In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.
Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.
How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?
President Obama has made two decisions that are fundamentally undemocratic. No, I do not mean the potential bombing of Syria nor the request for Congress’ approval. First, President Obama has decided that his intelligence service’s analysis that President Assad has used chemical weapons is correct. Second, he has decided that he, representing the United States, speaks for the entire world. “I didn’t draw the red line, “ he said. “The international community drew the red line.”
Democracy is not just a system of voting. It is based on the recognition that others have the right to decide what an entire population should do. In a democracy, those in the minority must accept the majority’s will. The minority accepts the majority’s decision hoping that sometime in the future the roles will be reversed.
Dr. Martin Luther King's August 28, 1963, speech "I Have a Dream" has become an iconic moment. Before over 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King captured the hopes of millions of Americans for racial equality in a deeply divided country. Over time, the speech has become a rallying cry throughout the world for freedom movements, from behind the Iron Curtain to South Africa.
The August 28, 1963, March on Washington was an emotional and political watershed. Over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had officially ended slavery in 1863. The highlight of the March was a short speech part sermon that has become a rallying cry for other freedom movements throughout the world. The riveting “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. was part optimism about the future and part realism that the promises of equality following the Civil War had not yet been met. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the legislative culmination of the civil rights movement and the March. Despite ferocious, often physical opposition, legal segregation was finally ended in the United States.
The recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March in the U.S. was a bittersweet moment.
This past week has not been a good one for Switzerland’s image abroad. The American TV and film star Oprah Winfrey went very public with accusations that she was the victim of racism in an exclusive store in Zurich, although she later played down the implications of the accusation. Whether or not the charges are true or merely publicity for her and her new film, the Swiss Tourism office was forced to apologize, which they later said might have been premature. On top of that, the international media was reporting that Bremgarten in the Swiss canton of Aargau had introduced several "exclusion zones" for asylum seekers, including public swimming pools and sports facilities.
Nicolas Bideau is the Head of Presence Switzerland, the person primarily responsible for Switzerland’s image abroad. The seasoned diplomat - educated in China, having served in the Swiss Embassy in India, former diplomatic advisor to Pascal Couchepin during his Presidency of the Confederation as well as the former Mr. Cinema Swiss - is reported to be vacationing on a Greek island.
With continuing tensions and violence in Egypt, a horrendous civil war in Syria with over a million refugees and internally displaced persons destabilizing neighboring countries, assassinations in Tunisia, a supposed plot to seize an oil port in Yemen, it is perhaps understandable for people to ask what has happened to the Arab Spring.
Rather than answer that question directly, it would be better to revisit the so called Arab Spring itself. In other words, before questioning whether something has faded or died, it is important to understand what we are talking about in the first place. In his famous book, Orientalism, Edward Said argued that the Western world had created a vision of the Orient and the Middle East from a biased point of view. The Eurocentric vision, according to Said, helped justify what he saw as colonial or imperial activities by the West. By caricaturizing Arabs in a certain way, the West could sell weapons, extract oil, and invade in the name of the international community. Said’s central point is that Western academics and diplomats saw the Orient from their perspective and used it for their interests.
Evaluating success or failure is always difficult. One of the reasons why I enjoy playing and watching sports is that there is usually a winner and loser, at least in the three major American sports; basketball, baseball and football. On the other hand, surgeons will often say “I did my best,” rather than pronounce success or failure. Doctors are evaluated according to “faute de moyen,” not “faute de resultat.” The mantras of sports and business are win or lose, make money or lose money; no one wants to know how hard you tried.
Roger Federer has now lost in three consecutive tennis tournaments to players he would have beaten easily when he was dominating the sport. In the past month, the Swiss star, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, has lost to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, No. 114 Federico Delbonis at Hamburg, and now No. 55 ranked Daniel Brands in only the second round at the Swiss Open. Federer has fallen to No. 5, his lowest ranking since he won Wimbledon in 2003.
Western countries are agonizing over what to do in Syria. As Assad’s government troops, with the aid of their allies, continue to pound cities like Homs and appear to be winning the civil war, Great Britain and its allies are hesitating in furnishing weapons to the rebels. Who are the rebels? How can we be sure that the weapons delivered will stay in the right hands? How can we be sure that the weapons will be enough to turn the tide? All these questions remain unanswered as the slaughter continues while hundreds of thousands of refugees - those who are lucky enough not to be trapped - flee the country.
