Top foreign ministry official Peter Maurer, who has been in Washington for bilateral meetings, continues to view Switzerland’s relationship with the US as crucial.
The state secretary in the foreign ministry, who was attending the annual gathering of the United States-Switzerland Joint Working Group, said that he did not believe in the widely-discussed US decline.
The diplomat, number two in the Swiss foreign ministry, headed a ten-member delegation into “extensive talks” with members of the Obama Administration over a four-day period in Washington, with the last held on Friday.
Most of the 25 meetings on the schedule were held as part of the annual gathering of the US-Switzerland Joint Working Group, a bilateral high-level forum launched in 2006.
Maurer also held bilateral meetings with some of the most prominent foreign policy advisers to both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, including his US counterpart, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
“It was an opportunity for both sides to take stock, to explore next steps and to see where the differences are,” Maurer told swissinfo.ch.
And there are differences. None of them appears more delicate - a term used by the State Secretary himself - than the tax evasion dispute that has marred the relationship between the two nations for the last three years.
“That was very much an issue with most of my interlocutors at the US State Department and the White House,” Maurer said at a briefing of reporters at the Swiss embassy on Friday evening.
The State Secretary declined to go into details about the negotiations on a comprehensive agreement underway between the two governments.
However, he expressed hope that the involvement of the US State Department in the negotiations along with the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice might result in some “level-headedness” by bringing into focus what Maurer called the “significance of relations with Switzerland”.
Central to the special relationship between Switzerland and the US is the so-called protecting power given by the US to Switzerland for representing American interests in Iran and Cuba.
Maurer noted that “Iran is a key national interest in the policy debate in Washington and this is by far the issue that interests the Americans the most when I come here”.
Yet Bern and Washington cooperate on many other fronts, from Kosovo and Libya to e-diplomacy, an area of international dialogue that draws on the use of social media and on which Maurer has worked extremely closely with Clinton’s e-guru Alec Ross.
“There’s always been a lot of economic and financial relations between the US and Switzerland, but what we see are more and more political exchanges and cooperation,” said Maurer.
He pointed to the recent agreement negotiated by Switzerland that paved the way for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization by removing opposition from Georgia. Last month Switzerland also announced that, upon request from both parties, it was hosting and “facilitating” high-level talks between the US and North Korea.
Maurer is clearly hoping that the Obama Administration remembers the importance of such political cooperation when it comes to resolving the tax issue raised by evasion scandals at big banks UBS and Credit Suisse.
For its part, the US State Department announced on Friday that it “looks forward to continued close cooperation with the Swiss foreign ministry on a wide range of issues and working to address global challenges jointly”.
US future and issues
This visit is likely to have been Maurer’s last to Washington as State Secretary. He is set to replace Jakob Kellenberger at the helm of the Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in July 2012.
Maurer would not talk about his goals as future president of the ICRC. Asked by swissinfo.ch whether he had discussed the still controversial Guantanamo prison as State Secretary, he indicated that it was one of the “different facets of human rights we addressed but not a key topic”.
Pressed by swissinfo.ch on whether Guantanamo had fallen into diplomatic oblivion, he maintained that the issue “is not forgotten”. “I think we know where the limits are on what can be achieved, so it’s an issue that is constantly on the agenda but it does not carry the promise of moving forward,” he added.
There has been much talk of late, both within and outside the US, about the presumed decline of the country as the world’s only superpower, especially in the wake of two long wars in the Middle East and a prolonged economic crisis.
Asked by swissinfo.ch whether the Swiss government had been wrong in 2005 to place the development of relations with the US at the top of foreign policy priorities for Switzerland, Maurer asserted that the Swiss government “was very much on target”.
“The US remains a country that has interests and something to say on virtually every issue and every part of the world, and when I see the capacity to innovate and overcome problems here, I think that the US remains a very interesting model of society and it’s going to be the case for a long time,” he said.