What makes a good Swiss diplomat?

Erich Lessing / Magnum

The foreign ministry has opened this year’s recruitment drive for young diplomats who will represent Switzerland’s interests abroad and at international organisations. The selection process has been criticised for not training more women or specialists.

This content was published on March 4, 2013 - 11:00

An article in a prestigious German weekly, Die Zeit, at the beginning of the year gave critics a surprisingly large platform to vent their anger and disappointment.

“Such a selection process is unprofessional and outdated. […] We can no longer afford the type of diplomat the current procedure produces. We really need the best,“ an article signed by rejected candidates claimed. The three women had dropped out after failing the written test in the first round of the selection procedure.

They accuse the 11-member selection committee of ignoring their academic credentials and their professional experience, urging for the re-introduction of a quota system to boost the number of female diplomats.

Dominik Furgler, president of the panel, takes such attacks in his stride.

“It is not the first time we face such criticism,” the Swiss ambassador to Egypt told in a telephone interview from Cairo. Convinced of the selection procedure, applied for decades and adapted over time, he nevertheless does not exclude mistakes.

He says the foreign ministry about ten years ago developed a tailor-made “competence model” – a career planning tool required to find suitable candidates and for further training of diplomats. The model defines special abilities, including intercultural and hospitality skills, as well as being able to work well in crisis situations.

An assessment firm has attested to the top quality of the procedure. “This confirms that our selection procedure is, by and large, very good,” says Furgler who chairs the selection panel consisting mainly of women.

However, he does not rule out that excellent candidates for the diplomatic training are overlooked, because their documents handed in were not convincing enough.

“It is crucial to ensure that we invite all the really suitable candidates to an initial assessment, and to make a selection afterwards,” he says. Furgler argues that the highest hurdles for a candidate are at the very start – to make it to the first round of tests.

“Of the more than 280 applicants in 2012, only about 80 were invited to the first test,” he explains.

Diplomatic academy

Criticism of a different kind comes from Foraus, a student-based foreign policy think-tank.

Its president, Nicola Forster, believes a general review of the diplomatic training system is necessary, not so much of the recruitment system or the re-introduction of a gender quota.

He calls for a more flexible system altogether to adapt to the changing needs of diplomacy.

“More mediators with specialist know-how are required who can be dispatched at short notice to a hotspot,” he says. They would complement those traditional diplomats who are posted abroad for a set period of time to represent Switzerland’s interests.

A reform must also aim at more family-friendly job models, also tailor-made for people with extraordinary individual talents, he says.

Forster comes out against a maximum age for diplomatic applicants – currently 35 – to boost the chances of outsiders. Above all, he recommends the creation of a “diplomatic academy” to replace what he describes as a 15-month “on the job training” of Swiss diplomats.


In his office at the Directorate of Corporate Resources, - the foreign ministry’s personnel unit in the Swiss capital, Bern – Markus Reubi defends the policy of generalist diplomats.

It is due to the constraints of the limited size of Switzerland’s diplomatic corps. Based on his personal experience in a crisis situation in Japan two years ago, Reubi sings the praises of the Swiss system. “It showed that generalists are able to adapt to an emergency situation, and get acquainted quickly with a new topic.”

He adds that Switzerland allows for a certain differentiation for diplomats at international organisations or as experts on financial and economic issues. “We need generalist diplomats prepared to specialise. And ultimately it is key to find the right mix of generalists and specialists at any mission.”

Reubi says the government considers the continued presence of a diplomatic representation on the ground, albeit a small team, crucial to build up and maintain a network of contacts.

An ad-hoc system with so called laptop diplomats, flown in and out of a region, would not serve Switzerland’s interest, according to Reubi.


There are currently 348 Swiss diplomats active in 173 embassies abroad, at international organisations and at headquarters in Bern.

The largest Swiss embassy is in Moscow with about 100 employees.

In 2012 Switzerland opened new embassies in Myanmar, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan. However plans are afoot to close the embassy in Guatemala and to reduce the network of Swiss consulates around the world.


The first woman to become a Swiss ambassador was Francesca Pometta in 1977. Women now make up about 30% of the diplomatic corps, 18 women bear the title of ambassador and are heads of a Swiss mission.

The beginnings of Swiss diplomacy were very modest. Up to the 1860 there were only two permanent envoys - to Vienna and to Paris.

A first attempt to professionalise the system was scrapped before the turn of the century. The diplomatic network expanded substantially only after the First and the Second World Wars and reached a peak in the 1990s.

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“A diplomat is a man who thinks twice before he says nothing” according to a pun attributed to former British Prime Minister Edward Heath.

Ambassador Furgler for his part says the task of a diplomat - Swiss or not - is the same: It is to represent the interests, as diverse as they may be, of a specific county. “Switzerland is no longer unique with its good offices or because it is a neutral country.”

The role and the status of an ambassador has seen changes over time. Diplomats used to be part of an elite, but the glamour is increasingly fading into the past.

“Diplomats have to act increasingly as managers in a highly complex environment,” says Reubi.

Unlike the United States, there are no political appointments in Switzerland for diplomatic posts. “This would be incompatible with the Swiss political system of a multi-party government,” he adds.

Appointments of outsiders to a diplomatic post are rare.


Besides the traditional task of negotiator and mediator with highly developed social skills, a diplomat nowadays must be proficient in using the different media and taking into account foreign as well as domestic interests, says Reubi.

In addition leadership qualities and the ability to work well in crisis situations, notably when stationed in a dangerous region, are becoming indispensable.

A diplomat is no longer guaranteed a smooth career. Competition among members of the diplomatic corps for prestigious posts has become tough.

“Individual preferences can be stated, but not everyone makes it to the top rank of ambassador,” says Reubi.

Key requirements

Last year a total of 282 candidates applied for diplomatic service; 22 were admitted, including four women.

The foreign ministry admits about ten candidates per year as a rule. The number of applications have varied a lot over the years, often reacting to the economic situation.

As part of a constitutional article on equal opportunities, an indirect quota for female ambassadors was implemented in 2003 It was suspended last year. It had set a gender parity between men and women for diplomatic recruits.

Another controversial attempt to ease access the diplomatic service for outsiders was stopped in 2011.

The present diplomatic assessment procedure was introduced in 1956 and adapted slightly over the years.

Candidates must be of Swiss nationality and not be more than 35 years of age. Repeat applications are excluded.

Other requirements: Proficient in three languages (two of them official Swiss languages – German, French, Italian), university diploma, and professional experience an asset. No criminal record.

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