Ambassador to the United States Urs Ziswiler represented Switzerland during the controversial Bush presidency and later witnessed the historic election of Barack Obama.
Ziswiler, who left his post on October 15, speaks to swissinfo about the challenges he faced during his four-year tenure and what he sees next for Swiss-US relations.
He has been the public face in Washington of Swiss-US relations during ups - including the recent release of the US hiker Sharon Shroud from Iran - and downs - including the UBS tax evasion scandal, and the Polanski affair.
swissinfo.ch: Your time as ambassador in Washington has spanned two US presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. What differences have you seen between the two administrations?
Urs Ziswiler: I have to start by saying that we have had excellent relationships with both administrations. But in some areas the US and Switzerland have had to agree to disagree; this was more the case with the Bush administration, where Switzerland was against the Iraq war and the holding of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention centre. Both of these issues have been resolved under the Obama Administration, which is more willing to forge partnerships and find multilateral solutions to global problems than the Bush administration was. That movement away from unilateral decision-making under Obama is one of the biggest changes compared to the Bush administration.
swissinfo.ch: The UBS tax fraud scandal has been the biggest diplomatic problem between Switzerland and the US since the Holocaust assets affair in the late 1990s. It took a long time for the Holocaust issue to dissipate from people’s minds here. Do you think the impact of the UBS scandal will be as long lasting?
U.Z.: The deal settling the dispute concerning UBS was signed in August 2009 and it is implemented now. Therefore I can be hopeful to see the situation calming down now… The UBS case was a much bigger issue in Switzerland than in the US. It was not covered by the major cable channels or television networks here; it was covered a bit by the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and rarely, The Washington Post. While it was a big issue in Switzerland it was one of several others in the US.
swissinfo.ch: In a report on human rights the US State Department, along with other groups in America, including Muslim-American groups, criticised Switzerland's decision to ban minarets last year. Do you think that criticism was fair?
U.Z.: The majority of Swiss accepted the initiative to ban minarets; that's a fact. The Swiss government, the majority of the Swiss Parliament and a large majority of the Swiss media were against the ban. But in a direct democracy like ours the majority rules, so decisions like these have to be accepted ...
Following the minaret decision, I spoke with the Imam of the largest mosque in New York City Mohammad Shamsi Ali. He was clearly not happy with the decision but understood that fears of Islam, and specifically radical Islam, was not only a Swiss problem but a global problem. He believed a similar referendum would probably have led to the same result in most European countries and possibly in the US. In fact, the majority of reactions we received here at the embassy following the decision were by Americans in support of the ban. The point is, we have to get to the roots of anti-Islamic feelings everywhere where they exist.
swissinfo.ch: Switzerland represents American interests in Iran and Cuba. How busy have you been with the Iran mandate in terms of mediating the release of the US hiker Sarah Shourd, for example?
U.Z.: It has taken quite a bit of our time. And it's not only the case of Sarah Shourd and her two companions who remain imprisoned in Iran that we have worked on. We have helped mediate the release of others who were held in Iran, such as the US journalist Roxana Saberi in 2009.
swissinfo.ch: In terms of Cuba, is the Swiss government involved at your and other levels in relations between Washington and Havana?
U.Z.: The Cuban mandate is of a completely different nature because the US interest section in Havana is flying under the Swiss flag but is staffed by Americans, and the Cuban interest section here in Washington is flying under the Swiss flag but is staffed by Cubans. So the majority of the issues are dealt with directly and don't require Swiss intervention. The Iranian mandate is far more intense than the Cuban mandate.
swissinfo.ch: Why is it important for Switzerland to continue with these two mandates that require considerable diplomatic resources?
U.Z.: We see it as a win-win situation. The US wins because we can help them solve some problems, which is particularly appreciated in the case of Iran. Switzerland wins because the mandates give us the opportunity to deepen our bilateral contacts on all levels. At a reception at the White House President Obama thanked me personally for all that we do for the US in Iran, and in particular for bringing Sarah back home… Sarah was at our embassy on October 8 and thanked Switzerland for helping secure her release. It was a great opportunity to show the Swiss public why we engage in this mandate.
swissinfo.ch: What is the main priority for Switzerland now in terms of Swiss-US relations?
U.Z.: Our economic ties are certainly a priority. They are strong and multifaceted. I am confident that we will be able to find acceptable solutions when different views occur.
In the political field we are a precious partner of the US. Our neutral status gives us often a special position that the US appreciates. Furthermore we have many contacts with the US administration in order to exchange our experiences in many technical fields - for example in health policy, fiscal stability, green technologies. We continue to work with our US partners towards multilateral policies and solutions for global challenges.
Switzerland and the US signed a Memorandum of Understanding on intensifying relations in 2006.
The foreign ministry believes that this, along with other initiatives, such as the launching of regular high-level political dialogue, has led to the “revival and consolidation of our bilateral relations”.
Switzerland represents American interests in Iran and Cuba, as well as Cuban interests in Washington.
Part of the Iran mandate is to protect the interests of the 7,000 individuals with US-Iranian dual nationality living in Iran.
The number of Americans of Swiss origin is estimated to be around one million.
About 74,000 Swiss citizens live in the US, about 10% of the total of the Swiss abroad.
The US is Switzerland’s second-biggest export market (nearly SFr19 billion in 2009) and the main destination for Swiss direct investments abroad (nearly SFr150 billion in 2008), according to the Swiss foreign ministry.
The US had direct investments in Switzerland of over SFr85 billion in 2008, making it the second-largest foreign investor in Switzerland.
Since 2001, both countries have maintained active contacts at the parliamentary level through two friendship associations of parliamentarians: in Switzerland, the Swiss Parliamentary Association Switzerland-USA; in the USA, Friends of Switzerland Caucus.