"Disagreements should not hamper cooperation"

Pamela Willeford, the outgoing United States ambassador to Switzerland

Pamela Pitzer Willeford, the outgoing United States ambassador to Switzerland, tells swissinfo about the highs and lows of her two-and-a-half years in Bern.

This content was published on May 6, 2006 minutes

Willeford is returning to her native Texas on Saturday to head the Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries.

A close family friend of the Bush family, the non-career diplomat was posted to the Swiss capital in 2003. Her career until then had been in education and community work.

She is returning to Texas, where she will lead a new project to re-establish schools in the southern US regions devastated by last year's hurricanes.

The ambassador has had an eventful tenure in Bern. Earlier this year a free-trade agreement between the two countries foundered over disagreements on agriculture.

The CIA affair, in which alleged terrorist suspects were flown through Swiss airspace by the US, also damaged relations.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has called for a closer relationship with the US. She recently said the two countries endorsed "the same values, but gave these values different meanings", especially where human rights, democracy and the economy were concerned.

swissinfo: You've been in Switzerland for two-and-a-half-years. What impressions are you leaving with?

Pamela Pitzer Willeford: It's gone by very quickly and certainly it's been a huge honour to get to represent my country in such a sophisticated and interesting country as Switzerland.

I've met so many interesting people - members of the Swiss government, Swiss citizens, and other diplomats, and have learned so much from all of them and their different perspectives on Switzerland and also the relationship between our two countries.

Obviously there are lots of things that we need to improve, but overall the relationship is positive and we have lots of places where we cooperate and interact.

swissinfo: There have been ups and downs in Swiss-US relations during that time, most recently the collapse of talks on a free-trade agreement. As a proponent of that agreement, how disappointed were you?

P.P.W.: We were disappointed, but the talks were productive. We spent a long time looking at areas of mutual interest and the Swiss decided in the end that free trade in agriculture was just too difficult to overcome.

We did have something good come out of it, the US-Swiss Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum [signed on Wednesday], where we are addressing issues of interest to the business community. It is not free trade, and it's not a free trade agreement without agriculture, but there will be some issues on the table where we think we can have better cooperation.

swissinfo: Talks foundered on differences over agricultural subsidies. Can these be ironed out?

P.P.W.: We hope so. The Swiss have said that eventually a free-trade agreement may be possible. Under the framework laid out by our Congress we have to have comprehensive free- trade agreements including agriculture. We think there are many ways to get to free trade in agriculture, and hopefully Switzerland one of these days will be able to accomplish that, but it won't be in the near term.

swissinfo: There has also been controversy over alleged transport of CIA terrorist suspects through Swiss airspace. How damaging has that been for the image of your country here?

P.P.W.: First of all the US does not condone, authorise or commit torture and we abide by our constitution, our laws and our international treaties.

The coverage and the assumptions made have been very damaging and it has certainly caused a lot of sensational headlines in this country.

But dealing with detainees is a very complex issue, we all are responsible for protecting our citizens, any flight that goes through as some have alleged is not necessary transporting detainees and we're open as to how to deal with this complex problem.

Often we feel criticised for the way we handle it, but there are not necessarily constructive suggestions about how others would handle it.

swissinfo: Switzerland has just launched a publicity venture in the US – the Swissroots project. Can something like this lead to an improvement in bilateral relations?

P.P.W.: The programme will raise the profile of Switzerland in the US. It will encourage Americans of Swiss heritage to explore their Swiss roots and hopefully encourage a back and forth dialogue that will raise the level of understanding and appreciation.

swissinfo: Do you have a parting message?

P.P.W.: I do hope that we can continue to find those areas of common interest and ways we can work together and that when we disagree that it should not, and hopefully will not, get us off track in other places and areas of cooperation. The US has a lot to offer, we have been good citizens of the world for many generations, and that message needs to get out there.

swissinfo-interview: Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

Pamela Pitzer Willeford was born in Texas and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin.
A civic leader and close family friend of President Bush, Willeford was posted to Bern in October 2003.
She is returning to the US to head the Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries.
Willeford was present when US Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot attorney Harry Whittington while hunting in February.

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In brief

Switzerland and the US have had diplomatic relations since 1850.

Switzerland represents US interests in Iran (since 1980) and in Cuba (since 1961); it has also represented Cuban interests in the US since 1991.

Swiss-US cooperation consists of numerous bilateral treaties and arrangements, in fields such as double taxation and mutual assistance in criminal matters.

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