To mark the 35th anniversary of the GCSPs flagship course – founded as SIPOLEX, later the International Training Course in Security Policy (ITC), and now the Leadership in International Security Course (LISC) - we spoke with Ambassador Theodor Winkler, the GCSP’s first Director, whose role was crucial in founding the course. Ambassador Winkler shared his insights on the origins of the course, in the wake of the 1985 Geneva Summit, its role in contributing to Swiss Foreign policy, as well as expectations for the upcoming summit between Presidents Biden and Putin.
Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy weekly podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow in the Global Fellowship Initiative. For the next few weeks, I'm talking with subject matter experts to discuss issues of peace, security and international cooperation. Thanks for tuning in. This week, we have a special guest on the podcast Colonel Christian Bühlmann, Head of Diplomatic Dialogue at the GCSP is interviewing Ambassador Theodor "Teddy" Winkler. Ambassador Dr. Theodor Winkler [friendly known as Teddy among the GCSP and ITC community] is a distinguished Swiss public servant. He studied at the University of Geneva and at the Graduate Institute, from which he ultimately received his PhD in International Security Studies in 1981, after having been a research fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs and at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He then entered government service in Switzerland’s Federal Military Department, known today as DDPS. He held essential positions such as Head of Studies for the General Staff’s Strategic Intelligence Service from 1981 to 1991, and represented the Chief of the General Staff for Politico-Military Affairs from 1985 to 1995. Having been the architect of the ITC as he will explain to us, we was then the first director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy in 1995-1996, before heading the DDPS’s International Security Policy in its General Secretariat. He then chaired Switzerland’s Partnership for Peace interdepartmental office and reflection group. From 2000 to 2016 with the rank of Ambassador, he was director of the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, GCSP’s close neighbor in the Maison de la Paix. Ambassador Winkler is a prolific author, of several hundred articles published by scholarly journals, DCAF, and in the daily press in Switzerland and in the UK. Among his books, feature his memoirs published in German language by LIT-Verlag, titled in English “The Box was Happy that I was Thinking Outside of It”, which appeared in 2017. He has continued this work reflecting on Globalization and the Unruly World in subsequent books in 2018 and 2019, and his forthcoming book, “On Change: the Forces that Transform our World” will be published by LIT Verlag in July 2021.”
Col Christian Bühlmann: The GCSP’s flagship course, the Leadership in International Security Course (LISC) recently completed its 35th edition. It has quite an interesting history, emerging in the wake of the Geneva Summit in 1985, as the Swiss government realized the pressing need for security policy expertise. On the eve of the 2021 summit between Presidents Biden and Putin, we reflect in this podcast on the origins of the LISC with Ambassador Teddy Winkler, who was commissioned to prepare the study on Swiss expertise that led to the founding of the course, then called SIPOLEX, in 1986. Ambassador Winkler, could you take us through Swiss thinking on why such a course was needed? And how did it come about?
Ambassador Theodor Winkler: One must remember the times - the early eighties, where this thinking took place, was the peak of the Cold War. It was after Afghanistan, the Olympic games had been boycotted, it was in the midst of the euro-missile debate, there were the SS-20 and the Pershing II. Switzerland was pursuing, at that time, a policy of dissuasion. We, therefore, had a strong army. As incredible as it sounds today, but we had an Order of Battle of 625,000 men. That’s 12 divisions, plus 14 independent brigades. We had 1000 main battle tanks. We had 500 fighter aircraft. We had thousands of terrain fortifications. This was reflected in the name of the Ministry: it was not called the Ministry of Defence, but the Military Department. That was expressing that it was the military who had very much to say. I felt at the time that we would need to move towards a different type of policy. While military assets were certainly necessary at the time, I felt we needed to move towards a modern security policy. Policy stopped, in the old days, at the border. Whereas security policy starts at the border: it goes and tries to find out where the problems are and tries to help to solve problems - before they came to us, because problems increasingly had legs. In this context, I realised - and wrote the study – that we had very few security policy experts in Switzerland: 15 (I counted them) in universities and in government. Altogether 15! I mean, we couldn't actually move anywhere with such low numbers. The arms control section, which was integrated at the time in the Operations Division - expressing the desire of Switzerland to destroy enemy tanks, if possible, on the battlefield, and if necessary at the negotiating table. It was a very peculiar thinking. I was, at the time, Head of the Office of Studies at Swiss Strategic Intelligence and was a member of the Situation Conference of the Federal Council, a monthly meeting, where the international situation was discussed, and was attended regularly by three to four federal councillors: the Chief of General Staff, the State Secretary, the Foreign Minister – all the top civil servants. So, I was with access and I was known. The study was echoed by a call from the Swiss chief of the General Staff to see him in his office. He explained to me that he wanted to create five or six additional jobs for security policy experts.
