Swiss diplomacy in fragile-authoritarian contexts


Swiss diplomacy in fragile-authoritarian contexts

10 April, 2019

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen

I am particularly pleased to stand before you today and having been invited to this roundtable together with leading experts in peace research and members of the FDFA. As a former Ambassador and now entrepreneur and crisis manager, I would like to talk about the practice of international actors in fragile-authoritarian contexts. Back in my day – as old people tend to say – I experienced some of the difficulties of working in and with an authoritarian government myself. And I work now for clients in states with authoritarian governments as well.

To begin, I’d like to offer two general observations, that I’ve found to be very relevant in such situations:
THE FIRST is that the old carrot and stick theory is still a useful tool in many bilateral relationships. I would say that as a smaller country, we must rely more on the carrot, as the stick is just not a credible threat but much more: mutual benefit can help create better outcomes.
THE SECOND is a quote by the former president of Thunderbird School of Global Management, Dr William Schurz:

“Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers.”

I would argue that trade maintains a dialog between governments, which is the sine qua non condition for effective diplomacy.

Let us not forget that less than half of all countries are democracies. But there is a general increase in authoritarian states or at least a decline in the quality of democracies to be observed.
Dealing with such states is therefore becoming increasingly important.

In 1987 just one year after I had joined the diplomatic service I was sent to Lagos in Nigeria. Back then the term ‘fragile state’ had not even been invented or at least not commonly used. But it would have applied to Nigeria. Back then, one military dictatorship was overthrown by the next. When I arrived there, this Gentleman on your right, General Babangida ruled the country. Nigeria was the prime example that once corruption is established in a system, this vicious circle can hardly be broken. And this is true till today. On top, the bureaucracy was impossible to deal with and the newly founded intelligence service SSS did not really care about rule of law or accountability.

As a young diplomat, I was mainly in charge of economic policy and business relations. But in one year I learned more about Africa, dictatorships, development aid, state building, human rights, corruption than in ten years in Berne. To my surprise my work involved rescuing Swiss hostages… yes, you did hear right: One fine day – which considering the Nigerian tropical climate is probably an exaggeration – two unfortunate technicians from Geneva attracted the attention of the intelligence service. Although they did not know what exactly they were accused of, they were sent to jail. And believe me, Nigerian jails were and are not the place to be.

After 5 months of imprisonment and a myriad of hours in trying to resolve the situation, we finally managed to send them back home. Apparently, their employer was in litigation with Nigeria over an outstanding bill and to get the money, the authorities used the imprisonment of employees as leverage. I deal right now with a similar case in Saudi-Arabia.
In the last 18 years as a consultant, I have made further experiences in fragile-authoritarian contexts. But let me now shed some light on the diplomatic practice of Switzerland in these contexts.

As we know, Switzerland has a long humanitarian tradition since the 19th century. Thanks to the visionary work of Henri Dunant we are the proud host of the International Committee of the Red Cross and became the guardian of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Our humanitarian engagement was a natural complement to neutrality.

Today, even our constitution mentions the Swiss humanitarian tradition.

In terms of peace promotion, Switzerland is active both in military and civil peace promotion. An area where we are strong is knowhow. Therefore, we provide 200 civil experts to international organizations and foreign governments to promote peace and human rights. One of the most important tasks after an armed conflict is to establish working state structures based on the rule of law.

Many examples show – like Iraq and Afghanistan and soon maybe Syria as well – that this task is extremely important. But the Western democracies are failing to achieve it. It is hard to win a war, but it is much harder to secure peace and build a civil society. In this area especially, Europe should be doing far more and invest more resources. In the end, this would be the best refugee policy.

For this example, I will come back to my premise: “Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers.” This is of course a very short generalization, but it holds one underlying truth that one should never forget, when dealing with any foreign government. Trade fosters communication, the latter of which is the essence of diplomatic relations. It is crucial to maintain a dialog with any type of regime, in order to achieve policy goals for mutual benefit and the benefit of the international community. That is why I think trade with Iran would be so important but President Trump has another opinion…

One of the most successful examples of diplomacy in the con-text of an authoritarian regime, which at the time could be qualified as fragile as well, is the work of Ambassador Emil Stadelhofer in Cuba in the 1960s. Stadelhofer is said to have built a relationship of trust with Fidel Castro, who was a young leader at the time. I believe the key component in this success was that Stadelhofer and Switzerland did not patronize Castro and invited him to maintain a dialog as “equals”.

It is important not to “school” the regime, nor to question its legitimacy, as certain Western powers would tend to do. It’s important to communicate at eye-level and to foster mutual respect. It is exactly this equality and respect that can help deescalate possible conflict situations. Stadelhofer and Swiss diplomats’ mediation efforts did not only keep the 1962 Missile Crisis from exploding into a full-fledged conflict. They intervened again in 1964 as Cubans wanted to storm the former US Embassy building and make it a ministry. At the time, Stadelhofer opposed this move firmly and discussed it eye-to-eye with Castro, invoking international diplomatic conventions and reasoning. Now, the building is again the US Embassy, since diplomatic relations were reinitiated. The relationship of the Ambassador with Castro was again instrumental in 1965, when the many deaths of Cubans attempting to flee over the ocean to Florida demanded action. Switzerland was able to negotiate an agreement between Washington and Havana to allow 3’000-to-4’000 Cuban citizens per month to leave the country by plane until 1973. This helped over 260’000 people to exit the country in relative safety, rather than to risk their lives on the ocean.

