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Swiss Envoy Sees Lesson for Democracies in Ukraine War

Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland's ambassador in Washington, speaks to VOA, in this screen grab from an exclusive interview.
Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland's ambassador in Washington, speaks to VOA, in this screen grab from an exclusive interview.

For Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland's ambassador in Washington, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing a set of democratic reforms known at the time as the "Prague Spring."

"That's when I realized for the first time what it meant when free people are being attacked by a bully," he said in a recent interview. "I was 6 years old."

Describing those events as his "first conscious political memory," Pitteloud said, "I remember our cities being flagged with Czechoslovakian flags, I remember the refugees, I remember our old car, our old family car — with Czechoslovakian flags all over the car — just to [show] our solidarity."

Now 60, Pitteloud said he is proud that his traditionally neutral country has chosen to join other democratic nations in supporting Ukraine's defense of its sovereignty through economic boycotts and votes at the United Nations.

But, he said, he hopes the war will drive home to Western leaders the need for closer economic cooperation even in peacetime and reverse the drift in recent years toward greater barriers to trade "even among nations in the free world."

"The conflict in Ukraine is a tragic reminder of the importance of international collaboration and the need for close political and economic ties between democratic nations," Pitteloud told VOA.

Switzerland, he said, is "absolutely convinced" that democratic nations should "intensify" collaboration, and expand trade relations and technology exchanges if they are to prevail in an increasingly competitive global environment.

The issue is of economic as well as geopolitical interest for Switzerland. The exchange of intellectual property accounts for the largest share of trade in services between the United States and Switzerland. While many Americans associate Switzerland with chocolate, watches and banks, in reality exchanges of high-tech and intellectual property now make up 80% of Switzerland's trade and economic presence in the U.S., the ambassador said.

For Pitteloud, the successful relationship demonstrates that trade between nations that share the same values and norms can benefit both. "And that's how it should be," he said.

In a not-so-subtle pitch for his country, the ambassador said that when trading with Switzerland, the United States doesn't need to worry about the theft of intellectual property or having its market flooded with cheap products.

"We don't have cheap products," he said, with a slight wink. Switzerland's per capita GDP is about $20,000 higher than in the U.S.

While the war in Ukraine has prompted questions worldwide about oil and gas supplies, Pitteloud said Switzerland has benefited from having none of either.

"I think we're extremely lucky not to have any natural resources," he said. "We didn't have oil, we didn't have coal, we didn't have diamonds, whatsoever. The only way to be competitive on the world market was to make a difference with the quality of the products that we had."

Pitteloud said his country's industrial development began in the 18th century with textiles. "Then we moved into the machinery industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry, and every time we had to have something better than the rest, because we had to pay more for raw material than everyone else because we didn't have any."

If being compelled to make something from nothing has pushed the Swiss to become masters of precision, the country's top diplomat in Washington says he's spotted a quality in American life that his fellow countrymen could profitably emulate.

"The U.S. is a country where failing is proof that you tried; in Switzerland, failing is almost considered a social crime; in that sense, we need to be more American."

A blessing his country shares with the United States, he said, is the talent that arrived through successive waves of immigration.

"You would be surprised at how many of the biggest and most successful companies in Switzerland were created by economic or political refugees of Europe who came because they couldn't find in their own countries the conditions to operate," the envoy said.

"Switzerland was, for a while, after the revolution of 1848, the only liberal democracy in Central Europe," he added. The world-renowned watch industry in Switzerland, for example, benefited from French Protestants who brought their skills when they fled persecutions in 1685.

"It was an incredible opportunity for Switzerland," he said. "In the end what made the U.S. so successful and what made Switzerland so successful is we're able to draw good people into our society, into our universities, into our economy."

Pitteloud said he believes the future belongs to countries that value and encourage diversity.

"What most people don't know is that 35% of the Swiss population is either foreign, foreign-born or second generation," he said, adding that he himself is "one-fourth [native] Swiss, two-fourths or one-half Italian, one-fourth French, and my wife is from Rwanda, Central Africa. I'm a typical Swiss!"