So I was asked to make a proposal how one could get these half dozen experts. I immediately turned to the Graduate Institute, to Curt Gasteyer in particular, as it was one of the institutions that trained Swiss diplomats. So, it was logical that I address myself to them. And I got a positive echo: we got together a training course for the duration of one academic year. That would be the first year of the SIPOLEX experience. There would be a second year where I would accompany them, or they would travel to New York to see the UN, to Washington to speak with the Americans, to Moscow to speak with Russians, to Brussels to speak with NATO and the European Union, and to London where, at that time, the West European Union still had its headquarters before it moved to Brussels. With this, I proposed that we do the course ourselves because - I told the Chief of the General Staff right at the beginning - that five to six is not enough. He would have an advantage to have a course at his disposal, a training institution flexible and at his disposal that permitted to train as many as he needed. And we should do that together with the Foreign Ministry. We could even add a few students offered scholarships to broaden the academic part of it. That was accepted. The necessary funding was, by the Chief of the General Staff, requested from the Defence Minister of the Federal Council. It was an immediate need for officers, with the end of the Cold War and eras of negotiating. But it was at the same time a political decision pointing in the direction of matters of security policy and in a direction of transforming the Military Department into the Ministry of Defence. The Minister had a grand total of three employees working directly for him: one personal assistant for his party, one for the Federal Council affairs, and the Secretary. He had no asset, no advisor, no own capability: all belonged to the Chief of the General Staff. And with the SIPOLEX course, as this project became known, things were about to change. The course transformed our policy.
Col Christian Bühlmann: This leads me to my second question. How did it contribute to Swiss policy priorities? And what factors led to opening up the course to an international audience as of 1989?
Ambassador Theodor Winkler: The SIPOLEX course had a major influence on Swiss thinking. First, it was a success. That is something which one should not underrate too easily. It had its prestige and people knew it. There would be over one hundred guest speakers. To paraphrase Churchill: “never before in history have so few been trained by so many”. The Swiss Foreign Ministry and Military knew the course. And these were the days, still in the Cold War, at the end of the Cold War, where the Marshall Center didn't exist. It was the only one in town in the sense that the military and civilians were trained together and served on an international basis. Therefore, already after the first course, we were inundated by requests from neighbours and friendly nations if they could send participants. And we decided to open it up also for the neutrals and the neighbours, but we did it once and then the decision came to open it to whoever was interested in the transatlantic community. And we had with the second year, a tool in our hand, which again was completely new. Nobody from Switzerland had visited NATO: it was a military alliance and we kept neutral. There had been no diplomatic contact, no Ambassador, no liaison officer, nothing at all. It was only me who travelled regularly to NATO and to the European Union because I was, at the time, a relatively good expert on the Soviet Union. I was invited by both the European Union and by NATO as a specialist in seminars they conducted on this matter. I wrote also at the IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies) for 10 years, the chapter on the Soviet Union.
