Articles - December 2015

Switzerland's Martin Dahinden: A Decidedly Modern, Old School Diplomat

"Neutrality does not mean that we turn our back on the world. On the contrary, neutrality obliges us to play a very active role in diplomacy."
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

When you first meet Switzerland’s Ambassador to the United States, Martin Dahinden, he creates the impression of a diplomat who would be just as at home in the halls of 19th century European diplomacy as he is in the diplomacy of the post-Cold War world. He is mannered and thoughtfully spoken, but also an explorer of diplomatic frontiers and a keen student of the impact of globalization on diplomacy.

Though he is a Ph.D. economist, Ambassador Dahinden is a classically trained diplomat who was drawn into the practice of diplomacy by a combination of wanderlust and boundless curiosity about a wide range of issues. “I am not a person who would enjoy working 30 years on the same issue,” Dahinden observes. The opportunity to indulge “my interest in doing many different things and having the opportunity after four or five years of service to change the place I would work and change the topic I was working on,” he reflects “has given a kind of richness to my life that I would probably not have been able to find elsewhere.”

The richness and diversity of Ambassador Dahinden’s career is self-evident in his professional biography. He entered the Swiss diplomatic service in 1987. He held early assignments as a member of the Swiss Delegation to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) posted to the Swiss Embassy in Paris, as Deputy to the Swiss Ambassador in Nigeria (1989 – 1991) and a temporary posting to the Swiss Mission to the United Nations in New York. Subsequently he worked in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs Service for Disarmament Policy and Nuclear Issues (1991 – 1995) and as Head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Service of the Directorate of Political Affairs. These assignments led to Dahinden being named Deputy Head of the OSCE Coordination Unit during the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE in 1996. Building on his work there, he was posted to Brussels as Deputy Head of the Swiss Mission to NATO (1997 – 2000).

The Ottawa Convention, referred to as the “Landmine Treaty” but officially the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and of Their Destruction, was opened for signature in 1997. It achieved status as binding international law in 1999. Switzerland made a major contribution to that work by establishing the Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Demining. Dahinden served as that agency’s Director from 2000 – 2004. Following that appointment Dahinden headed the Directorate of Corporate Management of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (2004 – 2008).

Immediately prior to being named Ambassador to the United States in 2014, Dahinden served as Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) from 2008 – 2014.

Ambassador Dahinden’s appointment as Switzerland’s Ambassador to the United States taps a deep vein of shared values between the two countries, including an abiding respect for constitutionalism, the rule of law, the importance of democratic political participation open to all citizens and respect for human rights. These values echo a special “bond of union” that was born of the fact that Switzerland and the United States in the middle of the 19th century represented the only functioning republics in the world. It was in Washington, D.C., that Switzerland opened its first embassy outside Europe.

Ambassador Dahinden was kind enough to speak with Diplomatic Connections about Swiss traditions in foreign policy, notably the Swiss tradition of neutrality, as well as his long career.

Diplomatic Connections: You have now been in your country’s diplomatic service for 28 years. How has the world changed?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: When I started in the late 1980s, it was the last years of the Cold War. Relations, and also the issue positions of countries, were much more defined than they are today. What we have seen over the course of my career is an enormous move toward globalization. Not only are things more complex, but many new instruments of diplomacy and security policy have been developed. Now we deal with a whole range of issues that diplomacy one hundred years ago, 50 years ago, even 20 years ago simply did not know.

Diplomatic Connections: As the world has changed, how have you changed as a diplomat?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: I have learned a great deal over the years and benefited greatly from each diplomatic assignment I have had. But, my core attitude toward my work has not changed. Diplomacy is about analyzing things, about reporting, about negotiating. You can go back in history, even to the Renaissance, and you see those three elements in the core of a diplomat’s life.

Diplomatic Connections: Switzerland is a unique country. It is a confederation. There are 26 separate cantons, each of which retains a significant degree of autonomy. We talk about states’ rights under the United States Constitution, but those rights pale alongside the autonomy of the Swiss cantons. How does this unique Swiss governmental structure affect diplomacy?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: It is actually a big advantage. The different cantons have their own culture, and all of the cantons are linked to a broader European culture — the Italian, the German or the French culture. This gives us the opportunity, at least in Europe, to have people who understand exceptionally well what is going on in our neighborhood. In addition, Switzerland has a long history of political negotiation as the result of the confederal nature of its statehood. This is something very useful when you embark on diplomatic missions.

