The Porcupine Principle

Victor Davis Hanson writes:

It is generally known that Americans want it both ways — green giddiness and plenty of oil and gas for their cars and homes; lots of government services and low taxes; a big military but spasms of isolationism.

But it’s perfectly consistent to favor a big military that safeguards America against all foreign threats, and an isolationist foreign policy that makes use of that military might only when the defense of the country requires it. Call it the Swiss model, as explained by John McPhee:

The Swiss have not fought a war for nearly five hundred years, and are determined to know how so as not to.

…Switzerland is two times the size of New Jersey. New Jersey, by far, has the larger population. Nonetheless, there are six hundred and fifty thousand people in the Swiss Army. At any given time, most of them are walking around in street clothes or in blue from the collar down. They are a civilian army, a trained and practiced militia, ever ready to mobilize. They serve for thirty years. All six hundred and fifty thousand are prepared to be present at mobilization points and battle stations in considerably less than forty-eight hours.

…In the First World War, General Ulrich Wille led the Swiss to victory. Victory consisted of successfully avoiding the conflict. As someone put it, “We won by having no war.” In the Second World War, the victorious Swiss general was Henri Guisan, of the Canton de Vaud. There is a General Guisan Quai in Zurich, a Quai General Guisan in Geneva. In every part of Switzerland, there are streets and plazas and equestrian statues—there are busts on plinths overhung with banners and flags—doing honor to the general of an army that did not fight. Switzerland defends itself on what it calls the Porcupine Principle. You roll up into a ball and brandish your quills. In the words of Divisionnaire Tschumy, “The foremost battle is to prevent war with a price of entry that is too high. You must understand that there is no difference between the Swiss people and the Swiss Army. There is no difference in will. Economic, military—it’s the same thing. For seven hundred years, freedom has been the fundamental story of Switzerland, and we are not prepared to give it up now. We want to defend ourselves, which is not the same as fighting abroad. We want peace, but not under someone else’s condition.

I find a lot to admire in that approach. Though I cannot countenance neutrality in the Second World War, it is nevertheless demonstrable that the strategy redounded to the benefit of the Swiss, and the fact that they’ve prospered for 500 years, despite being adjacent to great powers that warred incessantly, suggests that isolationism can work far better than its critics imagine.

Though I’d stop short of advocating the Swiss model for the United States, I nevertheless favor a large army and high defense spending mostly because I want to avoid wars, not because I want the ability to start more of them. I am troubled by Mr. Hanson’s apparent belief that once one possesses a large army, it follows logically that it must be used. Indeed, were his belief sufficiently widespread I’d feel compelled to agitate for a smaller army.