Gideon Rachman has a bracing column in the Financial Times in which he says that Europe has become largely irrelevant in world affairs and that’s not a bad thing. His model is Switzerland, which has prospered for centuries by standing on the sidelines of world affairs. “Europe has become a giant Switzerland,” he writes approvingly.
That’s very nice for Europe (at least for the time being), but there are a few problems with this irresponsible posture (literally irresponsible–i.e., not taking responsibility for global security) which Rachman ignores. Neutral nations may prosper but there’s a price to be paid. During World War II, when it was surrounded by Axis states, Switzerland kept itself from being occupied by two expedients.
First it created a very robust defense of the kind that Europe now lacks. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “it eventually mobilized 850,000 people out of a total population of 4,000,000.” Second, and less to its credit (so to speak), Switzerland agreed to provide financing and all sorts of vital supplies to the Germans. The Swiss central bank even bought gold the Nazis had looted from occupied countries right up until the end of the war. As Britannica notes, “Germany used this money–its only remaining convertible currency–to purchase missing raw materials from abroad.”
If I may use the word of the moment without fear of contradiction from some Swiss Barack Obama, I would say that Switzerland was guilty of appeasing the most heinous regime in history. Of course, it’s hard to judge Switzerland too harshly. It was, after all, a small nation and had to make some repugnant compromises to survive.
But Europe as a whole is considerably larger and theoretically more powerful. Switzerland is a country of 7.5 million people with a GDP of $413 billion. That makes it considerably smaller than California. The European Union, by contrast, has more people (491 million) and a bigger GDP ($16.3 trillion) than the United States. (All statistics are from the CIA World Factbook).
The United States, as the leader of what used to be called the Free World, can afford to have Switzerland sit on the sidelines. It’s far from clear that we can afford to have the EU sit there too. At least not without imposing on us a huge defense burden that we are having difficulty meeting in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where–whether the Europeans like it or not–we are fighting as much to safeguard them as ourselves.
It would not only be nice if Europeans chipped in to bear more of the burden of collective self-defense, it may well become essential. Or else the Europeans may one day wake up and find themselves in the unenviable position of tiny Switzerland, having to make dubious compromises with repugnant regimes. Of course, if you look at European relations with Russia, Iran, Syria, and other states (the latest example being French talks with Hamas), you could argue that that day has already dawned.