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Ask the Ambassador: U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Peter R. Coneway

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Welcome to "Ask the Ambassador" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to U.S. Ambassadors around the world.

U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Peter R. Coneway discussed the U.S. Government's role at the World Economic Forum and the state of U.S. - Swiss relations.

Peter R. Coneway, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein
Peter R. Coneway
U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland

Event Date: 02/05/2007

Martin from Germany writes:

Sir! The new "Global Competitiveness Index 2006" (Source: World Economic Forum) names Switzerland as the number one, having risen from position number four, whereas the United States of America find themselves on the sixth place, having been the number one in 2005.

What main causes do you think caused this development? And how do you think will be the future of the bilateral relations between the Unites States and Switzerland? Are there any relevant matters of disagreement on the horizon?

Ambassador Coneway:

"Hi Martin. The WEF's Global Competitiveness Index is one of several reports that try to evaluate countries' comparative strengths. The final competitiveness rating is typically based on factors such as infrastructure, health and education, market efficiency, technological readiness, innovation and others. If I'm not mistaken, the United States ranked lower this year primarily due to the increase in size of our national debt and our growing current account deficit. We are working to address these issues and the President's most recent budget proposal, if implemented, would balance the budget by 2012. The current account deficit is also improving, as we open new markets to U.S. goods and services. We expect that all of this will result in an improved ranking for the U.S. in 2007.

As to your second question, the future of bilateral relations between the United States and Switzerland will continue to be solid. Our countries are often referred to as "sister democracies" for a good reason. We have a lot of shared history and values that encourage cooperation. It doesn't hurt that a forty-billion dollar trade relationship underpins our day-to-day contact. Nearly 300,000 Swiss, including many students and business people, travel to the United States each year. I suspect an even larger number of Americans visit Switzerland, helping us to keep the lines of communication open. Sure, we disagree on some issues from time to time, but usually we disagree on how to best address an issue, not on whether we should address an issue. This is exemplified in the Doha Round of trade talks, where the U.S. and Switzerland agree that trade barriers should fall and trade flows should grow, but we are not in 100% agreement on how best to accomplish these goals. That said, I'm optimistic that we'll be able to make some progress."

Dieter from Germany writes:

Ambassador Coneway! What was the main project that the United States placed on their agenda at the World Economic Forum? Or would you say that there have been several issues nearly equal in their meaning? And have the U.S. been able to gain new allies with respect to some of your most important issues?

Ambassador Coneway:

Hi Dieter, thanks for your question. Discussions at the World Economic Forum cover a lot of topics and the United States goes there to both participate and listen. This year, we had four cabinet-level officials attend, as well as several sub-cabinet-level representatives and many members of the House and Senate. They participated in panels on terrorism, energy security, global trade negotiations, climate change, and others.

Fighting terrorism continues to be a major priority for the United States, but I think our contributions to the discussions on energy security and climate change were very important and reflect the President's commitment to making good progress on these two issues over the next several years. Have we gained allies? I would like to think so. Whenever people come together and talk about serious issues, there's a good chance they will find areas of agreement and I think that happened at the WEF this year. The discussions about the future of the Doha Round of trade talks are a good example of this.

Lieselotte from Germany writes:

What aspects of the US-Swiss relations would you like to improve from your point of view? Are there any deficits within the relations? Would the United States like Switzerland to enter European Union?

Ambassador Coneway:

I'll start with your third question Lieselotte, and work back from there. The United States does not have an opinion on whether Switzerland should join the European Union. That, of course, is a decision for the Swiss people to make. If Switzerland were to join, I don't think our relationship would change dramatically. We would still have a strong economic relationship, shared goals in the world and common values. On your other questions, the bilateral relationship is fundamentally strong, which means Switzerland and the United States should work together more closely on issues outside of our respective countries. I think the U.S. and Switzerland can work together better in our counter-terrorism efforts, promoting democracy around the world and eliminating barriers to global trade.

