Switzerland’s incoming ambassador to the United States Jacques Pitteloud says his priorities will include keeping the “excellent relationship” between the two countries and negotiating a free trade deal.
“It's a fascinating moment to be in Washington with all the developments in American politics and the influence that these developments have on the rest of the world,” he told swissinfo.ch in an exclusive interview. “I think it's probably one of the most fascinating postings there are.”
Pitteloud, 56, takes up his post on September 2 and will be officially accredited at a ceremony with President Donald Trump on September 16. He takes over from Martin Dahinden, who is retiring.
Asked how he feels about the Trump administration, Pitteloud said it was not his role to pass judgment and “frankly we deal with countries, not with governments”. “We have a long, long tradition of being excellent friends and I have not noticed any change with the new administration,” he said.
As for Trump’s tweets, Pitteloud said he would certainly be checking his Twitter account and “I'm quite sure that all my colleagues in Washington and all ambassadors are checking the Twitter line of President Trump all the time because it's a very direct way to understand what the president is thinking and saying”.
‘Swiss James Bond’
Pitteloud served as a Swiss intelligence coordinator from 2000 to 2006, and a journalist once dubbed him the “Swiss James Bond”. He leaves a post as head of the Swiss foreign ministry’s directorate for securing and managing resourcesexternal link for Washington. Prior to that he was Swiss ambassador to Kenya from 2010 to 2015, with responsibility also for Rwanda and Somalia. He has a Rwandan wife and one daughter.
Shortly after being appointed to Washington, Pitteloud was cleared by the Swiss federal courtexternal link in a case brought by two Kenyan businessmen brothers who accused him of abusing power during his Kenya posting, intervening unduly in a corruption case in which they were involved. The Federal Criminal Court deemed that nothing illegal had taken place, but that text messages sent to the businessmen had been “extremely insistent and not devoid of double-entendre”. At stake was a deal to return illegally gotten assets from Switzerland.
Pitteloud told swissinfo.ch the three years of legal proceedings had been “very painful”, although “I was treated very well by my ministry because my ministry knew exactly what I had done and that I had done it on instruction”.
Free trade and good offices
Negotiating a long-discussed Free Trade Agreement with the United States “will certainly be very high on the agenda of both countries in terms of bilateral relations,” says Pitteloud. “I am fairly confident that both sides are really interested in getting the best possible agreement for Switzerland and the US. Now it will be very technical, it will be difficult. It’s a long process, but it’s going to be fascinating.”
The US is the second-most important trading partner for Switzerland after neighbouring Germany, but there is no free trade agreement between Bern and Washington. A deal mooted in 2006 fell through, mostly due to the opposition of Swiss farmers.
On the foreign relations front, Switzerland has a “protecting powerexternal link” mandate under which it has been representing US interests in Iran since 1980, and recently signed an agreement to represent its interests in Venezuela. Asked if Switzerland can help Washington improve its relations with those two countries, Pitteloud said it could “keep playing the role of an honest broker and trying to pass on messages and maybe conveying messages that can’t be given through the really official channels”.
Could his previous experience as an intelligence coordinator could be useful here?
“I will not be there as a representative of any intelligence organisation, that definitely belongs to the past,” Pitteloud replied when posed the question. “Experience, though, could help.”
We will feature more of our interview with Jacques Pitteloud in an upcoming episode of our podcast, The Swiss Connection. Subscribe on Apple Podcastsexternal link or a similar platform to hear the episode when it is released.