Diplomatic Connections: Does the confederal nature of the Swiss government, the inherent diversity of experience and opinion, make it harder to make foreign policy decisions?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: To some extent it might be harder. When you consider that Switzerland is a neutral country that puts a great deal of emphasis on competence and delivering good services, we build what we do in the international diplomatic realm on the experience we have gained from our internal political system.

Diplomatic Connections: You noted in your response that Switzerland is a neutral state. Switzerland has a very long tradition of formal neutrality in international relations. Functionally, what does neutrality mean as a central tenet of Swiss foreign policy?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: Neutrality means that we do not engage in military alliances. We do not accept the use of unilateral military means in international affairs. The only thing we may do is to participate in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. You pointed out that neutrality has a long history in Swiss diplomacy. For us the critical point was the Congress of Vienna [1815] following the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. It was in that series of agreements that neutrality was formally recognized.

Switzerland, because of its centrality and its geostrategic position, has long served as a crossroads of political intrigue and power games. Neutrality was a way to keep us outside of a permanent power struggle in Europe.

Diplomatic Connections: The Swiss Foreign Ministry describes Swiss neutrality as “self-determined, permanent and armed.” Could you explain what is meant by that?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: First, our neutrality is self-determined. This means that neutrality is a choice that the Swiss people and their government have consciously made. Neutrality is not something that has been imposed on us.

The second element is the idea that our neutrality is permanent. Historically, there have been many situations where a country has declared itself neutral in a very specific conflict. This was often the case with the United States in the 19th century, but it was also the case with many other countries. Our neutrality is not of that kind. It is not situational. Instead, it is a commitment we make, a stance Switzerland takes regardless of what conflicts might come up.

Third, our neutrality is armed neutrality. This means that Switzerland does not want to rely on somebody else to protect us. To be respected as neutral we have an army. We are able to defend ourselves in case somebody violates our neutrality or our sovereignty.

Diplomatic Connections: How does the doctrine of neutrality affect the conduct of Swiss foreign relations?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: Neutrality does not mean that we turn our back on what is happening in the world. On the contrary, we see that neutrality obliges us to play a very active role in many areas of diplomacy.

Let me offer two examples. First, Geneva has assumed a very special role in the world as a place for international negotiations. We offer a neutral place where countries can meet, where international organizations can be established. We do not interfere with negotiations or the operations of various organizations. Offering our country as a platform for international operations does not carry with it any hidden agenda.

Another role that was much more important in the past but remains a useful role for Swiss diplomacy is our mandate to serve as a protective power when other countries have broken off formal relations between them. Switzerland offers its presence for the United States in Iran or for Georgia in Russia and vice versa. In these situations, we act as a kind of intermediary to keep channels of communication open. We also work to assure that the rights of citizens of the countries we represent as a protective power are respected despite the differences between countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Switzerland was relatively late to join the United Nations, only doing so in 2002. What was involved in that decision?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: This decision not to join the United Nations and then later to join is linked to how we define neutrality. If you look at the Charter of the United Nations, you see that the Security Council is in a position to take tough military action. That has never happened, to date, and the actions of the Security Council have never gone as far as its mandated powers are described in the Charter.

Still, there was a fear that powers of the Security Council detailed in the UN Charter could impinge on Switzerland’s policy of neutrality. Then, after the end of the Cold War some things began to change. The Swiss government decided to put the question of Swiss membership in the United Nations to the Swiss people in a referendum. It was really the transformed nature of the post-Cold War world that was decisive in Switzerland’s decision to join the United Nations.

That said, we have been for a long time a major member of and a major contributor to many of the specialized organs of the United Nations.

Diplomatic Connections: Switzerland’s special role as a protective state in the world of diplomacy came into sharper relief this summer as Cuba and the United States took the first steps toward restoring normal diplomatic relations between them. How did Switzerland function in that role as protective power and diplomatic go-between?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: It started in 1961. Of course, during that time there were a lot of changes and some provocations. Throughout the Cold War, and especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis [1962], the Swiss embassies around the world, but especially in Havana and Washington, D.C., served as important avenues of communication.

For instance when the United States discovered the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy forwarded a message making it clear that although the U.S. would establish a naval blockade of Russian ships entering Cuban waters, no invasion of Cuba was planned. His goal was to avoid any misperception that might risk escalating the confrontation beyond the issue of the placement of offensive missiles capable of reaching the United States in Cuba.