But these informal contacts were not what we needed. So SIPOLEX travel group: the Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry people who visited the various capitals and institutions were a novel and a very welcome one. First, they were well trained and made a good impression, and we multiplied the number of contacts we had. All what happened later was having its roots in these early days, in the sense that it became, in the end, natural to have an Ambassador to NATO. It became possible that the Defence Minister visited the Soviet Union. It changed the way we looked at the institution. We started to get to know them. Switzerland, also, to its surprise, created something that was in international demand. That was new. And also slightly surprising, because we were behind, and here we had something with tools that others were looking for.
Christian Bühlmann: The course set the roots for the GCSP itself, which was created in 1995. Was this part of the initial plan?
I was invited to be the head of the project. And I never need two invitations to create something! I had the possibility to create a whole bunch of additional structural elements. I told the Chief of the General Staff he could have as many security policy experts as he wanted, we would still never cover this entire field. Therefore, we need to contract a research capability, which we did jointly with the Foreign Ministry. There was also the recognition that the Swiss universities were not looking at security policy. There was a man called Curt Gasteyer in Geneva. Brilliant, open minded, international. And Frey in Zurich, a political scientist, academic. Brilliant in his own way too. And the two didn’t speak with one another, essentially. And this laid the cornerstones for transformation: to move from a policy of dissuasion to the modern security policy. It led to the necessary groundwork for ministerial reform: the creation of a genuine defence ministry. It led to the creation of the GCSP. Because in my initial study with the Chief of the General Staff, I had mentioned that we would need additional things, perhaps 10 years down the road, we would need an institute. That was right at the beginning of my thinking. So, I still was Head of Studies in Strategic Intelligence, but I was named Head of Politico-Military Affairs for the Chief of the General Staff, and I was an informal advisor to the Defence Minister. I was acting at three levels and this permitted me to create many things which proved to be useful.
Col Christian Bühlmann: Thank you. Indeed. And the course has also proven useful, as it’s still going strong in its 35th edition! Why do you think that is? And how can education concretely impact on policy?
Ambassador Theodor Winkler: Well, let me say that the course, the SIPOLEX course, came at a time when it couldn't have been more convenient for the international community. I have written an article in 1980, ‘The Tottering Empire’, in which I predicted the Soviet Union would disintegrate and that Eastern Europe would have to be sacrificed for financial reasons or suppressed by more military means. There was simply not enough money, not enough resources to pay for the Empire. It gave Gorbachev time to introduce Perestroika and Glasnost, the re-organisation of political affairs and détente with the West, which led to, in 1989, the collapse of the wall, which nobody expected. It just happened. And the newly independent former Warsaw Pact countries were looking eagerly towards Western Europe and towards NATO to have a future not on the wrong side of the iron curtain. So, Europe was growing together again. But there was no place people could go except Geneva. The Marshall Centre was created only a few years later as a result of the experience the Americans witnessed. But we were immediately available. So the first participant outside the neutral countries was, not surprisingly, a Foreign Ministry man from the Baltics. They had not been encouraged to have their own thinking in the field of security policy. They were eagerly interested to gain insights and expertise. And the same was the case with others, such as the Hungarians. We had, in Geneva, those who would rebuild Eastern Europe. And we had NATO people coming in to meet with them. We had a truly international training. With, by then, some 200 guest speakers. This was still a very good course, with no equivalent. It was also an opportunity to meet future colleagues from the East. Thus, in Geneva, at the SIPOLEX course, Europe grew together. And this has been the GCSP’s great merit, that it has always been able to train people that would have to work together. The East Europeans and NATO people in the early courses is only one example. There are also members of international organisations and NGOs, industry, who today need to be brought together in different ways.
