Why are the Swiss so fascinated with one bear roaming the Grison? Why are the Swiss so fascinated by the introduction of a wolf or lynx into the countryside? While these may seem superficial questions, the answers reflect fundamental attitudes toward nature as well as subtle differences with the Sister Republic, the United States.
The role of nature in Switzerland is obvious. From small, public garden patches outside metropolitan areas to weekend and holiday retreats in the mountains, the Swiss adore being in nature. Romantic poets and artists throughout Swiss history have written about and painted the virtues of being in the state of nature. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, after all, was born in Geneva.
Brady Dougan is the quintessential, successful, modern man. Dynamic, wealthy, media-savvy, he is at the head of one of the world’s largest banks. He is the envy of an entire generation who want to be sitting on the top of the corporate totem pole. He has it made. His total compensation package for 2013 was close to $10 million.
Mr. Dougan testified before a United States Senate Committee. During his testimony he made two simple statements that are perfectly clear, and totally contradictory.
It’s cold in Kiev. No, this is not a weather report, though it is freezing here. Rather, it is a reflection on the current political turmoil since the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovitch, did not sign an accession agreement with the European Union (EU) at the end of November in Vilnius. Protesters are braving the weather to gather in squares in the center of the city to express their clear desire to have Ukraine become an official part of Europe rather than join a customs union with Russia. European Union flags are being sold by street vendors, Ukrainian flags on cars are another sign of support, although the manifestations are very limited to a specific area in downtown Kiev.
A question making the rounds during the shutdown in the U.S. asks: “What’s the difference between terrorists and the Republican Tea Party?” Answer: “At least you can negotiate with terrorists.” Having failed to overturn President Obama’s overhauling of the country’s health system, the Republicans are now threatening to have the U.S. default on all its payments on October 17. The Suicide Caucus, as it is known, failed over 40 times to pass bills to repeal Obamacare; now House Republicans are trying to defund the entire government.
Their motive is that any form of national health insurance is leading the country down the slippery slope of socialism, and obviously ruin. And from this position they will not budge. Led by a group of 80 or so members of Congress from safe districts, they are willing to not only furlough 800,000 federal government workers but on October 17 to have the government default on its debt obligations, which will send shockwaves throughout the world.
The recent positive Swiss vote on maintaining obligatory military service was an important statement. Beyond strategic considerations of how the country can best be defended, there was a certain part of the population saying that conscription re-inforces national identity. In a country with three distinct languages and cultures, the military experience has long been considered an important element in creating a sense of national unity.
Belonging to some group matters. We all like to feel that we are members of a community. From the very local to the national level, people’s identities are crucial to their emotional well being. While in many ways societies have evolved from tribes and clans, there is no question that belonging still matters, even if it means sharing feelings with others on Facebook or Twitter. Virtual communities are still communities, and in many ways reflect nostalgia for being with others through modern technology in spite of the loss of face-to-face interaction.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
After the Newtown shootings, several cities in the United States offered rewards for citizens to turn in their firearms. Many people did. But the fundamental laws on purchasing weapons have not changed and probably will not change. Since December 14, there have been 400 gun related deaths in the U.S. The more recent shootings in Daillon also raise the question of access to weapons. Although the situation in Switzerland is far from the situation in the United States – 2.3 million weapons among a population of less than 8 million compared to almost one weapon for 300 million citizens with shooting rampages very rare -, one could reasonably ask whether Newtown and Daillon will affect gun legislation in Switzerland. The answer is probably not. In 2011, Swiss citizens rejected a proposal to tighten gun laws.
According to a headline story in the Tribune de Genève of August 6, American authorities questioned two Swiss adolescents upon their arrival in the United States to visit their grandparents. Held incommunicado from their families for six hours, they were asked about their father's activities as a banker following the April revelation by five Swiss banks of a list of 10,00 employees. The article went on to discuss the various dangers for those employees and the legality of the banks turning over the names.
I am a parent and grandparent. I can only imagine the panic of the parents and grandparents during the six hours that the children were held incommunicado. That cell phones are not allowed to function in the New York airport until you leave is understandable. That the minors were not allowed to communicate with their families for six hours is very difficult to understand and I can only sympathize with what must have been panic on the relatives' side.
Unbeknownst to most of the world with France's new president, Facebook's IPO, the G8 meeting in Washington and the NATO summit, last Wednesday Switzerland, Costa Rica, Jordan, Singapore and Liechtenstein also made some headlines. Actually, it was not what they did but what they didn't do. The Small 5 - as opposed to the big P5 permanent members of the UN Security Council France, Britain, China, Russia and the U.S. - decided last Wednesday to withdraw a draft resolution which proposed to reform the working methods of the Security Council.
The Head of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation recently announced that he was seriously considering stopping the English radio channel or putting it up for sale. According to Roger de Weck, World Radio Switzerland (WRS) was no longer a priority for the state subsidized television and radio conglomerate since English was not a national language. (Disclaimer: I am a regular contributor to WRS.) Money was not a consideration since the station represented a tiny percentage of the overall budget.
The United States is a world power; it has a population of over 300 million; it has the world's largest GDP at $14.58 trillion, a military budget of over $700 billion that dwarfs the next 12 countries in the world combined with a leading role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) collective defense. In spite of the recent financial crisis, rising debt and high unemployment, no one would deny the power of the United States, even in relative decline.
The Swiss Parliament has just chosen the country's seven Federal Councilors. The United States' Grand Electors will be voting for the President of the United States in the autumn. (The similarities in the two processes show how the Constitution of Switzerland mirrors the U.S. Constitution and how both countries shy away from having the citizens directly choose their leaders.) Beside the technical, electoral process, what is also fascinating is how fundamentally conservative are both electors. The center-right almost always wins national elections.