Oct 29, 2021 - World

The Swiss role in U.S. diplomacy flies under the radar

Illustration of a swiss army knife with various speech bubbles being pulled out.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When the Biden administration was organizing high-level summits with Russia in June and China in October, it turned to the same country: Switzerland.

Why it matters: The neutral state at the heart of Europe has long played a larger role in U.S. diplomacy than many Americans realize.

  • Not only did Switzerland play host to President Biden and Vladimir Putin, and later national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, the country also plays a central role in diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran.
  • Since the U.S. severed relations with Tehran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, U.S. diplomatic and consular affairs in Iran have flowed through the Swiss Embassy. The Swiss often serve as an intermediary between the countries.
  • It’s not just a one-way street. The Swiss hope to negotiate a free trade agreement with Washington, and could also use U.S. support next year as they seek a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time.

Zoom in: Four women on both sides of the Atlantic are currently at the heart of the relationship: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; Swiss State Secretary Livia Leu; U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Bern Eva Weigold Schultz; and Beatrice Schaer, head of protocol at the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

  • Sherman and Leu developed a friendship in the lead-up to the Iran deal, when Sherman was the lead U.S. negotiator in Geneva and Leu was ambassador to Iran. Leu’s first working trip outside of Europe in her current role was to Washington to meet Sherman, and Sherman visited Leu in Switzerland earlier this month.
  • Weigold Schultz, meanwhile, is "really in the driver's seat although just being the ambassador ad interim," a Swiss official close to the government tells Axios.
  • And Schaer won plaudits for organizing the Biden-Putin summit in just eight days.

Worth noting: The economic relationship is also bigger than you might expect. Switzerland is the seventh-largest foreign direct investor in the U.S. economy, ahead of much larger countries such as France and Spain. Total trade between the two countries amounts to $130 billion per year.

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