Swiss Foreign Policy, 1973–1975

Sep 15, 2017

«This kind of foreign ministry, with no police protection, but with a peaceful vegetable market ante portas, is what Palestinians dream of», a functionary of the Fatah party remarked on leaving the federal parliament building in Bern in June 1973. He was visiting the Federal Political Department (FPD, now FDFA) to establish a representation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Geneva. In this way, the negotiator ventured, «attacks by terrorist groups» in Switzerland would in the future be «gradually […] steered away from our country» (Doc. 23, A threat? When, two years later, the Federal Council, following a request of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, allowed an observer at the United Nations in Geneva, that observer told the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs that the PLO had «been able, in a number of cases, to stop attacks that Palestinian factions had planned in or against Switzerland, by pointing to the current, positive relationship» (Doc. 187,
Telegrams, Notes, Protocols …
The crisis in the Middle East, interlinked with the Palestinian question, was at the centre of Swiss foreign policy in the 1970s. Following the Yom Kippur War (Doc. 47, and the Arabian oil boycott, the entire economic system of Western industrial nations was destabilised after 1973. The energy crisis and economic crisis that ended thirty years of post-war economic boom defined the landscape of Swiss international relations from 1973 to 1975, covered in the newly published 26th volume of the Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (DDS). The edition contains telegrams, circulars, correspondences between Swiss diplomatic missions and headquarters in Bern, minutes of Federal Council meetings, as well as notes and working papers by different departments. These illuminate a broad spectrum of activities in foreign policy and foreign economics.
Car-free Sundays and «North-South Dialogue»
The Federal Council considered different measures in response to the scarcity of fossil fuels, for instance a driving ban on Sundays, which the head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs (FDEA), Federal Councillor Ernst Brugger, however, classified as «window-dressing»: «It achieves little and is hardly sustainable in the long term» (Doc. 49, Foreign trade was to focus on diversifying suppliers, especially in the area of multilateral cooperation in matters of energy and natural resources (Doc. 58, and Doc. 185, It was considered paramount to participate in the «North-South-Dialogue» between industrial nations and developing nations exploiting natural resources, «since Switzerland owns no seat and vote in either the United Nations or in the institutions of Bretton Woods» (Doc. 184, «Especially on the basis of its statutory neutrality,» Switzerland now had an interest in the Non-Aligned Movement dominated by «third-world countries» (Doc. 165,
UN as a foreign judge?
But the energy crisis also cast a shadow on development assistance. Canvassing for the public opinion, Pierre Graber, head of the FPD, declared in March 1974 «clearly, that in the future, he would refuse to consent to any new project ‹located in the geographical zone of oil-producing countries›» (Doc. 74, The relationship with sub-Saharan Africa remained delicate due to close contacts with the South African Apartheid regime, contacts now criticised even by Swiss diplomats who demanded a «more balanced policy on Africa» (Doc. 100, Here, significant differences came to light especially between the FPD and the FDEA (Doc. 162, In the matter of economic sanctions against Rhodesia, the Department of Foreign Affairs was wary of giving in to pressure from the UN, so as not to cast the latter «as a kind of foreign judge […] in the eyes of the Swiss public,» which would increase «the population’s oblique opposition against joining the UN» (Doc. 183,
Currency snake and ECHR
In January 1973, even before the energy crisis hit, the financial markets were shaken by the lifting of the fixed exchange rate (Doc. 3, The «free floating» of the Swiss Franc, however, could not become a «permanent solution» (Doc. 7,, especially since the currency was increasingly used in international financial transactions (Doc. 117, The Federal Council therefore debated whether Switzerland should join the so-called European currency snake (Doc. 141, Relations with the European community remained a dominant aspect particularly in economic questions, with Bern aiming to avoid «a situation in which the way the community’s legislation develops appears as an inevitable element of our policies» (Doc. 173, The «lacking possibilities of participation and influence» due to non-membership in the EC were seen as «frustrating» in some quarters. In general, the foreign department was aware that Swiss politics was «in increasing measure complementary to external circumstances and influences» (Doc. 18,, as can also be seen in the joining of the European Convention on Human Rights (Doc. 107,
Helsinki Final Act and CSCE negotiations
Another central theme of the new volume is the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). The dynamics created by the negotiations opened up entirely new possibilities to Swiss Diplomacy in the area of multilateral European politics. Already during preliminary negotiations in Helsinki (Doc. 32,, as well as during the dogged main negotiations in Geneva (Doc. 57, und Doc. 89,, the Swiss delegation, together with the other European neutrals, constructively distinguished itself through mediation and proposed solutions. On the occasion of the signing of the Final Act in Helsinki in 1975, President of the Federal Council Graber delivered a mixed but nonetheless optimistic summary (Doc. 158, Not least because participation in the conference offered new opportunities for bilateral exchange at the highest level, for example with the French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing or with GDR party leader Erich Honecker (Doc. 160,
New markets in the East?
As a result of the CSCE and of a general policy of détente, contacts to Communistically governed Eastern Europe expanded. Minister of Economic Affairs Brugger had travelled to Moscow in 1973 to forge tighter connections with the Soviet Union for the energy and exporting industries (Doc. 34, Minister of traffic Willi Ritschard made a similar effort in 1975 to negotiate on site about Soviet purchases in natural gas (Doc. 143, Diversification of sales markets was also the new magic word in the exporting industries. Thus, China, «with its 800 millionen potential customers,» was eagerly anticipated as a «future trading partner of Switzerland‘s» (Doc. 137,, as is born out by the visits by Federal Councillors Graber (on occasion of the first Swiss industrial and technological exhibition in Beijing, 1974) and Ritschard, as well as other celebrity guests (Doc. 153, The impression that Switzerland was «trending» in China inspired hopes (Doc. 178,
Image problems
With its «good offices» in the mediation of the conflict between India and Pakistan, Swiss diplomacy had been an «important cog» (Doc. 43, Yet there frequently were bad headlines, too: «A certain propaganda that is celebrating victories particularly in the United States has picked Swiss banks as its favourite example in arguing that our financial institutes offer ideal conditions for illegal and even criminal manipulations of all kinds» (Doc. 109, The «foreign domination referendum» too, damaged the country’s reputation, especially in foreign workers’ countries of origin: «It opposes to our efforts towards solidarity and cooperation the image of an exaggerated nationalism hostile to progress and to foreigners» (Doc. 86, A newly created coordinating commission, later dubbed «Presence Switzerland,» was to launch a «general propaganda campaign for Switzerland abroad» (Doc. 135,
Fear of the people?
After the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, 1973 (Doc. 82,, Max Frisch wrote an open letter to the Federal Council in which he strongly criticised the asylum policy with which those persecuted by the military junta were met (Doc. 69, The end of Franco’s regime in Spain (Doc. 191, and the political upheavals in Ethiopia (Doc. 119,, too, affected Switzerland. In view of the «growth of foreign policy’s significance that also includes for Switzerland,» the highest levels of diplomacy pondered the «vexing question of how a goal-oriented foreign policy determined by the country’s interests can be enforced despite the changing emotions of the parliament and the people,» and how interest «in foreign policy issues, in taking seriously these issues» can be generated in «the Swiss people.» Conclusion: «Foreign political interests should not be abandoned out of fear of the people» (Doc. 148,