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Martin Dahinden Ambassador to US on tax scandals, terrorism and trade deals

Martin Dahinden with Barack Obama at the Ambassador Credentialing Ceremony on November 18, 2014

(White House)

Three months into his posting as Swiss ambassador to Washington, Martin Dahinden says he is “confident” the bank issue between the two countries can be resolved. He also sees Switzerland as a model for preventing Muslim radicalisation. A dozen Swiss banks are still being probed by the US Department of Justice. Is this bank issue going to remain a thorn in bilateral relations for long?

Martin Dahinden: In August 2013, Switzerland and the US signed the joint statement, which is a clearly defined framework providing an opportunity for Swiss banks to resolve past issues. I am confident that those issues will eventually be resolved. Fortunately, they did not compromise the many other relations between our two countries. Former UBS number three Raoul Weil was acquitted by a Florida jury in November of conspiring with wealthy Americans to hide billions of dollars in secret accounts from the Internal Revenue Service. In this whole tax evasion affair, were the banks and Switzerland bullied by the US? 

M.D.: We have taken note of the outcome of the proceedings. However, the foreign ministry cannot comment on the proceedings or the outcome. Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter recently represented Switzerland at the summit on terrorism and extremism organised by President Obama. What is your take on that issue? 

M.D.: Violent extremism is probably the biggest challenge of our generation. To counter violent extremism, a wide range of responses is needed. Switzerland is particularly well suited to contribute towards preventing the root causes of radicalisation. Our country has a lot of experience in building communities, in creating jobs for young people and giving them perspective. We built our own society from the bottom up. In Switzerland, people from various religious beliefs and diverse cultural backgrounds are living together. 

Personally, I was glad to see that the discussion very much focused on how to build resilience towards violent extremism and how to prevent radicalisation. A priority for the US government was to press for more information sharing on terrorism, Islamist militants and their radicalisation efforts. Is Switzerland ready to increase that cooperation?

M.D.: Sharing information is nothing new – Switzerland shares intelligence with other countries, including the US. President Obama and most of the 65 participants from other countries at the summit described the threat from groups such as Islamic State (ISIS) as “unprecedented” and “imminent”. You say it is probably the biggest challenge of our generation. Yet, just a year ago, Obama described ISIS as a “junior varsity team”. Did the entire international political class take their eye off the ball? 

M.D.: We knew from the beginning that those extremist groups would pose a threat. But nobody could imagine the dynamic they would develop over recent months. What is the current role of Switzerland in US-Iran relations? There are the talks on Iran’s nuclear programme and the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post correspondent incarcerated in Tehran. Is Switzerland acting as an intermediary in those issues? 

M.D.: Switzerland is the protective power of the US in Iran and given the nature of this mandate I am not commenting on this matter. On December 17, Barack Obama and Raul Castro decided to normalise relations between the US and Cuba. Was Switzerland involved in the secret negotiations that took place in Canada for months prior to that day? 

M.D.: No, Switzerland was not involved in the negotiations in Canada. But through its longstanding mandate it facilitates contacts between Cubans and Americans. It is our hope that relations between the US and Cuba improve and normalise. What impact is the normalisation having on the Swiss mandate with Cuba? 

M.D.: If Cuba and the US re-establish full diplomatic relations, Switzerland’s mandate will become obsolete. In light of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the “fast-track” push by Obama in Congress, is Switzerland revisiting its plan for a Swiss-American free-trade agreement, a project floated back in 2005

M.D.: The TTIP is about to create the world’s largest free-trade area accounting for roughly half of the world’s GDP. This would significantly affect Swiss companies. The agreement is still under negotiation and we are following it with great interest. But it is too early to say whether Switzerland can participate and wants to participate. What is your overall assessment of relations between Switzerland and the US, and what are your priorities? 

M.D.: Relations are deeper and wider than most people think. I attribute this to the many values which Switzerland and the US share, such as commitment to democracy, human rights and the pledge for a free-market economy. There are certainly areas of dissent, but the long-standing and good relationship between our countries enables us to address those areas in an open manner. 

The most important goal is to deepen relations between Switzerland and the US. Even though Switzerland is the sixth largest investor in the US and the US is the second-most important export market for Switzerland after Germany, I see big potential for further advancement. From the beginning I have experienced much interest in the US in working with Switzerland on conflict prevention, humanitarian issues and mediation. I see many opportunities for further collaboration in those areas. And let’s not forget that both countries are leading in science and research, and we can embark on new avenues. 

Martin Dahinden

Before being appointed ambassador to the United States, Martin Dahinden was head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). He took over the post of ambassador from Manuel Sager, who was appointed head of the SDC Cooperation with Eastern Europe division in Bern. 

Born in Zurich in 1955, Dahinden earned a PhD in economics (business administration) from the University of Zurich. Before joining the diplomatic service, he worked as a postgraduate assistant at the university and was then employed by a bank and a publishing house. He joined the diplomatic service in 1987. During his career, he has held posts in Geneva, Paris, Nigeria and New York.

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