After the massive influx of Cubans fleeing Cuba to the United States in 1977, the Swiss role changed. From that point onward, the Interests Section of the United States in Cuba was staffed primarily by American personnel, though it functioned under the Swiss flag and under Swiss diplomatic protection. That meant that Switzerland’s role was more a formal protection of a small but active U.S. diplomatic presence in Havana from 1977 through July 2015.

Diplomatic Connections: How did the Swiss role function here in the United States? Was there a Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., staffed by Cuban diplomats but operating under the Swiss flag?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: Exactly. In fact, Cuba and the United States did exchange diplomats, but since neither extended diplomatic recognition to the other, the Interests Sections functioned under the Swiss flag. There was regular contact between the Swiss embassies and the respective Interests Sections, but most of the interaction that was going on was happening directly.

Diplomatic Connections: How is the role of Switzerland as a neutral state and as a protective power incorporated into the training of Swiss diplomats?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: We don’t have a special training that singles out the protective power or the mediation role of Swiss diplomacy. But, these roles are very much a part of the culture of the Swiss diplomatic service. For instance, our experience in mediation leads us always to look beyond the immediate political limitations on negotiation between contesting states.

If you look at what Swiss diplomats are doing in multilateral institutions, you see much the same intermediary role. Our diplomats try to speak to people from all the different parts of a political setting.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize the relationship between Switzerland and the United States?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: The relations between Switzerland and the United States are good and they are deep. I was surprised by how big the Swiss footprint in the United States is. Switzerland is the sixth largest foreign investor in the United States, creating approximately half a million jobs. A large percentage of those jobs are highly skilled research and development positions that draw high salaries.

There is growing interest here in the United States in the Swiss apprenticeship programs as an alternative educational model. We have signed this summer [2015] a letter of intent to exchange experience, knowledge and best practices to help establish similar apprenticeship programs in the United States.

There is a vibrant Swiss community in the United States. But, of course, there have been some disagreements on tax and banking issues. Fortunately, there are agreements now in place.

Diplomatic Connections: The United States and Switzerland have in effect what is called an “Enhanced Political Cooperation Framework.” There are annual meetings between senior officials of both governments, but what does that mean practically?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: This is an annual meeting where the open issues between Switzerland and the United States are put on the table, then we examine together where we are and where we want to go. The content of these meetings changes according to the current issues between us. It also helps to assure that at one point in the year there is a comprehensive examination of all the different issues that are outstanding between us.

Diplomatic Connections: The persons involved in those meetings change from year to year depending upon what issues are to be discussed?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: Exactly. For instance, last year Switzerland held the presidency of the OSCE. Broad questions of European security were a particular concern in our bilateral meetings with the United States. The core issues often change according to the international agenda and also according to the agenda of both countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Today, we have failed states. We have non-state actors. We have long-term crisis areas such as the Horn of Africa. We have the Sudans, in the plural. Now we see the rise of ISIS, continuing instability in Iraq and a prolonged civil war in Syria generating hundreds of thousands of refugees.

All of these present security concerns, but they are also humanitarian crises where the available humanitarian aid is insufficient. Is there a new approach to humanitarian assistance that we need to be thinking about?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: When I started as a diplomat, we had a clear understanding of the so-called conflict cycle. When a conflict broke out, we knew that in an initial phase of conflict preventive diplomacy was important. Then, crisis management became the central strategic response. If that failed, then perhaps the use of force under the auspices of the United Nations or some coalition of states might become necessary. Following the use of force or coincident with it, some form of humanitarian aid would be necessary. Finally, a reconstruction process would begin making use of the formal instruments of development cooperation.

Crisis situations today demand a multilevel approach that cannot wait for the old cycle to work itself out and that will not survive the ad hoc, marginally coordinated humanitarian efforts of the past. What you see now is a much more complex pattern of conflict, conflict resolution and post-conflict rebuilding of an entire political-economic-social order. This means that the toolbox that was previously used one instrument after the other now needs to employ all the tools, all the assistance skills at once. This is extremely demanding and very often leads to overstretching the capabilities of the assistance program the international community is prepared to provide.

Diplomatic Connections: What needs to happen to reconceptualize and restructure the way in which the world’s leading powers and non-governmental groups provide assistance? What needs to change? Who can bring about that change?

Ambassador Martin Dahinden: If I had to tell you one critical element to dealing with these problems, it is the need for strong political leadership that can make the needed changes happen. I don’t think that a new institution would solve these problems. Tinkering with the institutional framework without closely re-examining the fundamental issues of how assistance is provided will simply circle us right back into the same set of problems we have now.

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