C.D. from Washington, DC writes:

I often fantasized as a child about being ambassador to Switzerland since you have the three languages, French, Italian and German, plus the native Romanch, but isn't a little dull to deal with a country whose goal in life is to remain noncommittal? Nonaligned is for the birds.

Ambassador Coneway:

Some days, I wish my life were a little duller! This is a great question C.D., and I'm going to enjoy answering it. When it comes to Swiss neutrality, you have to remember that this policy has served the country well, particularly in the 20th century. Of course today, there are issues like terrorism, where neutrality isn't really an option. The current Swiss President herself supports a policy of "active neutrality," which has prompted an ongoing debate within Switzerland about what neutrality means and how the country should engage with the world. This affects everything from Swiss peace-keeping troops in Kosovo, to the role the government should play in promoting peace in the Middle East. From the United States' perspective, we would like to see Switzerland do more with like-minded countries to address some of the major global challenges we face today. Who wants to be with the birds?!

Ronan from France writes:

What are the G7 States, along with the other wealthiest countries in the world, going to do to concretely favor of the poorest ones during the Davos World Economic Forum?

Ambassador Coneway:

Hi Ronan. This is a big question and a tough one to answer. I would say that coming out of Davos, trade ministers from many nations, including the G7, have renewed confidence that we will be able to make some progress and conclude a comprehensive Doha Round of trade talks. This is the best news we've heard in quite a while. Some reports claim that by breaking down trade barriers, between three and five hundred million people could be lifted out of poverty in developing countries. Giving developing countries freer access to global markets is the best means of raising their income levels, reducing poverty and enhancing their security. The next few months will show us if the momentum created in Davos translates into viable proposals for breaking down barriers to global trade.

Monica from Orlando, Florida writes:

After reading about the discussions at the World Economic Forum (Davos), it appears that a recurring theme is the need to increase "dialogue" between people, whether it is between nations, citizens within a nation or in forums designated for specific discussion regarding culture, economic initiatives, health care and so on. How could I or any "average" person contribute to the dialogue?

Ambassador Coneway:

Monica, there is a lot you can do to get involved in the dialogue. Whether you are a student or already in the professional world, do what you just did in reading about the discussions at the WEF. Learn about an issue and then become involved in an organization that deals with one of those issues. Volunteering is a great option. You can start by giving an hour a week to a local organization, or by making a longer-term commitment, perhaps along the lines of joining the Peace Corps. It's easy to sit back and say that one person can't change the world, but in reality, that's how change comes about. Concerned people engage on an issue and then work, work, work. It's my personal belief that if we had more people involved in inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue, we would be in a better position to address the challenges we're facing around the world today. Good luck.

Satish from Maryland writes:

Is Switzerland more renowned as a place for supranational organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and World Trade Organization (WTO)? It seems like Switzerland has more of an identity as a place for countries around the world to congregate and draft international laws ranging from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS), etc. Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries I have seen in the world, particularly in Lausanne, but it seems as if it has more of a neutral identity as opposed to an identity as its own country.

Ambassador Coneway:

Satish, perhaps this question is best posed to a Swiss citizen, but I'll do my best to answer. You're right, of course, that Switzerland serves as the home to the UN, the WTO, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and countless other non-governmental entities. This contributes to Switzerland's sense of identity, but I wouldn't say that it defines it. The same holds true for the country's policy of neutrality. Neutrality means something different today from what it meant in 1939. It remains an important part of the national psyche, but even the most fervent advocates of neutrality realize that you can't stand on the fence when confronted with issues like global poverty, terrorism and cases of genocide. If you take no action, these problemsóor the consequences of themócan still affect you at home. In my own view, the Swiss identity is best characterized by a humanitarian tradition, international engagement and a strong sense of independence. In fact, the sense of independence is so strong, sometimes I almost think I'm back home in Texas!

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