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Public Diplomacy and the Mission of the

American Swiss Foundation


Ambassador Faith Whittlesey (pictured above), Chairman Emeritus, American Swiss Foundation,

at the Building Bridges 2015 Gala Dinner on October 1, 2015 at the Newseum in Washington, DC


Tonight we celebrate the founding of the American Swiss Foundation 70 years ago. The setting was the aftermath of World War II, perhaps the most horrible war the world had ever witnessed. The gentlemen who organized called it then the American Society for Friendship with Switzerland.  They were entrepreneurs, taking risks to start something new, seeking to build an organization to engage the private sector in public diplomacy. 

Tonight is also the anniversary --the 25th anniversary -- of the American Swiss Foundation Young Leaders Conference held annually in Switzerland since 1990.  All of you here tonight are the embodiment of this vision, the founders’ vision.

As we contemplate these anniversaries, I would like to take us back even farther than 1945 -- or 1990 -- to 1776, the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, 239 years ago in Philadelphia.  239 years is not such a long time in history for our Swiss friends. They founded their democratic republic in 1291. 

When our American founders wrote their Declaration of Independence, they included in the very first paragraph, succinctly and eloquently, the reason they felt impelled to write it down for the world. The reason they stated is hardly mentioned today, virtually forgotten:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The words were chosen carefully – “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

The signers were concerned about public opinion – about their image in the world. They were interested not only in the opinions of their own countrymen, but of mankind They believed, too, that they needed to be truthful and specific and were so in succeeding paragraphs of the document. This was the first exercise of public diplomacy of the new American nation.

They were courageous; they were also wise men. In today’s diplomatic jargon, what they did might be called the exercise of “soft power.” The founders of this organization, the American Swiss Foundation, apparently thought the same way. Now that the war was over, it was time not to dial down but rather intensify contact, but not through broader contact with mankind as the American founders did, but with the people of a small, neutral, constitutional republic in the heart of Europe, Switzerland.

There are other tools of statecraft than public diplomacy that are more frequently debated in prestigious graduate schools of foreign policy and in think tanks – mainly, the exercise of military and economic power The founders of the American Swiss Foundation set forth as their mission to seek a decent respect for communicating with our Swiss friends through the exchange of knowledge, opinions and culture. They left military matters to the defense attachés; commercial and economic relations to Martin Naville and the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.

All of the Young Leaders can attest that we are known for testing and communicating diverse opinions at every Conference meal and  meeting. We try to do so, hopefully, in a deeply respectful manner. We Americans really do want to understand the perspectives of this unique people from a small nation in the center of Europe. How do they see us Americans? What do you Swiss people think of us? I have learned the Swiss tend to be very polite and understated, so it may take a while for us to understand them.  But, I believe, through the Young Leaders Conferences we Americans do listen (occasionally maybe not enough); we also try to learn.

Today, as in 1945, there is much for us to discuss.  Our screens and print news pages are filled with war and rumors of war in faraway places. Our Swiss friends do not engage in foreign wars, being neutral since they adopted article 11 of their constitution in 1848. They do have, however, a large and very well-equipped defensive army, but they are better known for their exercise of what is often called “good offices.” They have been the protecting power, for instance, for American interests in Iran and Cuba for many years.

Nor do they say, in the quaint translation into English, “give lessons” to other countries as to how they should govern themselves. They do engage in massive humanitarian projects through the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international organizations, and the United States is often closely aligned with the Swiss in many of these projects. They educate fewer lawyers and psychologists than we do. As Rolf Dörig said today, they have fewer citizens with academic titles. But they do have more scientists, electricians and metalworkers. Albert Einstein, as you may recall, was educated in Switzerland. We deficit-spend; they have a debt break. They have a powerful Swiss franc; we have QE-Infinity (QE3), as described by Congressman Huizenga. We have a self-funded Donald Trump; they have a very successful self-funded national politician, too, Christoph Blocher. They are quite a bit smaller than the U.S., but they punch above their weight class in the global economy.

Bern, their capital, is not as grand as Washington, DC, but it is just as beautiful in its smaller, modest way.  The government officials who toil there do not have as much power as their counterparts in Washington – and there are far fewer of them per capita. Switzerland is truly a federal republic, whose governing arrangements concentrate most authority with local and state officials. The Swiss are instinctively apprehensive of centralized power placed in the hands of mortal men.  Remember, they did not join the EU -- they were, in fact, against the EU before it was cool to be against the EU. They have had extraordinary success with their system and are happy if others emulate it.  They do not, however, crusade for it; they live by the maxim, “thou shalt not boast.” They are -- by their example -- an inspiration to many of us of how a nation can live peacefully, prosperously and at the highest level of global competitiveness in many fields. Their only WMD is Roger Federer’s backhand!

Would that we could replicate this model of private sector public diplomacy with every country with which the United States is engaged. Then our diplomacy could be more clearly focused on a serious dialogue of mutual respect, seeking out common interests, rather than on direct and indirect resort to other less conciliatory forms of statecraft.  As an American visiting in Switzerland over many years, I have observed that in this small nation -- which lies in fact at the crossroads of the world -- U.S. actions Americans regard reflexively as proper, just, benign, are not always viewed in these terms in other countries. An example: for the past few years there has been a significant conflict between the United States Department of Justice and the Swiss financial center. Most U.S. opinion makers have no clue about it. In Switzerland it is, and has been, however, non-stop front-page news.

What are the unintended consequences for the U.S. economy that are the result of this conflict? Has anyone done a serious cost-benefit analysis? It certainly doesn't seem so. Unfortunately, because of it, the reservoir of goodwill for the United States in Switzerland has definitely taken a big hit. In the words of my favorite song from the Broadway musical 1776, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”

In the broader picture, I see in virtually every exchange in Switzerland an enormous admiration for what we Americans have accomplished for our own people. The Swiss truly remain, I believe, the most pro-American European nation east of the English Channel --beyond doubt, our sister republic! So I pray that through the American Swiss Foundation, we will be able to continue our interaction many years into the future. Recall, in our little corner of this dangerous world, whatever contribution all of us can make together to peaceful outcomes and deeply respectful discourse can be significant. Between  the peoples of two exceptional nations, of course, this should also be done with a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”