Annual Gala Dinner, May 14, 2019, New York
Remarks by Dr. Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the U.S.
Going to New York in May has always been a great pleasure for me in the past years. I have had the chance to speak about entirely different issues: about the economic and political ties between Switzerland and the United States, about Switzerland’s culinary footprint in America, and last year about the captivating topic of the Sister Republics.
This year I will speak about America’s image, about America as a projection in the minds and thinking of people who do not live in the United States. Since this is my last speech to you as Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States, I will do it with a personal note.
Our brains and minds are full of images about cohorts of things. They influence our perception, our thinking and eventually our actions. Those images are typically not coherent and more often than not contradictory. And they differ from one generation to another. That is also true with the images about the United States.
Before joining you tonight, I thought about my own images of America when I was very young.
Probably the most accurate and authentic information at reach came from my grandmother’s sister, who lived in Chicago and visited Switzerland every now and then. What we learned from her was not more exciting than what my grandmother would tell us about her life in a little town in the countryside of Zurich. It was not the America of my childhood, not what shaped my image of the United States from early on.
Almost exactly fifty years ago, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I was just 14 years old then and spent summer vacations with my family in the Swiss Alps. The moon landing was at night, at least for people in Europe. We stayed up very late and followed on the flickering bluish TV screen how Neil Armstrong made his first steps on the moon. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. We were excited to watch a great historic moment. Almost every person of my generation can tell you where he or she was when the first men landed on the moon, just as they can tell you where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.
We meticulously observed how the two astronauts put the American flag on the moon. That picture has remained iconic to the present day and has often been used in popular culture. Decades later during a lunch, the director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., told me something I certainly was not aware of in 1969. She asked me whether I knew that there was a Swiss flag on the moon even before the stars and stripes. At first I thought she was kidding. But she wasn’t. The first item the astronauts unfolded on the moon was the solar wind panel, which was produced in Switzerland—the only foreign experiment on the Apollo 11 mission. The solar wind panel had a little Swiss flag. But let’s stop here: today’s topic is not the Sister Republics again.
Images like the landing on the moon have shaped the image of the United States— not only for me, but for many people around the world. The image of a technologically advanced nation with enthusiasm about everything new, a nation always ready to cross new frontiers and to explore uncharted waters.
But the quest for new technology and traveling into space were not the only images about America I had when I was a kid.
The first book about America I can remember was an old picture book dating back to my father’s boyhood: The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fennimore Cooper. I was thrilled by the life and adventures of the frontiersman Natty Bumppo and the many references to American history in the 18th century. I was fascinated by the wilderness and the prairies, by the lives of Native Americans, and I admired the red and blue military uniforms. Much of the historical background I would understand only decades later when I pondered American history more seriously.
Later there were the novels and movies about the Wild West, adventures I had to read about at night with a flashlight under my bed covers. It was reading that did not enchant my parents very much. The stories were about heroes in a lawless and messy world. Moral standards belonged to the individual heroes, but not to society. Later I became familiar with the hard-boiled detective stories and have even written about them in newspapers and magazines. Those novels and stories were pulp fiction rather than anything else. But they captured the values the United States stood for quite well: the individual at the center of the world tested by destiny and fighting for survival.
The United States has never ceased to produce powerful pictures that shape our experience with America beforehand.
During my diplomatic career, I was in the United States very often, including one year in New York at the Swiss Mission to the United Nations. But never before have I had such an outstanding opportunity to compare my preconceptions about the U.S. with my own experiences as has been the case in the past five years. Images like the ones I mentioned provided a superb starting point for this self-experiment. As simple as they were, those images went far beyond the visible and the obvious and addressed societal norms and philosophical thoughts as well.
And surprisingly the core of those images has proved to be valid. The American attitude of crossing borders has been obvious to me over and over again—for instance, when I visited the many start-ups in Silicon Valley. Although many projects I saw will fail, some will change the world. It reminded me of the trail to the West with the skulls on both sides of the road.
“All men are created equal” is a far echo from the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s thinking deeply rooted in the Age of Enlightenment. It is still there and as challenged as it has always been—also in Jefferson’s lifetime. By trying to give people equal opportunities, the U.S. will move forward and keep the promise of the American dream that the individual can attain everything.
Looking back at the past five years, there were less enchanting experiences regarding images as well.
Speaking with many of my fellow Swiss citizens, I became aware that the U.S. was often not well understood. It is not a problem when people know little about the United States. But it becomes a problem if they imagine something about the United States that has little in common with America. Preconceptions have the potential to prevent one from acquiring solid knowledge, to filter away parts of reality and to invite people to have misinterpretations.
I consider it an outstanding role of the American Swiss Foundation to work on the perception of the United States in Switzerland and vice versa. And I have always considered that to be part of my role as the Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States.
In conclusion, I would like to thank all of you for your friendship and generous support. I have had the chance to spend exciting years in the United States. There is no better job the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs has to offer than that of Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States. The enormous and ever-growing trade and investment, the stimulating exchanges about the Swiss apprenticeship model, the protecting power mandate for the U.S. in Iran with the release of American prisoners, the deep dive into the culture in the United States with the chairs at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Building Museum, the establishment of strong partnerships with institutions like the Phillips Collection and the Wilson Center think tank, the frequent talks, speeches and panel discussions on a wide range of issues and, after all, the memorable personal encounters with personalities that shaped the United States in the past decades are lasting memories my wife Anita and I are grateful for.
Thank you for your good cooperation and support. I hope we will stay in touch in the years ahead as well.