The Confederation's responsibility to represent the interests of Switzerland and its citizens abroad is defined in the Federal Constitution of 1848. Today, more than 170 Swiss representations abroad monitor local events, maintain relations with governmental authorities and promote exchanges in the fields of culture, sport and science.
Foreign policy: a matter for federal government
The Federal Constitution of 1848 gave the Confederation the competence to protect Swiss interests abroad. The Federal Political Department (FPD) was founded in the same year. Its first director was Federal Councillor Jonas Furrer (1848-60). A new director was appointed each year until the outbreak of the First World War; each director simultaneously held the office of the Federal President. The exceptions to this rule are the years 1887-1892 under Federal Councillor Numa Droz and the years 1893-1896 under Federal Councillor Adrien Lachenal. Related documents can be found in the Foreign Affairs fonds (1518-1971) and those of the Federal Political Department (1848-1962).
First Swiss representations in the 19th century
Initially, Switzerland made do with the existing representations in Paris (1798-1995) and Vienna (1798-2000). In 1860, the Federal Council appointed an ambassador to the Piemont region with a corresponding Swiss representation in Turin (1848-1984). Berlin (1866-1977) was added in 1867. London (1846-2000) and Buenos Aires (1855-1995) followed in 1891. The reasons for establishing new representations were founded in the Italian and Prussian wars, intensified trade relations and the emigration of Swiss nationals to South America.
Additional material on the first representations can be found in the Foreign Affairs fonds (1518-1971).
Development of Swiss representations in the 20th century
The first expansion phase began after the end of the First World War. Many new representations, for instance in Belgrade (1908-1996), Athens (1919-2001) and Ankara (1919-1992), were established under Federal Councillor Giuseppe Motta, who directed the FPD between 1920 and 1940. Further information is available in the private estate of Giuseppe Motta (1834-1990) and in the personal files of Giuseppe Motta (1909-1939).
A second expansion phase followed after 1945: Switzerland established diplomatic representations in countries liberated by the allies and in countries that had gained independence. New representations were added continuously until 1990 as a consequence of Switzerland's increased economic and international relations.
Switzerland is currently represented abroad by almost 170 official representations. As the Swiss network of embassies expanded, so did its range of duties, for instance protecting Swiss company interests and supporting Swiss citizens seeking the restitution of assets. The political and military reports issued by Swiss representations provide a good overview of the areas of focus and the topical discussions in each case (1848-1965, 1966-78 and 1979-1990).
Changes to the network of Swiss representations since 1990
Since 1990, Switzerland has reduced its official presence in the US and Western Europe, due mainly to greater ease of travel and the impact of technical and technological progress on consular services. The opening of new representations in Central and Eastern Europe came in response to structural changes following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Switzerland’s network of international representations has also been extended in the capitals and major cities of emerging nations, while increasing globalisation and exchange with new partners, notably in Asia, is reflected in the opening of new representations since the mid-2000s.
The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) continually analyses the operations and relevance of its network abroad and makes the necessary changes in accordance with the priorities laid down by the foreign policy strategy and agreed budgetary framework.
Tips for further research
- Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with articles on, amongst others, foreign policy (ger) and diplomacy (ger).
- Website of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, representations and FDFA history: additional information on the topic of Switzerland's representation of interests and relationship management abroad.
- Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland with numerous digitalized and thematically edited documents on Swiss foreign policy since 1848 in the database Dodis, many of which have been authored or received by Switzerland's representations abroad (map). Moreover, there is a lot of information on the diplomats of the respective representations.
Publications of the Federal Archives
Die Schweiz und der Kalte Krieg
Last modification 04.11.2019
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