09/11/2015

A Tale of Two Cities: A Brief Visit to the Sister Republic

To fly from Geneva to New York City is more than just an eight hour 40 minute flight. To go from news about federal elections in Switzerland with discussions of political party alignments to the billion dollar theatrical televised debates of candidates in the upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential elections is similar to the apple and oranges analogy; they are both fruits, but they are very different. And Geneva is not New York.


There are historical ties between Switzerland and the United States that invite comparisons. The idea of the Sister Republics dates to the 18th century when the Swiss politician, Johann Rodolphe Valltravers, proposed to an American commissioner to France, Benjamin Franklin, a “Friendly union” between the (then) thirteen cantons of Switzerland and the thirteen colonies that had declared independence. Even though James Madison consulted the Helvetic Republic while helping to draft the American Constitution, and the first Swiss federal constitution of 1848 used the American Constitution as a model – including federalism and bicameralism – comparisons are somewhat less pertinent today beyond legal structures and declared values.
While both are constitutional democracies with long traditions of the rule of law and free and fair elections, their evolutions have been dissimilar. One is a small, neutral country in the middle of Western Europe but not part of the European Union or NATO; the other is a global superpower.
Geneva and New York reflect the differences. Much of the Canton of Geneva is agricultural; metropolitan New York City continues to grow. New skyscrapers are everywhere; elevated, abandoned railroad tracks are turned into a walking tourist attraction, the popular High Line.
The headquarters of the United Nations are in New York. Major issues of peace and security are dealt with there. Geneva is the main seat of the United Nations after New York, hosting seven UN agencies and over 240 missions and permanent representations, which only rarely deal directly with war and peace. The United States is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; Switzerland is a member of the S5, the “Small 5” group of Switzerland, Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein and Singapore. When the S5 proposed a draft resolution on reforming the working methods of the Security Council in order to make the Council more transparent and accountable, they were forced to withdraw the text as a result of pressure from the five permanent members. S5 members do not play in the same league as the P5 (United States, Russia, China, France and Britain).
The recent NY Marathon is a good example of differences between the spirit of New York and the l’esprit de Genève. Over 50,000 people came from all over the world to participate. The streets were lined with millions of encouraging fans. Even in Harlem, a neighborhood not known for distance runners or hospitality, bands were playing and people were dancing while the runners zipped by. It was a huge street party.
The spirit of Geneva is much different. It involves the historic role of Geneva as a place of arbitration (the Alabama Room), humanitarian law (the International Committee of the Red Cross), and high-level diplomatic meetings (Reagan/Gorbachev). There are celebrations in Geneva – Fêtes de Genève, Escalade - but no citywide street parties.
The obvious question is: Which does one prefer? To say that both have their attractions is banal and true. Using a quantum theory argument that something can be in two places at the same time, the answer to the question would be to profit from the best of both worlds. After all, apples and oranges are both fruits, both are good for your health.

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