But what about the United States?
Walking through the old town of Geneva, I was once again struck by the plaque showing the meeting place of Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, Henri Dufour, Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir. Near the Cathedral, on the wall of a simple building, the plaque marks the apartment where the idea for the Red Cross began.
Geneva has often been called the capital of multilateralism. With about 30,000 international civil servants and organizations like UNOG, WIPO, ILO, UNHCR, UNHCHR, WTO, ITU, WHO. IPU, WMO, UNCTAD, WEF and the ICRC, there is reason for the Genevois and Swiss to be proud of a small city being at the center of so much international activity. (Even if you are not familiar with all the above initials, please bear with me for my argument.)
Whether in Turkey or Brazil, “the street’s the place to go” (from a song by the Weather Girls). Social media has allowed hundreds of thousands to protest against government policies throughout the two countries. But questions remain about the identity of the protesters, what they are protesting against, and the outcomes desired.
There were two specific issues during the 1968 protests in the United States: ending racial segregation and ending the Vietnam War. Although the protests were not necessarily identical, these were the fundamental issues around which students and sympathizers coalesced. Many of the same people participated in both protest movements, united by the two progressive causes. (I will ignore those cynics who said that the real issue behind the May 1968 movements was for students to get out of final exams.)
The recent pressure on Switzerland to cooperate with the United States and eventually other countries to transmit banking information has sent shock waves from Zurich to Geneva and afar. The lower house of Parliament has voted not to consider the Federal Council’s proposal to cooperate with the American authorities. The general opinion throughout Switzerland has been of unfair intervention in internal affairs by the U.S., if not a downright violation of sovereignty. In addition, the vocabulary used bemoans capitulation before the forcing exercised by the superpower. In sum, a grave injustice is being done by the United States to Switzerland.
A young, former C.I.A. technician has publicly stated that he was behind the recent revelations about the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs. According to a June 9 New York Times article, “he took the extraordinary step because ‘the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’”
Frenzied diplomatic action is taking place in Geneva and around the world to prepare for an eventual conference to try to halt the continuing fighting and grave human rights, humanitarian law violations in Syria. Originally scheduled for June, the conference is now being touted as perhaps taking place in July in Geneva.
Leadership is an important quality universally admired. Courses and seminars are given on how to be a good leader. In the public and private sectors, figures like Charles de Gaulle and Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi and Jack Welch are looked up to; people try to imitate their personality traits in order to achieve positions where people will follow them. Internationally, many worry that the decline of United States leadership in the post-World War II international system will leave a void, perhaps to be filled by an unwelcome China. Leadership, supposedly, is always positive.
I have recently become a fan of the Geneva public transport system, perhaps too late, but better late than never. In particular, I find taking the new 27 bus line from Carouge to Cornavin an absolute delight. There are plenty of pros and cons and valid criticisms of Mme. Kunzler and the TPG changes, but for me, when I am not in a hurry, the 27 is ideal.
The 27 leaves on time every 15 minutes from Carouge, with so few passengers that I have the feeling I have my own chauffeur. I have more than enough time to read my morning paper as the driver waits patiently to cross the Wilsdorf Bridge. For the passengers who calculate the exact 20 minutes from Carouge to the train station as advertised, they should have realized, like the TPG that this would never happen. But for the relaxed, well-informed passenger like me, there is much to do in the 30 odd minutes from door to door.
Questions are now being asked why the United States (among other countries) continues to “pick on” Switzerland. Whether it is banking secrecy or offshore accounts, the feeling is that the United States is acting like a bully and that Switzerland is an innocent victim.
A recent headline in the Tribune de Genève caught my attention:“Pierre Vincenz, directeur du groupe Raiffeisen, estime que la Suisse a trop tardé avec l’Union européenne.“ M. Vincenz goes on to explain that for several years it was clear that Swiss banks would not be able to continue to do business with non-declared money in a grey zone. He advocates a more pro-active policy, clearly regretting that his voice had not been listened to before about opening discussions concerning the automatic exchange of information, which he thought inevitable.
