Pascal Couchepin opened his speech on the theme of "the politician and current affairs" with a quote from Edward Heath who, when asked what was the biggest challenge for a politician, replied « events, friends, events ».
The politician has to merge reality with mankind, such as it is, and consequently with the irrational and with risk. Politics is an art and the politician is a craftsman, and not an artist who creates an original work himself. The politician should have opinions and a world view; nevertheless, he should not lose sight of Aristotle's philosophy that the primary virtue of a politician is wisdom.
It is this reference to Aristotelian wisdom – as well as the distinction between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction, established, among others, by Max Weber – which served as the main theme of Mr. Couchepin's speech. The ethics of conviction are not adapted to politics since they disregard circumstances. Moral responsibility dictates to the politician to find a balance between his convictions and the truth.
Pascal Couchepin used several examples to illustrate his point in favour of a policy of wisdom based on the ethics of responsibility. Firstly, what was the logic followed by Daladier in 1938 when he signed the Treaty of Munich? Did the prime minister choose to be careful when he said that France did not have enough weapons for a military conflict? But, in this case, should he not have done everything possible to improve French military preparations? Or did he sign the Treaty out of weakness, thus thinking to keep the peace at any cost, despite the long term consequences, in which case deserving historical criticism?
What learnings should the politician draw from this distinction between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of wisdom? The politician should know political truths and do his best to adapt them. In this respect, Machiavelli was a good guide. Without taking into account geopolitical realities, good intentions are not enough: fruitless attempts from the Bush administration to establish democracy in the Middle East is a good example.
The politician should also understand human beings, their sensitivities and their failings. P. Couchepin recalled the political debates on life imprisonment for some offenders and illegal acts of abuse on minors. It's the nature of history, of course, that illegal crimes increase. Society should not ignore the past. But it must also know how to forget in order to be able to go forward.
Finally, the third principle for the politician should be to accept risk. The current financial crisis clearly demonstrates that politics cannot eliminate uncertainty and risk. This crisis should allow us to go beyond short term solutions and to analyse weaknesses in the system which brought us to this current deadlock.
Pascal Couchepin finished his speech by talking about three key events during his presidency of Switzerland. In the Tinner affair, ethical conviction should have been able to demand the protection of the documents required for the legal process against the Tinner brothers accused of trafficking nuclear material. But the federal council decided to destroy the document sin order to protection national, or even international, interests. The decision taken conforms to a policy of wisdom based on the ethics of responsibility .
The second example Pascal Couchepin gave was the Nef affair. Here, the Swiss President is less convinced by the way this affair was managed. Perhaps, without new facts, the decision should have been taken to accept certain aspects of Roland Nef's past, who had served the country without reproach since his nomination.
Finally, Pascal Couchepin returned to the financial crisis and to the financial agreement debated in the Swiss parliament that day. This is now an urgent situation which demands the suspension of normal democratic proceedings. The politician is obliged, on certain occasions which should be rare, to act quickly, guided by the reason of State and the general interest of his fellow citizens. In no case is it a question of weakening the democratic system, but rather allows the politician to take urgent decisions in as much as they can be justified and explained. Concerning the financial crisis, the democratic system is protected by a shared decision within the federal Council and by a Parliamentary debate on the suspension of normal proceedings.
Admittedly, one could attempt to regulate such a situation with emergency law. But it could not, in any case, take into account all possibilities. It could, then, run the risk of not being able to respond to an unexpected situation. The golden rule for a politician faced with the current situation – and this was Pascal Couchepin's concluding remark – is to accept the political truth and human nature as it is, along with the associated risks. This is the foundation of a wise policy based on the ethics of responsibility.