Switzerland, Ukraine and the Limits of Binary Thinking


Many years ago my then wife and I were told by our friendly local doctor that she was half-pregnant, much to our bewilderment. Ever since the Enlightenment, western thinking has been dominated by binary reasoning: yes or no, 0 and 1, inside and outside, are fundamental paradigms. We are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures”. While binary thinking may be extremely helpful in certain areas – computer programming and establishing borders are prime examples – its obvious clarity may have limitations that can have negative consequences. Recent examples in Switzerland and Ukraine highlight the disadvantages.


The Swiss vote of February 9 is being described in binary terms. Whether dividing the country between Swiss-German and Swiss-French, urban and rural, or just plain xenophobic and immigrant friendly, colored maps wonderfully illustrate those who voted for and those who voted against the referendum. Switzerland is a country of historic consensus with three national languages combining with three distinctive cultures. It is the very ability of the citizenship to accommodate the other that has been the country’s strength, the other being those living within the borders. The vote, of course, raised serious questions about how inclusive the Swiss can be towards external others. Negotiating with the European Union (EU) will be quite challenging for the Swiss government because it must represent very divergent opinions, not to mention that the European Union also has its own internal divisions.

Political polarization has become more and more evident in Switzerland. The Swiss government will have to find areas of agreement domestically as well as with the EU. In a binary world, this is not simple. Switzerland’s particular situation - to be European but not a member of the EU - has become highly controversial. After years of discussions, negotiation fatigue has set in on both sides concerning Switzerland’s special status.

The situation in Ukraine is also being presented in binary terms: Western Ukraine vs. Eastern Ukraine, European friendly vs. Russian friendly, democratic vs. authoritarian, Ukrainian vs. Russian language. The Ukraine is made up of very different regions, linguistically and culturally. When it was part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a certain cohesiveness, much like the cohesiveness in the former Yugoslavia under Tito. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the subsequent eastern expansion of the EU and NATO, and the recent assertiveness of President Putin, that cohesiveness is showing its limitations. Binary pressures are forcing Ukrainians to decide whether they want to be part of the Russian sphere of influence or part of Europe’s orbit. The country is being torn apart by internal and external pressures with no middle ground on the horizon.

The Olympics in Sochi have ended. Tables tell us which countries won the most medals. We have pictures of winners who have become national heroes, and pictures of others crying because they didn’t succeed, the “losers”. All of that is fine in the sports world. Athletes live in a binary world; they win or lose. But are the rest of our lives like that? Yes, there are moments of real decisions like being pregnant or not, dead or alive. But often times, quite often really, we are confronted with decisions that are closer to compromise.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that has navigated outside of the binary for most of its history. The February 9 vote will certainly be negotiated domestically and externally. Swiss neutrality rejects either/or alliances while promoting hybrid relationships. In Ukraine, we can only hope that creative diplomacy will find a consensus solution for the future; rigid, exclusionary organizations like NATO and the Warsaw Pact should be a thing of the past. After all, it is overly simplistic to say “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” as George W. Bush did before the American Congress in September 2001. We are not, and should not be, living in that simplistic binary world.



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