Articles - March 2017

Switzerland's Man in Los Angeles:
Consul General Emil Wyss

James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Too often the focus of diplomatic reporting rests in the world’s capitals or at the site of major international meetings. Often enough, however, high-level diplomacy depends upon the ground work of diplomats who work outside of national capitals in cities across the globe. One such diplomat is Switzerland’s Emil Wyss (Ay-meel Vees) whose career has reached from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern to early assignments in Prague and London, from Switzerland’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York and a specialized Science Consulate in Boston to the Swiss Consulate in Toronto, from the Persian Gulf to South Asia and now back to the West Coast of the United States.

From 2014-2016, Wyss was Switzerland’s Consul General in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial center and rapidly becoming one of the largest cities in the world. Today he serves as Switzerland’s Consul General in Los Angeles, these days the second city of the United States and home to much of the glitz and glamor of the arts and entertainment industry as well as a hub for global commerce, entrepreneurship, innovation, culture and higher education.

These two cities are literally worlds apart. Yet, Emil Wyss is equally at home in each. “The beauty of the life of a diplomat,” he notes, “is that it offers the possibility to explore completely different cultures and to work across many different fields, everything from science and technology, to business and financial investment, to cultural life and the arts.”

Wyss immersed himself in the hustle and bustle of Karachi, reveling in its chaotic and creative diversity, relishing the cultural life of one of the world’s youngest – 60% of the population is under 25 – fastest growing and most colorful cities, and learning to appreciate the faith and accomplishments of its predominantly Muslim population.

Now that he is in Los Angeles, a city that he describes as “an international melting pot in its own right,” Consul General Wyss has adopted a unique strategy for exploring and understanding that sprawling city. That strategy reaches well beyond his rapid fire schedule of official meetings. Rejecting the need for an official car and driver Wyss has opted to move around greater LA using ridesharing services. “Instead of sitting in a bubble in the backseat of an official car,” he observes, “my drivers represent an amazing cross-section of American life. I have been driven by housewives, students, artists, immigrants, entrepreneurs, and people working a second or third job. I don’t want to miss learning from these people. In the first three months alone, 300 different drivers representing 12,000 years of life experience offered me many valuable insights.”

His experiences in these dramatically different cities and cultures, as well as the variety of his earlier diplomatic experiences, have led Consul General Wyss to a deeper philosophical and ethical understanding of his diplomatic calling. He particularly cites a statement from the Preamble to the Swiss Federal Constitution: “The strength of a people is measured by the well-being of its weakest members.” From that Wyss draws the conclusion that, “If you try to uplift the less fortunate, those most in need, you will lift the entire nation.”

In terms of diplomatic practice that translates into a simple, one word principle: RESPECT. Reflecting on his time in Pakistan, Wyss observes that, “Pakistanis are concerned because they know what we think about them. They know that when people in the West hear about Pakistan their immediate impulse is to associate Pakistan with terrorism. They feel I respect them, and that is important for a country like Pakistan.” “If you give respect,” he recognizes, “you get full marks for that.”

Consul General Wyss was kind enough not only to look back over his career with us but to help us understand the unique nature of Switzerland and its approach to international diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: “Branding” is a term widely used not only in advertising but in diplomacy today. How would you describe Switzerland’s brand?

Consul General Wyss: Switzerland is a beautiful country in the heart of Europe. It is and has been a stable political confederation. It is a model of political integration and direct democracy. It is home to many United Nations agencies and international organizations. It hosts innumerable international meetings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. It is in a leading position in innovation, competitiveness and quality of life.

Switzerland has mastered remarkable engineering techniques, values protection of the environment and has just completed the longest railway tunnel in the world. Products like Swiss watches and chocolates are known all over the world for their exquisite quality. Switzerland rates high on a variety of quality of life indexes as well as those dealing with economic freedom, the business climate, innovation and the happiness of its people. Each year we count more than 10 million tourist arrivals from all over the world.

Combined, all of these provide a multi-faceted image of Switzerland’s brand, its global identity.

Diplomatic Connections: Early in your career you were posted as an Attaché to the Swiss Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. What did you learn from that early experience in the United States?