We have this course which is over 35 years old, which has been at the cutting edge of training. There were some incidents that are perhaps worth relating. We had a researchable program we created. And with the SIPOLEX trip to Moscow, we met many people from the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry, General Staff and so on. The Head of the START negotiation team from Russia joined later the GCSP as faculty. We hired him. And there was a young man who was working for Yeltsin. And we had a program to distribute computers with modems to Eastern Europe. The internet had, at that time, 37,000 subscribers - hardly existing. But when the conservative forces, the KGB, launched a coup against Gorbachev, arrested him and put him in an exile villa outside Moscow, the KGB cut all the old phone lines to the outside world of Yeltsin, but not the modern ones. They hadn't realised that somebody was on the internet. So, Yeltsin used the internet to speak with Wörner (NATO SG), and to agree with CNN at what time he would leave his building, climb the tank, and declare his opposition to the putsch, a gesture that toppled the coup. And that all came as a biproduct of our visits to Moscow with the Swiss SIPOLEX participants. I received a visit, by the way, from a delegation from the Russian Duma, who expressed the Russian thanks and gave me a soup plate as a gift, as a sign of recognition, which I still have. So, this was a course that, in many respects, was extremely useful and produced results.
And it produced something which is the backbone of every attempt to deal with security policy. It created networks. We invited everybody to a skiing weekend in Zermatt. And one Sunday, proposed that we create an alumni network. Needless to say that practically everybody had come to Zermatt. And they hadn't anything against an alumni network! And today this is obviously much stronger. We fitted all in a restaurant at the time. But since then, the various networks GCSP has been building and maintaining and supporting cannot be overestimated in their importance and relevance.
Col Christian Bühlmann: It is fascinating to hear this story. I was aware of the modem, because I read it in in a computer journal at that time, but I was not aware that it was the SIPOLEX course. That's really fascinating. In looking at the extremely challenging security environment of today, what are the major trends we should be aware of, in your opinion? And what sort of role do you see for courses such as the LISC, and indeed institutions such as the GCSP, within this environment?
Ambassador Theodor Winkler: Well, the Graduate Institute was created in 1927 as a contribution of Switzerland to the League of Nations, as a training institution and a think tank – to produce knowledge, and experts that the international community would need to have after the Great War. If you look at the international situation today, we have eight, I believe, areas, clusters of problems. We have, first, climate change. We have, secondly, biosecurity – be it pandemics, be it antibiotics (bacteria, that are multi-resistant), be it the scarcity of pharmaceutics that are produced in Asia. There can also be problems if the supply lines are interrupted (like a rundown of supplies in pharmacies). We have thirdly demography and migration: there will be 3.7 billion additional people by 2100, and 3 billion of them will be Africans. So, Africa will grow from 1.3 billion to 4.4 billion and the continent cannot feed, clothe, and supply such a multitude. We have, fourth, cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing. We are in a world that is not only in rapid change - and I believe that it’s essentially the cyber that is responsible for speed in the phenomenon we see everywhere. But the move to artificial intelligence will be again as important as the move was from analogous to digital systems. And quantum computing is probably the key technology of the 21st century. Fifth, we have a financial situation: we are running debts that mortgage the future of our children. We see the tremendous amount of money that the pandemic has caused us to spend. But that this is a mortgage on our children is not true. It's not our children. It's our own future. It’s much more shorter-term. We have both the European Union that with Eurobonds, makes the wealthy support the poor members of the Union, and we have Biden's willingness to put $6 trillion into the American economy in three programs to be 2 trillion each. Even if not all of that money is accepted by Congress, this will be an influx of funding, which is going to render the difficulties of the financial system even more pronounced. Then we have liberal democracies under fire. We had, in the US, Trump who is accused of trying a coup on sixth of January. We have seen illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe. We have Xi Jinping who is convinced that liberal democracy has found its end. And the Chinese model built on the interests of the collective, will replace it. And we have, obviously, Islamic fundamentalism, it is also directed against liberal democracy.
