Two recent events in Switzerland highlight its specificity as well as the difficulty in navigating between two distinctive poles. The resignation of Philipp Hildebrand as President of the Swiss National Bank made headlines around the world. In essence, while he did not break a specific rule, he admitted to a certain moral error in judgment concerning his private banking affairs. In a larger sense, the question raised is the relationship between his private life and his public function. Whereas in the United States public figures are subject to intense scrutiny by the press, Swiss journalists go out of their way to respect privacy.
In this specific case, Hildebrand and/or his wife was/were accused of using his public position for personal profit. Surprisingly, for the moment, Switzerland does not require public figures like Hildebrand to put their resources in a blind trust just as local politicians are not supposed to vote on issues related to their outside professional work. The private life of a very public figure was opened to national examination.
The case of Mark Muller is slightly different, but also touches his private life. The Geneva Conseil d'etat is accused of disorderly conduct in a local nightclub on New Year's Eve. In this situation, his private behavior is the subject of a legal process and has tarnished his image as a public official. While there has been no personal gain here, a window into the private life of a public figure has also been opened.
In the cases of Philipp Hildebrand and Mark Muller the radical division between public and private has been breached. Americans want to know everything about public personalities even when they are only candidates, including their scores on college entrance examinations. To run for public office and to serve is to forgo all notions of privacy. The Swiss attitude is much different, although the two cases mentioned above are part of a change in attitude, for the better or worse. The radical Swiss separation of the public from the private has been eroded in both cases.
The visit to Geneva and an invitation to speak at the local University of a member of Hamas as part of a delegation to a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union has caused an enormous uproar, especially among the Jewish community. Although Hamas is on the terrorist list of the United States and the European Union, Switzerland has always had an unusual role of inclusion in talking to and arranging meetings with certain individuals and groups. Neutrality has its advantages. For example, for many years the Maoists of Nepal were considered outlaws. Swiss representatives were instrumental in acting as go-betweens in negotiations between the Maoists and the government. A peace accord was finally arranged and the Maoists were most successful in subsequent Nepalese elections.
The United States Supreme Court decision in Holder vs Humanitarian Law Project 2010 upheld the criminal offense of offering material support to terrorists or potential terrorists. Realistically, channels of communication are regularly opened with groups such as Hamas, often with Switzerland's assistance. An inclusive approach has been one of the most successful particularities of a Swiss foreign policy internationally recognized and appreciated. Before the peace accord, the Maoists were shunned by most countries; subsequently they have become an accepted actor in Nepal's official political life.
Binary distinctions are always dangerous. Simplifications are generally not helpful. The recent events mentioned above concerning the radical separation of the public from the private as well as inclusion vs. exclusion point to what makes Switzerland unusual, with supporters and detractors on both sides of both poles. What is certain is that times are changing; public figures in Switzerland are being more and more questioned about their private lives and the United States has even begun informal talks with the Taliban.
January 18, 2012