“I must say that when I took over there was a cloud over our relationship with Switzerland,” says Suzan LeVine, with a degree of diplomatic understatement. She became ambassador in 2014 at a time when the US Justice Department was putting pressure on Swiss banks to disclose how they helped American customers avoid tax.
“But we’ve been able to turn the page on that,” she adds. “You see, the beautiful thing with our relationship is that we build bridges between our countries. My favourite French, German and Italian words are ensemble, zusammen, insieme: the words for together. The reality that we can only pursue major opportunities and address major challenges together has been at the core of the Obama administration.”
LeVine, like many US ambassadors, has no diplomatic background. A former director at Microsoft and vice-president of Expedia, she later juggled being a stay-at-home mum with co-founding two non-profit organisations. “I had a very non-linear career and it wasn’t always easy for me to progress as a woman,” she says, noting that her husband Eric has now taken on the role of stay-at-home dad to enable her to do her job as ambassador to the best of her abilities. “My being ambassador here is in many ways thanks to that moment in 1920 when the 19th amendment was ratified,” she adds, referring to the change to the US constitution that granted women the vote.
LeVine’s corporate background has given her an insight into the value of Swiss-style apprenticeships and has led to what she calls an “apprenticeship renaissance”. Thus far more than 20 Swiss companies in the US, from Nestlé to Zürich Insurance Group, have become involved in the initiative – and that number is growing. Similarly important has been the collaborative launch of the Global Community Engagement and Resiliency Fund. It is an organisation aimed at countering violent extremism by working with countries such as Mali and Bangladesh to reverse the damaging narrative that attracts impressionable youth to the cause.
The biggest topic of conversation right now though is, of course, the US election. “There’s no doubt that people are watching it closely,” says LeVine. “Having been appointed by President Obama, I very much stand behind the policies of his administration.”
The US embassy in Bern was established in 1853. As LeVine says, “It’s just an office building; what’s interesting is the residence.” It is surrounded by the Alps and populations of foxes and badgers, which are loved by Vegas, LeVine’s poodle. Dating from the 1700s, the building was once the abode of Elisabeth von Fischer-Daxelhof, known as “Blumenrain” but today houses a significant art collection, curated by LeVine.
The embassy houses 100 people, including Swiss staff who work in 12 sections, such as the consular sections, homeland security, defence organisations and the legal attaché’s office. Its first US ambassador to Switzerland was writer and journalist Theodore S Fay, appointed in 1853.
Now that their banking differences appear to be behind them, LeVine believes that the two nations (three if you include Liechtenstein) can get back to focusing on opportunities. All that may change if Donald Trump wins November’s election.
China has confirmed that one of its Shenyang J-15 carrier-based fighter jets crashed – and for the first time ever, provided a reason. The jet and its pilot were lost attempting a simulated deck landing at a Chinese airfield; the accident has been blamed on a failure of the fly-by-wire systems.
Setbacks for the J-15, also known as the Flying Shark, are not new. Such difficulties have kept China’s carrier capability behind that of the US. “China is investing at a rate that is generating some success,” says Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute.“But the US is not standing still so even if China improves, the US will stay ahead for the next few decades.”
Iranians were barred from the Hajj this year but Saudi Arabia has now agreed to grant pilgrimage visas to Iranians so long as they’re expats.