Midfield General

No Passage Through the Alps

For Switzerland’s stars, playing in France is a big non-non.

What's the beef -- or boeuf -- between France and Switzerland? The two neighbors whose teams meet Friday in the World Cup have friendly relations and a common language, but Swiss players avoid the French league as though it were a Velveeta factory. When offered the chance to play across their western border, why do Swiss stars almost always say non?

Swiss stars, you say? Yes, Switzerland is one of this World Cup's more unheralded teams. Despite having a top eight FIFA ranking and thus being one of the seeded teams in the tournament, nobody is particularly optimistic about their chances. They are in fact widely considered to be only the second-best team in their group, trailing France, a traditional soccer powerhouse.

That's already enough to make the matchup between the two fascinating for handicappers and FIFA skeptics. And given their geographic proximity, the natural expectation would be a high degree of cross-pollination in talent development as well. Switzerland is a smaller country without a robust domestic league, while France has a deep talent pool and what is popularly considered a top five league in Europe. Despite that, a cursory examination of the Swiss roster shows that not a single one of the 23 players plies his trade in France's Ligue 1.

The biggest stars, attacking midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri and left back Ricardo Rodríguez, started out playing in the domestic league before being bought as young players by big clubs in Germany -- Bayern Munich for Shaqiri and and VfL Wolfsburg for Rodríguez -- where they continued their development. Others did the same in Italy. The squad's journeyman veteran, Philippe Senderos, is about to wind down his career at Aston Villa in England, and the rest of the 23 play domestically. In France, there's only a big gaping hole. It's enough to tempt a person into theorizing all sorts of things about cultural identity, the roots of the game, and scouting networks and unconscious biases in Switzerland.

Or not. A brief look at the members of France's national team turns up something equally interesting. Surprisingly few of their players play at home either. Of the eight who do, three are at Paris Saint-Germain, the petrodollar-fueled superclub that operates almost as a separate entity from the rest of the league it has begun routinely to win. In fact, France only has one more domestically-based player than Switzerland does. Moreover, the development path for its young players is strikingly similar to that of its smaller neighbor. Striker Karim Benzema became a star at Lyon before moving to Real Madrid. Breakout midfield juggernaut Paul Pogba was actually snapped up from a French youth program by Manchester United before eventually being sold to Juventus.

France and Switzerland both belong to a group of nations that produce players more talented than their leagues can support. Portugal finds itself in a similar situation (it has eight domestic players on its roster) and so does Belgium (three). It seems likely that, despite its reputation, the French league simply isn't good enough to tempt Swiss talent when the Bundesliga in Germany and Serie A in Italy are equally viable options.

So who does play in Ligue 1, aside from French players not good enough to move elsewhere? The answer, unsurprisingly to anybody who has ever heard the term post-colonialism, is players from Africa. A glance at the squads of Cameroon, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast show seven, five, and five players working in France. Algeria is absent from this list only because the country is so intertwined with France that the majority of its players are in fact French players who have themselves left the country to play elsewhere. And many of the most iconic African players -- Didier Drogba, Asamoah Gyan, and Gervinho, among others -- either began their careers in France or used French teams as stepping stones along their paths.

In other words, the lack of Swiss players in France says more about Ligue 1 than it does about the Swiss. Indeed, the Swiss test is an almost scientific way of showing that the French league's talent level is not as high as popular claims might have you believe. After all, it's not as though Swiss players would avoid France because of the food. With the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, Ligue 1 basically serves as a feeder system for other, better leagues in Europe -- just like the Swiss league, except with a special bridge to Africa. Friday will just be the rare occasion when all of their respective poulets finally come home to roost.

Jean-Pierre Clatot / AFP / Getty Images


Keep Calm and Carry Them Elsewhere

An independent Scotland would evict the United Kingdom’s nuclear force. So, then, what would Britain do with its 225 weapons?

The Scottish government has released an interim constitution in advance of the independence referendum scheduled for September. Should Scots vote for their independence, the document would govern the country until a permanent constitution was written. Deep into the draft is an unusual clause on nuclear disarmament. Section 23 to be exact -- and quite remarkable. And no, it isn't a purity law for Scotch whisky. It's about nuclear disarmament:

23 Nuclear disarmament

The Scottish Government must pursue negotiations with a view to securing --

(a) nuclear disarmament in accordance with international law, and

(b) the safe and expeditious removal from the territory of Scotland of nuclear weapons based there.

A non-nuclear clause is not exactly unprecedented -- Palau's constitution has a similar one -- but it is still pretty unusual. The narrative accompanying the interim constitution explains that the Scottish government would join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state and seek, for its permanent constitution, a prohibition on the basing of nuclear weapons within its borders.

In London, talk of an independent Scotland without nuclear weapons has been met with a decidedly chilly reception. You might as well refer to the queen as "that old battle-ax" as bring up Scotland's nuclear allergy. That's because Scotland is where the United Kingdom keeps its nuclear weapons for the moment. Currently, Britain deploys four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which carry as many as 160 warheads and are based at Naval Base Clyde in Faslane, in southwestern Scotland. The U.K. stores warheads for deployment less than five kilometers away at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot in Coulport.

Her Majesty's Government, in seeking to convince Scots that life is "Better Together" in a United Kingdom, has voiced concerns that Scotland's secession would "put in jeopardy the continued operation of the UK independent nuclear deterrent," as a letter by former defense chiefs put it. Sure, polls suggest that Scots are unlikely to opt for independence, but many observers expect a close vote. And the U.K. government certainly isn't taking any chances.

