popular in Switzerland and would struggle to be approved by voters: the political left is anti-military and the political right stresses the importance of remaining neutral.

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