Martin Dahinden: «We Are Turning Into What Others Think About Us»

Martin Dahinden, Swiss ambassador to the U.S.

Martin Dahinden, Swiss ambassador to the U.S.

The image of a country – much like the one of a company, product or service – isn't merely a copy of reality. It is something that needs to be shaped with great care, Martin Dahinden, Swiss ambassador to the U.S., writes.

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Across the globe, the election of Donald Trump as president of the U.S. has cast into the limelight the image of the U.S. and – has also changed it. But what about the image of Switzerland among Americans? And in any case, why is the image of a country important? I've been mulling questions like these since becoming Swiss ambassador to the U.S., based in Washington D.C. two years ago.

The image of a country is important. It creates and restricts the room for manoeuvre. Whether Switzerland is seen as friendly, important, uninteresting, solution-oriented or as a problem decides to a great extent what relations can develop and what joint projects can be launched – often independent of the true situation. The tax and banking disputes with the U.S. have shaped the relations with the U.S. for years.

When I took up my post in Washington, I was prepared for sluggish bilateral disputes in a shirt-sleeve type of atmosphere and for unfriendly contacts with the administration, the U.S. media and the general public.

«Swiss Made is a batch of distinction, exuding solidity, reliability and precision»

Having arrived in the everyday life of Washington, I quickly realized that the image of Switzerland was still an entirely different one: the traditional picture of Switzerland as a likeable yet slightly innocuous Alpine republic evoking positive emotions.

U.S. citizens first think about emblematic things such as watches, cheese, mountains, army knives or chocolate. People figure only  rarely. Swiss Made is a batch of distinction, exuding solidity, reliability and precision. This image is advantageous for tourism and consumer goods.

But this image has been tarnished. The Obama administration has made it a political priority to fight tax evasion. Important positions at the Justice Ministry were taken by people who had made their name fighting tax evasion. Finance institutes which had accepted untaxed assets quickly became targets. The U.S. also took the fight against tax evasion to the international organizations (OECD, G20).

But there was no conspiracy against the Swiss financial market in the U.S. and no intention to bankrupt it. The U.S. judiciary ordered Swiss financial service companies to pay substantial fines, but they were far smaller than the ones imposed on U.S. companies. More than 75 percent of the fines hit U.S. firms, about 5 percent were imposed on Swiss banks.

«Switzerland is no folkloric mini-state»

The dispute attracted far more attention in Switzerland than in the U.S.: the positive image of Switzerland in the U.S. didn't incur any lasting damage. The same applies to the quickly growing economic relations.

So, should we sit back and enjoy the positive image of Switzerland? Not at all. The preeminent picture is presenting Switzerland as something the country isn't (and probably never was).

Looking at the economy and science in particular, Switzerland is no folkloric mini-state. The country is the seventh-largest investor in the U.S. and almost on a par with Germany. Swiss companies are responsible for more than half a million jobs, often research oriented and well paid. Conversely, Switzerland is also an important recipient of investments by U.S. companies. Switzerland easily is one of the twenty biggest partners of the U.S. in respect to the trade of goods and services.

«The image of a country is something to be shaped with care»

The predominant image conceals the opportunities and potential of the cooperation with the U.S. and is the reason why the recognition of Switzerland is belying its importance, which is of no advantage if you want to represent your demands and interests. U.S. commentator Vance Packard rightly says that we slowly turn into what others think of us. That's true, independently of whether the image is to our advantage or not, correct or false.

That's why diplomacy for centuries regarded the cultivation of a country's image as its core duty. And it isn't about costly PR-campaigns, but first and foremost persistently nursing the reputation in the exchange with decision-makers and opinion leaders within the administration, in Congress, the economy, science and media. The image of a country – not unlike the one of a company, product or service – isn't simply a copy of reality. It is something to be shaped with care.

The change of administration in Washington and the likely waning of the banking dispute make for a timely opportunity to intensify the work on Switzerland's reputation in the U.S. The big challenge hereby is to safeguard the positive traditional image and to attach to it a picture of modern-day Switzerland with its economic and scientific potential. It is doable.

«On the basis of this dissimilarity, there's a great potential to deepen our relations»

There is a close link between the traditional values of Switzerland – ranging from the political system to the quality of its industries – and the innovation and competitiveness of the country. A modern-day image of Switzerland will also make apparent how different Switzerland is from the U.S. and, to a certain extent, mutually complementing.

The Swiss inclination for precision and quality, but also prudence and restraint stands in evident contrast to the enthusiasm and readiness to take risks apparent in the U.S., where a pioneering spirit and readiness to try untested waters remain noticeable. On the basis of this dissimilarity, there's a great potential to deepen our relations. But to make this a successful undertaking, the images the countries hold of each other need to be correct.

Martin Dahinden, born in 1955 in Zurich, has been the Swiss ambassador to the U.S. since October 2014. Following his studies in economics and economic history at the University of Zurich, Dahinden joined the diplomatic service of Switzerland, with postings in Bern, Paris, Geneva, Lagos, New York and Brussels. He led the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining from 2000 to 2004, followed by the Directorate for Resources at the Swiss foreign ministry (through 2008).

Before his nomination as ambassador to the U.S., Dahinden was head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, one of Switzerland's most powerful government agencies. He recently published a book about the Swiss contribution to the culinary history, called «Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse».

Previous contributions: Rudi Bogni, Adriano B. Lucatelli, Peter Kurer, Oliver Berger, Rolf Banz, Dieter Ruloff, Samuel Gerber, Werner Vogt, Walter Wittmann, Alfred Mettler, Peter Hody, Robert Holzach, Thorsten Polleit, Craig Murray, David Zollinger, Arthur Bolliger, Beat Kappeler, Chris Rowe, Stefan Gerlach, Marc Lussy, Nuno Fernandes, Thomas Fedier, Claude Baumann, Beat Wittmann, Richard Egger, Maurice Pedergnana, Didier Saint-George, Marco Bargel, Steve Hanke, Andreas Britt, Urs Schoettli, Ursula Finsterwald, Stefan Kreuzkamp, Katharina Bart, Oliver Bussmann , Michael Benz, Peter Hody, Albert Steck and Andreas Britt.



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