Former diplomat criticises lack of clear policy

Former diplomat Nordmann is critical of current Swiss foreign policy Keystone

Switzerland has no clear strategy for facing current global crises and challenges, according to former Swiss ambassador François Nordmann.

This content was published on July 26, 2009 - 10:22

He tells that the country is perhaps trying to solve too many problems around the world, and in some cases without even being asked.

After a long career at the Swiss foreign ministry, Nordmann has become, among other things, an international political analyst and regularly writes columns for the daily newspaper Le Temps. The Swiss government and its diplomats have had to face a series of crises lately, in particular with Libya. How do you view their responses?

François Nordmann: There are different types of crises, for example those that happen every day with Swiss tourists in difficulty. In these cases, [Swiss] diplomacy is up to the challenge with good management structures in place. When it comes to hostage taking, the foreign ministry also knows how to respond and take the best approach.

As for Libya, it is a very special case and the reactions from Switzerland were perhaps badly adapted to alien psychology and the verbal excesses of Colonel Moammar Gadaffi.

Whatever, Switzerland has to admit that what is called a lack of tact on the part of the Geneva authorities led rightfully to apologies, and the episode is ending with both a profit and a loss. Having said that, a trial is still in the offing and it is therefore justified to wait to see what happens. In the United States tax fraud probe into Swiss bank UBS, could Switzerland have anticipated banking secrecy and fiscal problems arising with the European Union?

F.N.: There were indicators. Diplomats knew that concluding the bilateral accords with the European Union in 2004 with the agreement on tax savings and fraud was only an armistice, and that countries who paid lip service to concessions would not give up on their plan to impose an automatic exchange of information, which would mean the end of [Swiss] banking secrecy.

Since 2004, Switzerland should have had a Plan B which would have come in useful when the moment arrived. It made concessions but once pushed back against the wall, its answers appeared late and suspect. And that put us on the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's] grey list.

swissinfo: What in your view are the weaknesses in Swiss diplomacy?

F.N.: It has not understood that there is a hierarchy among countries. When seen in that light, the sovereign equality of states is a myth which has only some kind of legal value. When the big powers agree with each other - and they have institutions to do that, for example the G8, G20 and the Security Council - Switzerland has to make sure it applies their decisions in a coherent and intelligent way, at the same time as protecting its own interests.

Swiss diplomacy perhaps also takes on more than it can chew. It tries to play some kind of role in practically every conflict. This theory of "fishing" is applied to our peace policy by going to Chad, Sudan, Uganda, Colombia and Nepal and hoping that a fish will bite and we can offer our good offices, in one conflict or another.

With Iran, Swiss policy was extreme because it was not in line with the consensus obtained by the Security Council... Switzerland wanted to offer its good offices, which no one had asked for or which only concerned one of the parties involved.

It's the same in the Middle East. Bern provided an important contribution with the Geneva Initiative, but without the governments concerned, in fact against them. Since then, I think that Switzerland has fallen out with one of the parties and as a result there is no question, at least for the time being, of mediation in the region.

Summing up, I wonder how far these choices comply with a strategic line. What is the real interest of the country concerning the challenges posed by economic and social issues? I am thinking for example of migration. Do we have a foreign policy that's based on all the concerns? I am not sure of the answer. Recent crises show Switzerland's isolation. Is Swiss membership of the European Union an answer?

F.N.: Switzerland is very proud of its direct democracy. But the countries which surround us also have democracies that work well and their systems allow their governments to take action.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher criticised the [Swiss] government for having responsibility but not power. It's a view that applies very well to our relations with Europe and which puts question marks over our institutions.

With the increase in bilateral accords, we are less and less considered as a third party. For its partners, Switzerland must apply the discipline of the common market and take on board EU law.

Our partners have drawn the lesson that bilateralism has had its day and that Switzerland has the choice of either wordlessly stepping in line or asking to join the EU to have its voice heard. In Switzerland, some continue to praise the virtues of bilateralism, but the word does not have the same meaning for our European partners.

Mohamed Cherif with Frédéric Burnand, (Adapted from French by Robert Brookes)

François Nordmann

1942: Born in Fribourg

1971: Enters Swiss foreign ministry

1980: Swiss mission at the United Nations in New York

1984-1992: Ambassador to Guatemala and several other central American states.

1992: Head of foreign ministry's department concerned with international organisations

1994: Ambassador to Britain

1999: Switzerland's representative to the international organisations in Geneva.

2002: Ambassador to France

2007: Leaves the Swiss foreign ministry

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Good offices are initiatives taken by a third party to stop litigation or make contact easier between two conflicting parties. More generally it refers to any initiative or contribution that encourages peace and international cooperation.

As a neutral country, Switzerland has made good offices one of the pillars of its foreign policy. These can take different forms, for example organising international conferences, representing the interests of a foreign state and playing host to international organisations.

A protecting power mandate is required if two states break off diplomatic ties. Switzerland carried out such mandates since World War I but there has been less of a need for the mandates in recent years. At present Switzerland has four such mandates in place: representing the United States in Cuba, Cuba in the US, Iran in Egypt and the US in Iran.

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