Sister Republics – a Catchy but Empty Phrase?

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Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America

On the Occasion of the 73rd American Swiss Foundation Annual Gala Dinner at the Harvard Club,  New York City

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

Ambassador Martin Dahinden at the 73rd American Swiss Foundation Annual Gala Dinner at the Harvard Club,  New York City
Ambassador Martin Dahinden at the 73rd American Swiss Foundation Annual Gala Dinner at the Harvard Club, New York City © American Swiss Foundation


Ladies and Gentlemen 

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speaking to you this year again on American-Swiss Relations. 

The change of an U.S. Administration is always challenging for diplomatic representations in Washington D.C. New networks have to be build, and new political orientations to be understood. When I was speaking to you a year ago first contacts have been established but much was uncertain. 

A lot happened in the meantime. Discussions and exchange has taken place on all levels from experts to Cabinet members. The most outstanding was the extensive bilateral meeting of President Trump with a delegation of the Swiss Federal Council. The meetings went well, the focus was mainly on economic issues and on the ever strong and prosperous economic ties. Where there are differed views they were addressed openly without overshadowing the good climate, as it is usual among states with a good relationship. 

The nomination of American-Swiss Foundation Young Leader Ed McMullen as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland is good news. President Trump couldn’t have made a better choice. Ed McMullen’s devotion to strengthen American-Swiss relations is an important asset in our countries’ relations.


Ladies and Gentlemen, 

On festive occasions, when we express how well, old and unbreakable the relations between Switzerland and the United States are, the term “Sister Republics” is frequently used. Indeed, the Swiss use the term more frequently than the Americans nowadays. Most people have a vague idea at best what this old expression means, how it emerged, disappeared and reemerged again. And even more nebulous are the ideas what the meaning of “Sister Republics” may be today. 

At the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991, the Library of Congress in Washington opened an exhibition on the “Sister Republics”. In the catalogue it is written: “to a contemporary ear it (the term Sister Republics) may even sound contrived, having the ring of a catchy but empty phrase invented to drum up interest in an anniversary celebration”.[1] 

To my knowledge the term “Sister Republics” was first used by the Swiss scholar Valltravers in a letter to Benjamin Franklin in 1778.

Valltravers was like many Swiss at that time enthusiastic about the independence of the United States. Yet another country became a republic. 

Swiss thinkers played subsequently a significant role by contributing with ideas to the building of American statehood. Rousseau, Burlamaqui or Emer Vattel were multipresent in the thinking of the Founding Fathers and had an impact on the Articles of Confederation and eventually on the U.S. Constitution as well. 

When the Swiss drafted their own Federal Constitution in 1847 the U.S. Constitution was a blueprint from which to learn and to get inspired. This is why Switzerland has a bi-cameral parliament, a strong role of the cantons with their own constitution and many other elements that are similar to the political system in the United States. Other elements of the U.S. Constitution, like the strong executive power, did not fit well into Swiss political culture and were rejected. Still today, the many similarities makes the U.S. political life easier to understand for a Swiss diplomat than for most of his or her fellows. 

When Switzerland introduced in the late 19th Century the referendum and popular initiative and thus strengthened direct democracy it provoked a lot of interest in the United States. The voting rights in many U.S. States was directly inspired by this political innovation in Switzerland. 

In my speeches I use the term Sister Republics frequently. However, I feel sometimes uneasy. The wording seems to refer to bygone past. And it may sound even enigmatic for people unfamiliar with history. 

When I use the term it is more than a glimpse at history. What distinguishes our both countries still today from other nations? 

Fortunately the United States and Switzerland are not the only republics and democracies on the globe anymore. But both countries, the United States and Switzerland, are not based on language, ethnicity, not even on a coherent common culture. The foundation of our two countries is a great political idea. We believe in the citizen as the center of the political order and in the individual as the core of society. 

In the case of the United States this is very obvious. The U.S. is a country of immigrants and a country with lasting values solidly enshrined in the Constitution and rooted in the Age of Enlightenment. No other country has such an impressive continuity in statehood. 

Yes, there are tensions and a polarization in society and the political sphere as have rarely been seen in modern American history. Closely following those confrontations, understanding what is going on is a quintessential part of my job as Swiss Ambassador to the United States. I am concerned when I observe some of those divides. At the same time, I am confident and hopeful that American values and the U.S. Constitution are and will remain strong. And (very) robust public debates also serve as indications of a lively democracy at work and functioning institutions. 

For Switzerland, a country of very different size and international exposure, this applies as well. The Swiss do not have one common language, or one common culture, or one common religion as most European countries do. They speak different languages, practice different religions and are part of different major European cultures.

And yet Switzerland has a strong national identity, a strong quest for independence and the firm will political decisions taken by its own people. 

Both our countries are strong proponents of democracy, of the rule of law and of a free market economy, and they share many other values. This makes it worthwhile to continue to use term “Sister Republics” in future as well. 

Thank you for your attention.


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[1] The Sister Republics. Switzerland and the United States from 1776 to the Present by James H. Hutson. Library of Congress. Washington D.C. 1991.