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Why Switzerland shouldn’t worry too much about its global image

Martin Dahinden

Switzerland’s reputation and image abroad is much better than what certain media have been presenting recently, says former Swiss diplomat Martin Dahinden. He examines the country’s global image and the interaction between media and politics.

Image is important, especially as our actions are based on what we think about something. This is true for humans as well as companies and nations. As we saw in the recent case of Credit Suisse, damage to the bank’s image led to a loss in confidence and prompted many customers to withdraw funds. It is possible that this triggered the dynamics that eventually caused the bank to collapse.

A country’s image can also lead to these kinds of developments, and it can expand or limit our freedom to act.

Swiss and international media give the impression that Switzerland’s image is going through a major crisis. In an interview with the German-speaking Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper on March 16, 2023, the US ambassador to Switzerland even went as far as to say that the Alpine country was in crisis. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s neutrality policy is under attack; the practice of exporting war materiel is misunderstood; and the financial sector is going through a tough time.

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Paradoxically, the most recent annual survey of Switzerland’s image abroad paints a different picture (imagemonitor 2022). It shows that Switzerland’s image is as good as ever, with only Canada achieving similar positive results. Off the top of their heads, most respondents could not think of anything negative to say about Switzerland, and those who could mentioned high prices and the bad weather. It is worth noting that the survey was carried out after Russia started it aggression in Ukraine and the controversy over Swiss neutrality and arms exports.

How do you explain all this?

When I was Swiss ambassador to the US, I had similar experiences during the banking and tax dispute between the US and Switzerland. Even though popular newspapers and TV channels attacked Switzerland, I did not sense any negative image of the country during daily meetings with government representatives and in Congress. I certainly did not notice it during my frequent encounters with the American people. This does not hide the fact that the tax dispute was a tough fight.

During that period, I discovered something that also applies to our current image problem: the media mainly report what other media say; but they also hope to dig up some dirt. Foreign media often echo what the Swiss media say about Switzerland. In this echo chamber, the Swiss media take up these reports only to convince us that this is Switzerland’s real image abroad.

Media images are never objective. They are competitive and influenced by many things; they affect our perceptions and our ways of thinking and acting in Switzerland, but also abroad. Foreign diplomats in Switzerland like the US ambassador, his German and French counterparts or EU representatives are well aware of these interdependencies.

They evaluate the impact their words have on the echo chambers of media and politics. As players in the world of public relations, they promote their interests, and so they should. This does not make them bad diplomats, or ‘undiplomatic’ as they were described in an article in the NZZ on April 6, 2023.

The situation in Switzerland today is extremely favourable to media influence. Public debates are full of uncertainty and disorientation. It is very reminiscent of the so-called “Helvetic malaise” of the 1960s – an unusual mix of confidence and doubt, when people lost belief in institutions and there was much attention on Switzerland’s reputation abroad.

Of course, the challenges back then – water pollution, urban sprawl, fear of alienation, etc. – were different from those of today. But even back then, many intellectuals suffered from a sense of “fatelessness” which was reinforced by neutrality (as described in Karl Schmid’s book Unbehagen im Kleinstaat).

Should we ignore the negative image conveyed by the media? Is there a need for action? No, quite the opposite. Clear communication is necessary when we feel Switzerland is misunderstood abroad. But obviously the need for action is more important than communication.

There are many things wrong with our financial sector. Our neutrality policy is marked by uncertainty and our policy on arms exports has become a curiosity that creates problems and leads to self-discrimination. There are many other challenges: financing old age pensions, high healthcare costs, Switzerland’s relations with the European Union, rising property prices, high rents and shortcomings with our education system and energy supply.

All these issues require serious political discussion. But it would be disastrous if concerns about our image determined how we dealt with them. Ultimately this is not necessary because Switzerland’s image abroad is better than we are led to believe.

Switzerland’s global image hits a low 

The near collapse of the 167-year-old bank Credit Suisse set off a financial earthquake that has made headlines far beyond Switzerland’s borders. Although the government’s crisis management was generally well received abroad, the reputation of the Swiss financial centre has suffered a blow – and with it Switzerland’s entire image, which was already starting to tarnish.  

The country has been facing criticism for some time. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its neutrality has been contested internationally. Russia no longer regards Switzerland as neutral, while its Western partners see it as opportunistically sitting on the fence and accuse it of harming Ukraine. The Swiss authorities’ ban on the re-export of military equipment to Ukraine has raised doubts as to whether Switzerland is still a reliable ally at all. The criticism also covers the sanctions against Russian oligarchs. In the eyes of many international observers, Switzerland is not going far enough.  

Neutrality, the banking centre and the sanctions policy: these matters go to the very heart of the country’s identity. We asked various prominent Swiss figures how they see Switzerland’s reputation in the world today and what they think should be done.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SWI swissinfo.ch. 

Translated by Billi Bierling

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