The recent bombings in Boston have unleashed a torrent of commentaries. While investigations are ongoing concerning the backgrounds of the suspects with no definitive answers yet about motivations and affiliations, the fact that the brothers were from Chechnya and Muslim has opened a Pandora’s Box of speculation. One simple point can be made at this point beyond the specifics of this case: There has been a fundamental shift in the nature of deadly attacks, often attributed to “terror.”
Following September 11, the United States declared a “war” on terror. Without a clear definition of terror, the focus of the war narrowed down to one organization, Al Qaeda. The organization and its leaders, we were told, were based in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. There was an enemy; there was a location for its headquarters (Bin Laden’s cave). As in all traditional wars, the opponents were identified, their location fixed. The battle lines were drawn, and the soldiers sent to eliminate the foe.
Thirty-seven French Ministers have officially published their individual worth following a directive from President Francois Holland. The discovery that some were wealthy was not surprising; Laurent Fabius headed the list with 6 million Euros. What was surprising was the reaction here in Geneva.
According to the Tribune de Genève of April 16, a cross-section of local elected officials rejected or voiced skepticism regarding greater transparency. The reactions varied from doubts about the real value of certain declarations to a robust rejection of making public what in Switzerland has always been considered the private sphere. The head of the Radical group in Parliament is quoted as saying, “What will have to become public after the net worth? A health report or sexual orientation?” The Mayor of Geneva, Rémy Pagani is quoted as bluntly saying that the demand for greater transparency from public officials is “a radical intrusion into the private sphere. For me, political considerations stop at the entrance to my door.”
On top of the continuing assault on Switzerland’s bankers and its banking secrecy tradition, outcries are now being raised against lawyers, many in Geneva, who have helped clients place their assets offshore to avoid paying taxes. Because of the financial crisis, officials in various countries are trying to find ways to recover money sitting in virtual companies in tax havens around the world.
The lawyers defend themselves by saying that they have done nothing illegal; the movement of money to properly registered companies does not break the law in either the sending country or the receiving one. Their spokesmen, often quite eloquently, make the simple case that there is a distinction between something that is illegal and something that is immoral. “I have done nothing outside the rules,” they plead, “and morality is highly relative. You can change the laws in the future, but for the moment we have done nothing wrong.”
For an American, as well as basketball fanatics around the world, March Madness refers to the final tournaments to determine the national collegiate champions. (Full disclosure: I am definitely biased and particularly enthusiastic this year since my alma mater, Amherst College, just won the Division III title.) The main focus of attention is the men’s Division I competition. It is not only that roughly 50 million people watched the final game, but that office pools have complex betting schemes on who will get into the draw, and various winners. This is a craze that sweeps America every spring.
I am not someone who easily sings the praises of France. Cocorico is not my style. However, on a recent trip to Paris I was most pleasantly surprised in two of my favorite haunts.
Security is a major if not the major topic of conversation in Geneva. Citizens are worried about their basic safety, from unexplained violence to robberies to excessive noise. Security will certainly be a major item in the forthcoming cantonal elections. Newspaper headlines scream that Geneva has become the Bronx, although as a resident of the Bronx, I find this comparison outdated and imprecise. Is it reasonable to compare a canton of 400,000 people with a borough of approximately 1,500,000?
There is another comparison that crops up that I find equally disturbing. Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York from 1994-2002, is often credited for cracking down on crime in New York City.
Globalization and the Internet appear to have made the world a smaller place. Planes easily take us to faraway places in a matter of hours; a tap of the computer keys puts us in contact with people thousands of kilometers away. Technically, the world has become more interconnected.
But is this really so?
The stunning results of Oskar Freysinger in the recent election in Valais, the surprising showing of Team Stronach in Austria, the Tea Party in the United States, and the unexpected success of the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo in Italy point to a recent populist emergence. While the causes of this emergence are not difficult to elaborate – high rates of unemployment, lack of leadership at the local, national and international levels, poor economic results, growing insecurity – the very nature of populism is not easy to describe.
The controversy surrounding Yvan Perrin’s candidacy to be Conseil d’Etat in Neuchatel has touched a profound taboo in Switzerland, the separation between the private and public. Already during the DSK scandal in the New York hotel, questions were raised about how much the public should know about a politician’s private life. Now with the revelation of reports on Perrin’s December 19th hospitalization, once again questions are being raised about the right to privacy of the individual and the right of the public to know about politicians’ private lives.