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"Heidi-land" image dominates American view of Switzerland

Alfred Defago says Switzerland enjoys a good reputation in the US

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland enjoys a good reputation in the United States, despite the controversy over Holocaust-era assets. That's the view of the Swiss ambassador to Washington, Alfred Defago, who says Switzerland is still perceived as "Heidi-land" by most Americans.

"Switzerland's image is astonishingly good in the United States, compared to other European countries", Defago said in an interview with swissinfo.

Defago said that even at the height of the controversy over the Holocaust era assets between 1996-98, Switzerland's image was not as bad as some people in Europe believed.

Defago has been Swiss ambassador to Washington since 1997 and was involved in improving the temporarily strained relations between Switzerland and the US.

The Swiss ambassador said: "We are measured by our folkloristic Heidi-land image. It is the overreaching image of our country. Switzerland is a paradise for tourists."

But Defago said Switzerland also wanted to be seen as modern economic and financial centre of great importance: "We should not make ourselves seem smaller than we are."

In Defago's opinion, Switzerland stopped getting a bad press in the US after two Swiss banks - UBS and Credit Suisse - agreed a $1.25 billion deal with Jewish organisations in August 1998.

The deal was aimed at putting an end to the controversy over dormant accounts in Swiss banks dating from the Holocaust era.

But Defago believes it is still necessary for Switzerland to maintain a dialogue with certain groups, including some Jewish organisations, the media and the academic world.

He says Swiss diplomats would work hand in hand with Presence Switzerland, a newly created government agency aimed at boosting Switzerland's image abroad. The agency has an annual budget of SFr10 million ($6 million) and is launching a first image campaign in the US.

For Defago, one of Switzerland's strong selling points is its system of direct democracy and the multicultural nation state. "It tells people indirectly something about the Swiss way of treating minorities and about tolerance," Defago told swissinfo.

But he said many Americans were surprised to learn that Switzerland is the only country - apart from the Vatican - not to be a member of the United Nations. He said many people would like to see Swiss voters approve UN membership when the issue comes to nationwide ballot in 2002.

Defago believes Switzerland also needs to work harder to promote the exchange of ideas with other countries. "It has to do a lot of work abroad to explain its policies and to show its interest in the world."

He said Switzerland could learn from the US, particularly from the education system and its science and research schemes. But Defago said Switzerland should not think about copying the US system.

Switzerland in 1999 set up a bilateral economic commission with the US and, in a world first, opened a science and research consulate in Boston; Massachusetts, last year.

by Urs Geiser


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