Saturday, November 27, 2021

ASIS - Chapter 160 Switzerland / Webinar on September 1, 2020

Keynote speech by Dr. Alexandre Vautravers: "Switzerland after COVID-19"

In the preamble, Alexandre Vautravers underlines that he intervenes in a personal capacity and that he does not wish to evoke or speculate on figures or statistics which always remain very evolving even though many people and organizations are still involved today in the heat of the moment.

The current pandemic period does not favor decision making but nevertheless induces all kinds of thoughts, reflections, and dilemmas. So, the answers provided over time have not necessarily been always ideal, but decisions were made in a "best effort" mode without having all the appropriate answers to emerging questions. In this context, fully understanding the lessons of recent / contemporary history is always important and can be very helpful at times but is nevertheless not a sufficient cookbook to solve the problems of tomorrow.

First, two elements (of surprise) are to be underlined in terms of leadership and awareness. Indeed, the decision-making process was relatively fast in the most difficult or dramatic moments and also the awareness of the population was really instrumental in their implementation because it was always very aware of the stakes and of its responsibilities in such an exceptional situation.

A few background elements should be mentioned: Between 2018 and 2019, three important crisis management exercises were performed at the national level. As a result, during the initial pandemic phase, the stakeholders concerned already knew each other and were able to mobilize quickly as well as to organize themselves. On the other hand, the continuous risk assessment did not always prove to be very effective because it lacked a certain capacity for interoperability between all the actors as well as a more structured, more successful and more balanced process in the decision-making between the Confederation and the Cantons.

For many years, the Confederation has relied on a concept of General National Defense in which the armed forces ensure effective and structured control of crisis management. Since the beginning of the 2010s, this responsibility has been delegated to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Population, which can make recommendations but cannot impose anything on the 26 cantons. In particular, if the legal framework and standards are in place, the intentions formulated as early as 2012 have not always been substantially translated into reality. It is now necessary to consider rebuilding a coordination structure to promote better resilience, in particular in the context of the mission of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Population. In the field of the management of stocks and strategic reserves, it is necessary to re-establish a certain number of standards and above all to reassure the population. Indeed, the strategic reserves dismantled in the 1990s have still not been replenished. On the other hand, the concept of strategic technological autonomy, as often mentioned and documented in recent years, has not really been followed by real action.

A MOFF / SWAT analysis of the situation experienced in recent months in the context of a pandemic allows us to highlight a few strengths:

  • Analysis of the situation and the facts: no other of the surrounding countries has mastered the situation so well while guaranteeing a high level of individual freedoms / responsibilities. In addition, the number of cases of contamination remained very much under control.
  • In terms of leadership, figures have emerged decisively demonstrated and there has been a good acceptance of individual acts of responsibility. In particular, the federal level has demonstrated an excellent understanding of the issues, a great capacity for adaptation and a good overall consistency. At all levels, the messages sent by the population were considered and an admirable capacity for collective thinking was observed.
  • Regarding the media community, the latter, also affected by the pandemic situation, initially did not play a very active and critical role and showed a certain lethargy for several weeks by relaying the articles. This situation then evolved into more offensive analyzes.
  • The high resilience of the various economic segments where many small businesses have been able to quickly adapt their “modus operandi”, including those whose activity is governed by tourism and imports.
  • And the remarkable efficiency and rapidity of reaction of the armed forces in the deployment of reserves and adapted health resources as well as in their involvement in support of other cantonal components, in the field or at the borders.

But we must also mention a few weaknesses:

  • While effective leadership figures had emerged, the second step back in force of legal, financial and construction experts clearly led the authorities to withdraw into a more conservative and averse attitude. at risk. As a result, decision-making autonomy has been eroded and most stakeholders have too often no longer taken the risk of courageous decisions.
  • Economic and political pressures have been expressed too often to obtain exceptions to the containment rules, ultimately leading to management by exception (in particular with regard to compliance with the rules of distancing during major political events).
  • The border restrictions were defined based on clear facts and measures but which, when implemented, raised a lot of concerns about their effects on the economy (again characterized by a certain aversion to risks).
  • We have often observed a certain lack of understanding between the Cantons and the Confederation, i.e. against the Swiss liberal principle of unity in diversity. Major guidelines are decreed by the federal level and their implementation is left to the Cantons with the possibility of local adaptations.
  • Economic interdependencies should also be underlined, as evidenced for example by the difficulties currently encountered in relaunching the production of sanitary masks. It would be advisable to anticipate decisions longer in advance and specially to think twice about their possible consequences.
  • Over the weeks a gradual loss of consistency and clarity in terms of doctrine and the rules set.
  • And unfortunately, a few political criticism / attacks against the armed forces despite their exemplary commitment (for example in the context of the case of contaminated masks to be destroyed).


These various findings now lead to several lessons:

  • In terms of the organization put in place by the OFPP, the team rotation strategy has shown its limits and for now on we need a permanent crisis management / coordination structure. In this context, it becomes imperative to clarify the role and responsibilities of the National Security Network.
  • Regarding the risk management process, the many pre-existing analyzes turned out to be very relevant but there was no consistency between the recommended mitigation measures and the allocated budgets.
  • Compared to the expected changes for the world of tomorrow, fewer strict measures are needed because things have changed at the societal, cultural, family, etc. level, in particular with regard to multilateralism and international relations. What is today Switzerland's ability to negotiate with its European partners? Instead, we must now have to contribute.


Responding to a question pertaining to the systemic risks linked to the increasingly exacerbated interdependencies with the neighboring countries of Switzerland, Alexandre Vautravers underlines the responsibility of the Confederation. If we can be confident in the doctrine, we must clarify the role of the National Security Network (RNS) which assumes its mission perfectly but has no real authority over the Cantons as well as that of the OFPP which must now rely on permanent teams.

Asked about the disparity observed in the Cantons' crisis management and communication capacity, the speaker stressed that there are too many organizational disparities between the Cantons. In this context, the principle of subsidiarity must be re-assessed and shown to be more flexible in its activation and in the resources allocated.


Synthesis written by Jean-Pierre Therre and Etienne Ammon based on their respective notes. Proofreading provided by the ASIS-160 Chapter Board members.

Additional resources : 

- Link to the audio recording ( due to a technical issue, the recording has stopped at 36 min and thus we are not able to share with you the end of the presentation and the Q&A session)

- Link to the synthesis in French (pdf)