Switzerland’s balancing act: European priorities and global realities

  • 2011•09•30     Tokyo

    Known for its tradition of “neutrality”, Switzerland has become integrated into the global economy, intertwined in regional and international affairs and actively involved in transnational debates on pressing environmental, development and human security challenges. How, then, does one of the only European countries to remain outside the European Union (EU) balance these shifting priorities and broad ranging global challenges? How does Swiss foreign policy reconcile tensions between integration, national sovereignty and global citizenship?

    On 28 September 2011, Swiss State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Peter Maurer, addressed these pertinent questions in a public lecture entitled “Swiss Foreign Policy: Between European Priorities and Global Necessities”. This lecture, delivered at United Nations University (UNU) Headquarters in Tokyo, was convened by UNU with support from the Embassy of Switzerland in Japan.

    Changing regional realities

    “Today’s multi-polar world is one of multiple interdependencies and shrinking distances”, Dr. Maurer said. “Decisions taken in one country affect decisions made elsewhere.”

    Although not a member of the EU, Switzerland remains “profoundly European” in its outlook, he explained. More than 120 treaties build the basis of the Swiss–EU relationship. However, the recent rapid expansion of the EU (and the modernization of EU institutions, formalized by the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon) have created ongoing challenges for Switzerland, as its own relationship with the EU is bound by more static legal agreements. “Switzerland maintains its sovereignty, whilst accessing EU markets, people, institutions and legal standards” Dr. Maurer emphasized.

    Geography ensures that Switzerland’s ongoing relationship with Europe, especially the EU, remains of key importance. Dr. Maurer admitted, however, that the current strategic “weight-shift to the East and South” means Europe overall is in decline. Swiss foreign policy thus needed to build and deepen ties further afield.

    “No one nation lives in isolation. Even the most powerful countries need to build coalitions.”

    The Asia-Pacific region, in particular, has become increasingly important. Asia recently overtook the Americas as Switzerland’s second-largest economic partner. China is now one of the most significant trading partners, and Japan one of the strongest investment partners. Switzerland has already negotiated bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Japan, Singapore and the Republic of Korea, and is undertaking negotiations with China, India and Hong Kong, amongst others.

    These emerging ties with the Asia-Pacific are more than economic. Dr. Maurer explained that Switzerland has cooperated on broad-ranging human security, environmental and social issues: It has partnered with the Republic of Korea on immigration issues, worked with Japan to encourage greater transparency in the UN Security Council, provided extensive aid and development assistance throughout the region, and promoted human rights through bilateral dialogues with China and Viet Nam.

    Soft-power diplomacy and promoting global peace

    On the multilateral stage, Dr. Maurer explained that “soft-power diplomacy” is an increasingly crucial element in the diplomatic toolkit. Switzerland is well-placed to serve as an active mediator in international affairs and to promote peace and security. Swiss peacekeepers have served in Europe, Africa and Asia, and Switzerland currently is a mediator of tensions between Russia and Georgia. It is also active in contributing to debates on climate change, poverty reduction and sustainable development.

    “Yesterday, I visited Swiss troops in the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea. Switzerland has stationed troops there since 1953”, Dr. Maurer offered as an example.

    Dr. Maurer noted that another important element of Switzerland’s soft-power approach is its “science diplomacy”. Recognizing that the country’s potential to “add value came from knowledge”, Switzerland has established science consulates in technology hubs throughout Asia-Pacific and the Americas. This network focuses on enhancing research and development links with academics, students, universities and drivers of innovation worldwide.

    A place for “self-interest” in the pursuit of “global interest”?

    Drawing on experiences from his own distinguished diplomatic career, Dr. Maurer suggested that a pragmatic and even-handed approach to the challenges of contemporary diplomacy is required to balance local, regional and global priorities. Foreign policy should focus on emerging powers, regions and institutions. Through good international citizenship and by contributing to international affairs, Switzerland could simultaneously promote its own interests and gain influence.

    “There is nothing wrong about pursuing global interests through solidarity and also through your own interests”, he said. “No one nation lives in isolation. Even the most powerful countries need to build coalitions… Cooperation and linkages are essential to guarantee security and sustainable growth.”

    As the world continues on its path towards greater integration, increasing interdependencies and competing priorities, nations and diplomats alike should seek to build influence by leveraging strengths, he suggested. Such influence should be based on robust networks, structured dialogues and strong institutions.

    “Influence is rooted in the capacity for dialogue and persuasion. For Switzerland, this is now more important than ever”, Dr. Maurer concluded.

    About the Speaker

    Dr. Peter Maurer became Switzerland’s State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in March 2010. Prior to that, he served as Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations, in New York (2004–2010). In this function, Dr. Maurer acted as Head of Delegation, Chair of the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly (64th session), Chair of the Burundi Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission and Co-chair of the environmental governance process of the General Assembly.

    Dr. Maurer entered diplomatic service with the DFA in 1987 and successively served in the Embassy of Switzerland in South Africa, Pretoria (1987–1988); as Desk Officer for Eastern Europe in Berne (1989–1990); as Secretary to the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Berne (1990–1996); as Minister, Deputy Permanent Observer, at the Swiss Mission to the United Nations, New York (1996–2000); and as Ambassador, Head of Political Affairs Division IV (Human Security) in Berne (2000–2004). He holds a Ph.D. in Contemporary History from the University of Berne.