‘Diplomatic engineering’ with ex-Federal Councillor Calmy-Rey

 Former Federal Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey talking to a member of the audien

Former Federal Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey talking to a member of the audience. (Image: ETH Zurich/Giulia Marthaler)

Micheline Calmy-Rey gave a public lecture at ETH Zurich last Monday in which she spoke about Swiss foreign policy and called for an active role in international nuclear disarmament negotiations. Her visit took place as part of a joint seminar between the University of Geneva and ETH Zurich.

Interest in Calmy-Rey’s appearance in Zurich last Monday was high, and the Audi Max in ETH’s main building was practically full. Some of the visitors may have asked themselves how the political analyst, former Federal Councillor and long-standing head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) came to be lecturing at a technical university. The key to the answer is Michael Ambühl, former State Secretary in the FDFA and Professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at ETH Zurich since 2013. He facilitated the visit of his former boss, who has been a visiting professor at the European Institute of the University of Geneva since 2012. As part of a seminar on conflict management, the ETH professor invited the ex-Federal Councillor to lecture on political negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

Interesting collaboration prospects

Calmy-Rey’s invitation comes at a time of convergence between her chair at the European Institute of the University of Geneva and the chair of negotiation at ETH Zurich. For the first time this autumn semester, a seminar will take place in Geneva in collaboration with the ETH chair in which negotiations on nuclear disarmament will be simulated; eight ETH Zurich students will attend. The idea is to simulate actual negotiations and thus give students a direct insight into the art of negotiation. In 2014, Ambühl conducted a similar seminar on EU negotiations, in which students from Geneva participated along with students from the University of Zurich.

"I would be very pleased about a long-term, in-depth cooperation with ETH," Calmy-Rey said on Monday. She is convinced that collaboration would be particularly promising on the outstanding issues concerning nuclear disarmament: "Zurich has engineers with a lot of expertise in nuclear technology. Geneva is home to many of the international organisations that deal with global disarmament, and their officials often give lectures at the university. This makes for an interesting combination."

Switzerland as a proactive ’honest broker’

In her 45-minute lecture, Calmy-Rey explained her idea of a cosmopolitan and proactive Swiss foreign policy: "In the past, Switzerland was just the host to international negotiations; today, it is the chef." By virtue of its neutrality, Switzerland is in an ideal position to play the role of ’honest broker’ in international conflicts and to support peace through constructive proposals and initiatives. This is particularly true for nuclear disarmament negotiations. Calmy-Rey mentioned her experience in the negotiations between the US and Iran for a nuclear agreement, and said that in 2006 she decided in favour of an active neutral policy for Switzerland. Together with Ambühl, then State Secretary, she organised meetings in Geneva with the parties to the conflict and formulated proposals to (re)open negotiations. These talks were the precursor to the historic agreement reached in Vienna in July of this year. Nuclear weapons are immoral and illegal because they violate international human rights, Calmy-Rey said on Monday. The destructive potential of the nuclear arsenal is frightening even to this day. However, there have been successes when it comes to disarmament and today nuclear weapons are globally less available than during the Cold War. But at the same time the existing arsenals are now technologically more sophisticated and dangerous.

Rapprochement through the policy of small steps

During her lecture, Calmy-Rey also provided a glimpse into her negotiation toolbox, in which the ’diplomatic engineering’ method assumes a key role. This includes a more technical approach to conflict resolution, in which large and often emotionally charged political conflicts are broken down into smaller, more technical, individual problems. This opens up the possibility that both parties in the conflict will arrive at a win-win situation. This technique was used during the US-Iran negotiations; mutual trust was first built up through a policy of small steps over the years.

At the end of the lecture, Ambühl expressed his enthusiasm for the engineering approach: "It shows that the engineering spirit yields results in many fields - not just technical, but political too."

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