Consul General Wyss: New York is an amazing city and a melting pot of diverse cultures. It is a bit like the capital of the world. While in New York, I obtained a degree in international studies at NYU and ran in four New York Marathons. Marathon training actually served as an intensive introduction to the incredible variety of New York’s boroughs and neighborhoods.

When I first went to New York, Switzerland was merely an observer and not a full member of the United Nations. Switzerland only became a full member of the United Nations in September 2002 after a popular vote. Though there were early concerns about whether UN membership might be incompatible with Swiss neutrality, it became clear over time that the work and accomplishments of the United Nations were entirely compatible with Swiss values and our neutral status.

Diplomatic Connections: At one point in your career you headed the U.S. Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Switzerland’s neutrality means that it is often in a position to represent the interests of third countries in situations where diplomatic relations have been broken. That was the case between the United States and Iran. How does that sort of foreign interest representation function?

Consul General Wyss: Before Switzerland can become a “protecting power” and take over the task of representing foreign interests both countries have to agree that Swiss diplomats will be permitted to play this role. Even when countries have broken formal relations between them, they still need to be able to interact with each other on certain issues and in specific situations. Switzerland insists on remaining totally neutral and impartial, otherwise we are unable to assume the role of protecting state or to facilitate negotiations. These so called “Good Offices” are a trademark of Switzerland’s foreign policy.

In Tehran, for example, the Foreign Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy provides services to over 10,000 U.S. citizens, most of them dual nationals. In addition, Switzerland offered its “good offices” to facilitate and host nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran.

Diplomatic Connections: Given Switzerland’s neutrality, your country almost seems to seek out this “protecting power” role. Are Swiss diplomats specially trained for this intermediary function?

Consul General Wyss: It is somehow in the DNA not only of Swiss diplomats but of Switzerland. The origins of Swiss neutrality go back five hundred years and we describe it as “self-imposed, permanent and armed.” It is a treasured part of our nation's identity. That status was formalized in the 1815 Treaty of Paris that brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and was reaffirmed by the League of Nations following World War I.

Diplomatic Connections: In your new post in Los Angeles you seem to have specialized functions. The traditional consular functions dealing with such things as passports, visas and various kinds of documentation have all been shifted to San Francisco. Why was this separation of functions established?

Consul General Wyss: Switzerland realized very early that many of the traditional consular functions can now be done electronically. It really does not matter that much where certain services are physically located. Here on the West Coast, the Department of Foreign Affairs decided to focus the traditional consular work in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, we connect the dots between Switzerland and Southern California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico in the fields of culture and trade. We also support the many associations of Swiss citizens in our consular jurisdiction.

Diplomatic Connections: Given its location, does the Los Angeles consulate have a special liaison role with the entertainment industry?

Consul General Wyss: Los Angeles is a world hub for the film industry. That has implications for the entire world because those movies shape perceptions of people and countries far beyond the borders of the United States. Switzerland needs to be here because we want to go the extra mile in shaping the image of Switzerland as a forward looking country and reliable partner.

In 2017, over ten films from the Locarno Film Festival 2016 will be screened in Los Angeles as part of the newly established “Locarno Festival in Los Angeles.” It is the first time that a film festival from another country brings its event here, and we expect it to be a win-win situation for both Locarno and Los Angeles.

This year we had five candidates for the Academy Award, and we received two nominations. “My Life as a Zucchini” was nominated in the Animated Feature Film category, and “La Femme on the TGV” was nominated in the Best Short Film – Live Action category. We try to support the young and very innovative Swiss film industry.

Diplomatic Connections: Inevitably there are stereotypes of countries in global perceptions. Would you unpack some of those stereotypes of Switzerland? We often hear the expression “the gnomes of Zurich” referring to Swiss banking. What would you want people to understand about that image?

Consul General Wyss: Switzerland has a very strong and extremely well-established banking sector. Because of its long-term stability, international reputation and discretion, people and organizations who invest their money in Switzerland know that their wealth is well taken care of.