We have, furthermore, the transition to a more multi polar world. China will overtake the United States as the largest economy (not as strong a military power). Russia, somebody who has 6,500 nuclear warheads, cannot be ignored. But in real life, Russia is in a different league. It has only twice the GDP of Switzerland, and only 8% of the GDP of the United States. There is Turkey that looks to rebuild an Ottoman Empire. There is Iran, Saudi Arabia, there is North Korea. Actors that render the world to be multipolar. And there is the crisis of multilateralism. The UN has been weakened by Trump - though there is an urgent need to solve the problems that I mentioned. These are all problems that need joint action. No country can work on it on its own. There is also the issue that some problems need solutions that are unacceptable for other problems. Climate change would argue for no growth policy, but you cannot have 3.7 billion people coming to join us at the end of century and say sorry, guys, we have no food for you. There will be a clear dependence on replacing capital, which has been seen in the last decade as the key production factor (with shareholder value and all that nonsense) by the concept of stakeholder value. We will need to have technology become the driving force of reducing our footprint that we leave on planet Earth. Thus, technology is the key. And it is now not sectorial solutions that we need, but integrated change management in a way that the sectorial approaches merge into an overall strategy that is without internal contradictions, credible and explainable to the people, is what we need. And that is the exact purpose for the Maison de la Paix. I see the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and in Lausanne as most useful institutions. But I see the Maison de la Paix as a privileged position, with the GCSP, the Geneva centres in general, as a privileged base where we should train and analyse the world we are living in, train people to cope with it, and be validated at the cutting edge of change and knowledge. I'm very optimistic about the future of the GCSP and of the course.
Col Christian Bühlmann: Thank you very much. And if you allow me to ask the last question: As mentioned earlier, in 1985 the Geneva summit with Reagan-Gorbachev led to the founding of the course. And now, 36 years later, we have a new summit with Presidents Biden and Putin about to take place in Geneva. What significance do you see in these summits?
Ambassador Theodor Winkler: 1985 was a major threshold. Gorbachev had opted for giving up glacis and was looking for permanent détente with the West so that he could get his house in order. Putin is far from looking for détente. He has demonstrated the nuisance value he has. And there are so many topics and little time. So I wouldn't expect too much of a result. Let me make two points, however. The very fact that this takes place is a step forward. It is a step from antagonism towards renewal of dialogue that will in itself be an improving situation. But it will also be a step in the direction we need to go. The problems I mentioned in the last question are not going away. There’s a need for international cooperation. Nobody can change the climate on its own. I feel that Switzerland should use the GCSP to not only be a neutral host, but also offering avenues for follow-ups that can be useful. I have three concrete points which I feel we could make. First is that we should suggest that we explore the possibility of an agreement, a political binding agreement or a dialogue - however you want to phrase it - on the transition to artificial intelligence. There needs to be ground rules for this field. We cannot leave simply the decision-making process to the computers: they may decide to start a war, they don't know what is legal… This is a priority of the first order. Ambassador Greminger, the new director of the GCSP, is a man who has great experience in track 1,1.5, 2.0. That is food for thought. Secondly, it should offer simulation games of pandemics. I suggested already a few years ago that we do a Friedensspiel as opposed to a Kriegspiel. I believe that Geneva should select cutting edge problems and simulate them with the real decision makers. And third, I feel that we should think about scenarios that are a combination of problems: scenarios in which we have a pandemic used as a weapon used by a country or an organisation, and we have some vulnerability of our health sector to hacking. We should look how to link to what is going on with the terrorist threat, be it state terrorism, be it criminal terrorism. And again, there should be room for joint thinking of all the main players. The GCSP would be an ideal place to host such things.
Col Christian Bühlmann: Very good. Thank you very much Ambassador Winkler for this very interesting and thought-provoking interview.
Ambassador Theodor Winkler: It was my pleasure.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, listeners, that is all we'll have time for this week. Thank you very much to Colonel Christian Bühlmann and to Ambassador Theodor Winkler for this discussion. Please join us again next week to hear more about issues of peace, security and international cooperation. You can follow us on Anchor FM and on Apple iTunes and subscribe to us on Spotify and on SoundCloud. I'm Dr Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. And until next week, bye for now.
Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this digital product are the speakers’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, its Foundation Council members or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the digital products. Small editing differences occur between the audio and written transcript as well.