An independent Scotland would mean it's moving time. But the question is where the Royal Navy would be able to relocate the Faslane and Coulport facilities. One school of thought suggests that this might be the last straw for nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom. Of all the nuclear weapon states, the United Kingdom is winning the limbo contest -- how low can you go. Foreign Secretary William Hague has even stated that the size of the U.K. stockpile is a slim 225 warheads and has committed the country to stay below that. Its next cut would probably be to zero. And, today, many Britons are just not so convinced that they will get good value for the cost of replacing their aging fleet of Trident ballistic missile submarines.

The notion that an independent Scotland might mean the end of the U.K.'s nuclear deterrent has been around for quite some time. This possibility was first raised, so far as I know, by professors Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker in their 2001 book, Uncharted Waters, and companion article for the Nonproliferation Review. On a trip I took to the United Kingdom a few years ago, I remember mentioning their argument to a few colleagues and being assured that I was worrying about a lot of nonsense.

How things have changed. In the past few years, U.K. policymakers have begun to take the idea quite seriously as Scotland moves toward an independence referendum. In fact, last week, when I was at a conference at Wilton Park, which I can only describe as Downton Abbey with a bar, talk of Scottish independence, and disarmament, was of real interest.

Polls show thin support, at best, among Britons for spending what it takes to keep a nuclear deterrent. The United Kingdom might be able to relocate the submarines docked at Faslane naval base in Scotland to Devonport in England. The real challenge, as Chalmers and Walker have pointed out, is relocating the warhead storage and handling facility near Coulport. England is charming -- and by charming, I mean small and densely populated. I know of no polls that show local communities eager to host some nukes in their backyards. To make matters even more complicated, Britain has a number of safety and environmental regulations that might make it very difficult to site a nuclear weapons storage facility.

Of course, Britain does have options outside the country if relocating the Coulport facility to Devonport proves impossible. One option would be to establish a warhead handling facility in the United States at Kings Bay, Georgia. Those 225 weapons mentioned above? You could put them in the United States. Britain leases 58 submarine-launched D5 missiles from a common pool with the United States. U.K. submarines must sail all the way to Kings Bay to receive their missiles from U.S. stores. Given that the submarines have to cross the Atlantic anyway, the warheads could be loaded at the same time.

The other option is that the United Kingdom might also establish a warhead facility in France, near Brest, where the French Navy bases its four nuclear-armed submarines. The two parties have already agreed to share diagnostic facilities to steward their stockpiles of nuclear warheads. Maintaining a stockpile of warheads in France would be a relatively modest evolution of a surprisingly deep relationship.

Even if a suitable location can be found, Whitehall may also worry that spending $30 billion or so to relocate a facility like Coulport might tip the scales toward those arguing that nuclear weapons are too pricey. Voices are already arguing that the United Kingdom cannot afford the steep price of replacing its current generation of aging submarines. The Liberal Democrats, among the major political parties, have long been skeptical of the costs associated with replacing the Trident. LibDem-leaning think tanks, like CentreForum in London, have argued that replacing the Trident will come at the expense of modernizing conventional forces. It's entirely possible that rising costs and local opposition could pose a real challenge to the country's nuclear deterrent, especially if disarmament-minded Labour MPs or cost-conscious Tories defect from their parties on the issue.

So, Britain has alternatives to basing its nuclear weapons in Scotland. Costly, politically painful alternatives, but alternatives nonetheless. Some of the threats aimed at Groundskeeper Willie and his kin are intended to support the "Better Together" campaign, just as London is warning that an independent Scotland may be thrown out of NATO and the European Union. (Side note: Has threatening a Scot ever been a successful strategy? It seems that the whole thing might just backfire.)

Even U.S. President Barack Obama got into the act, stating that the United States has "a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united, and an effective partner." Obama vocalized what has been a whispering campaign by the United States to raise questions about the impact of an independent Scotland on NATO, nuclear weapons, and the like.

It is sort of odd to see a U.S. president commenting on such matters. I recall that King George's "Better Together" campaign went over like a lead balloon in 1776. One might have thought that Obama would be excited about an instance of nuclear disarmament, as well as a new ambassadorial posting for a well-heeled donor who likes golf and Scotch whisky. Apparently not. Washington and especially France are worried that a non-nuclear United Kingdom would raise awkward questions about their own possession of nuclear weapons.

By the same token, Section 23 is largely a response to these threats. The constitutional prohibition is a strategy by the Scottish government to tie its own hands so it is less vulnerable to this kind of clumsy pressure. If Scotland's constitution prohibits hosting nuclear weapons, London would have a difficult time forcing Scotland to keep nuclear weapons as a price for staying in NATO. At most, perhaps Scotland would be forced to subsidize the move, though I don't think London really wants the money. Divorces can be so messy.

At the end of the day, this debate says something very interesting about the value of nuclear weapons and the political will of states to keep them. We are told repeatedly that nuclear weapons are important symbols of status and that they offer an incomparable form of deterrence and provide insurance in an uncertain world. We are also told that disarmament is hard because no state wants to give up nuclear weapons. What does it say about those claims that the citizens of an independent Scotland don't want nuclear weapons? Or that the U.K. government doesn't believe it could persuade an English Navy town to host them either? The fact that the United Kingdom might need to base its own nuclear weapons abroad to limit public opposition really does undermine the notion that nuclear weapons are essential to the country's security.

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