Switzerland has made great efforts both to update its banking system and to engage with worldwide efforts to advance financial regulation and to expose wrongdoing. Swiss banking is well in the forefront of trying to avoid money laundering as well as tax evasion. To that end, we have significantly expanded data sharing with international regulatory mechanisms.

Diplomatic Connections: A very different image of Switzerland involves its Alpine geography, often stereotyped in the classic story of “Heidi.”

Consul General Wyss: Switzerland is proud of its mountains. They are part of everything from our national security and defense strategy to our tourism industry and a whole range of products that our economy produces. The mountains are critically necessary to the entire Swiss ecosystem because of the way they collect water in the winter months and release it throughout the year.

In many ways, the mountains are at the heart of the Swiss identity. Every people needs to know and value where it comes from in order to understand its cultural roots.

Diplomatic Connections: Earlier in our conversation when we talked about “branding” you mentioned the image of Switzerland’s epicurean delights – chocolate and cheese.

Consul General Wyss: Chocolate and cheese create a feeling beyond their place in Swiss cuisine. They have become global trademarks for Swiss quality and excellence, not to mention the culinary pleasures they offer. They have become the basis for major transnational companies such as Nestlé, a global player in the food and nutrition industry. We might say something similar about the tradition of Swiss watchmaking and Swiss pharmaceuticals. Superior quality and dependability have become a part of our modern economy and our identity.

Diplomatic Connections: Another image of Switzerland is the image of being home to many international organizations and non-governmental organizations.

Consul General Wyss: Switzerland’s location in the heart of Europe, when coupled with its excellent transportation and communication links, promotes the idea of Switzerland as a hub of international activity. We have cultivated our traditions of neutrality in a manner that does not make us aloof but rather allows us to facilitate international dialogue precisely because we are seen as honest brokers.

Geneva is an important host city for the United Nations and many other international organizations. It can be called “Switzerland’s Window on the World.”

Diplomatic Connections: The other side of that image, especially in film, is one of Switzerland as a hotbed of international intrigue and espionage.

Consul General Wyss: [Laughter] There we have to distinguish between fact and fiction. In World War II, Switzerland was the only country, because of its neutrality, its geography and its economic role, which was not really touched by the war. In subsequent decades, we have come to see Switzerland as a center for international dialogue and peace.

Diplomatic Connections: As you look at your role in trade promotion what are the primary reasons that foreign investors are attracted to Switzerland? How do you encourage foreign investors to consider Switzerland as a place to do business?

Consul General Wyss: It is quite easy and efficient for a business to invest in Switzerland. The regulatory burden is relatively light; there is not a lot of red tape. The process is quick and easy while simultaneously being transparent. Switzerland’s business infrastructure is world-class and we are proud to offer a highly educated, well-trained and multilingual work force. Therefore, we are actively promoting Switzerland as an attractive place to invest and do business.

Diplomatic Connections: What are the attractions for Swiss companies investing in the United States?

Consul General Wyss: The most important thing is the long-term positive relationship between Switzerland and the United States. We trust in each other and are reliable partners in both directions.

The United States is a huge market with great purchasing power to which global companies want to have access. There are hundreds of Swiss companies here in the United States, and I encourage more to come here. New investors can contact our Embassy and Consulates to speak with existing Swiss companies doing business in the United States and take from them the best practices of their experience dealing with the market structures here.

Diplomatic Connections: Based on your own rich diplomatic experience what insights might you offer to a new generation of Swiss diplomats or global diplomats entering the field in the age of the internet, social media and faced with a renewed emphasis on nationalism across the globe?

Consul General Wyss: Personal and direct contact will become even more important despite the realities of rapid fire electronic communication and social media. In order to have a lasting impact, you have to go to the people. You have to look for opportunities to meet a wide range of people and to cultivate relations with people at every level in government, in business and all levels of society.

I think it is more and more important in an often artificial world to address what is real in people’s lives. We need to balance “High Tech with High Touch.”

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you very much, Consul General Wyss. You have brought us not only diplomatic insight but great personal warmth, and that has clearly been an important part of your professional life and the success of your public diplomacy.

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