Some of the rules that help to achieve success in these con-texts are actually very similar to public affairs consulting. Engagement in fragile-authoritarian contexts requires a long-term commitment and a flexible working method. Like in consulting…

In peace promotion this is important because it takes time to establish and stabilize state structures and win the trust of the population. Know your audience. To accomplish this trust, it is also very important to know and implicate the local context. I had many mandates in the past, where it was mission critical to first and foremost know my audience. I had to know who I engage with. If one does not know the culture and the partner who sits in front of you, one has a big disadvantage. You need to understand the culture, the do’s and don’t’s, their history etc.

Another example is when I once was stopped by police in Nigeria for a routine control. Only after bringing up the necessary respect towards the policeman, I was able to get to him and talk constructively. I knew that this was very important to them.

Let’s remember my first example of the hostage situation in Nigeria: the government acted because of an unpaid bill, not because Switzerland had done something fundamentally wrong. A respectful dialog can help in identifying and clarifying issues, before they escalate.

Or let us have a look at the Ghaddafi-Incident. Many things were done right, and many mistakes were made at the same time. We are all aware of the events that transpired between 2008 and 2010. I will not come back to them in detail, as I am not here to judge the actions taken in the midst of the crisis.

However, I would like to point to one essential factor that has had a major influence: the relationship and the dialog between governments. In many instances during this period, the Ghaddafi clan felt personally attacked and belittled. It was not an eye-to-eye conversation. This led to retaliation from their side.

Our reputation as a neutral country grants us to work with both the regime in such states but also with the civil society and local organizations. Regular contacts with the local population and civil society organizations are key to develop local capabilities and strengthen participatory processes. Talking to several parties at the same time can also counteract the legitimization of the authoritarian rulers to some degree.

However, this context can change rapidly. Especially in fragile-authoritarian states, which are often unstable and unpredictable. A certain approach may be successful for some time but that doesn’t mean that this situation can’t change.

As a crisis manager I always advise to prepare for the worst case…and hope for the best!
This seems very logical but for me it is amazing how a lot of people prepare for the best and ignore the worst case that could happen. Therefore, worst-case scenario planning as well as risk and security management are of utmost importance.

In the end, the most important task in any situation – be it in peace promotion, development cooperation or in the private sector – is to avoid damage. Often this is said easier than done. But I believe that if you are prepared well enough, you can overcome any obstacles. As a US- Rapper already said: “Whatever obstacle comes your way, you gotta be prepared to jump over it”. Or by using a quote by a maybe more plausible source: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”, as Benjamin Franklin used to say.

After all, I think when dealing with authoritarian regimes, striking a compromise is unavoidable. Strict non-cooperation is often not an option. Because many issues, such as terrorism or the refugee crisis, that we confront today are deeply transnational in nature and can only be solved together.

So, we need to find a way to enable cooperation while refusing to simply accept or even encourage arbitrary rule and re-pression. As I experienced during my time in Nigeria these problems impede economic development because the market as a regulative order is cancelled out. But competition is the lifeblood of every prospering economy, and where it is inhibit-ed, prosperity suffers. The same goes for peace promotion. In order to achieve lasting peace, it is essential that the root causes of conflict are addressed. Often helping the civil society to become active and to develop their capacities is one of the most important steps in doing so.

But I think that Switzerland is well-position to face these challenges. Although Switzerland is not the largest country in terms of geographical size or the proportions of its peace promotion activity, we are by no means a “small state”. The Switzerland brand continues to be an essential factor that facilitates our international activities. The experts that we send to fragile-authoritarian states have some of the best training there is. Our activity in the diplomatic scene has already resulted in internationally agreed best practices and principles. As this is one of our key strengths, we should continue to do so to ensure that the practice of peace promotion leads to the best results for the local populations as possible.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there are no shortcuts to successful peace promotion or development cooperation. But long-term commitment, knowing the local context, being prepared for worst cases and also to change an unsuccessful methodology can get you a long way. Even in fragile-authoritarian states.

Quoting Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
And a certain Mr Obama once said: “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice”

Thank you.

Related post

Situation géopolitique et le rôle de la Suisse

16. Mai 2019

Symposium de prévoyance - Lausanne

Die Welt im Umbruch und Auswirkungen auf die Schweiz


KMU-Forum Zürcher Oberland - Wetzikon

David gegen die Goliaths – wie schreiben wir die Erfolgsgeschichte «Finanzplatz Schweiz» weiter?


Generalversammlung des Zürcher Bankenverbandes - Zürich

Social Share