Shaping the debate on Swiss foreign policy

Nicola Forster
Founding Curator, Bern Hub, foraus - Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy
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This week the Forum:Blog speaks with some of the people changing Switzerland’s landscape in the 21st century. Today, we meet a Global Shaper from Zurich whose vision may well help shape foreign policy in the future.

You are a Global Shaper. What does that mean to you?

Global Shapers represents young people who want to play a part in designing the future, who want to take responsibility. As part of this exclusive network, I have the unique opportunity to engage with dedicated people from all over the world in a secure environment. Together, we can start projects that will hopefully make a difference. As part of the Zurich Shapers-Hub executive board, I am currently trying to do my part to build a strong and vibrant community in the German-speaking region of Switzerland.

What do you hope to achieve with the Global Shapers?

As the younger generation, we have grown up in an extremely globalized world. The big challenge of our generation is to use good interdisciplinary ideas to solve problems associated with globalization. In this extremely well connected world, I am convinced that we already use new and innovative tools that will help us progress. My aim, as part of the Global Shapers, is to use the hugely diverse know-how of the younger generation to make a positive difference and, by that, I mean on a national as well as international level. With the close cooperation of the WEF and the Young Global Leaders, we can adjust the scale of our projects and thereby also achieve something abroad as well as at home.

What role does your generation play in today’s world?

Our role is definitely too small! It was precisely this feeling that prompted me to develop the idea of an independent think tank, foraus (Foreign Policy Forum), where young people have a platform for bringing their academic knowledge directly into politics. The model for a voluntary, bottom-up think tank is very innovative and had not been tried before. That meant that, initially, there was some reluctance to take the project seriously and to approve it, based on the fact that we were so young. After two years of intensively building up the project –our nearly 500 members often working through the night – even Parliament is prepared to read one of foraus’ funded studies on recommendations for handling certain foreign policy situations…(laughs)

Today, I sometimes think that the marginal role played by young people in economics, politics and society has often to do with the fact that young people don’t trust themselves enough and so don’t pursue their ideas and projects with the passion they deserve. As Global Shapers, we are demanding that, despite our youth, our new ideas are taken into consideration in the decision-making process. If we can manage to do that, then there is no limit to our generation’s potential.

In your opinion, what role does Switzerland play in the global political landscape?

Switzerland is generally quite unassuming in acting on the international stage, but it has a lot to offer. The stability of our systems, which are based in federalism and direct democracy, can serve as an inspiration to Europe as well as the larger international community. Switzerland has a good reputation as a mediator in international conflicts and we should be really proud of this humanitarian-based tradition. In addition to that, we have an open and competitive national economy and are extremely well-connected worldwide.

It would however be dangerous to rest on the laurels of the success of past decades. So that we can continue to play in the Champion’s League economically, Switzerland needs a prosperous environment and open markets. Despite the fact that we are not members of the EU, we are still responsible for the economic well-being of the continent. In the current crisis, Switzerland, as independent, is the perfect place to conduct the debate of the future of Europe – direct exchange between the most important political, economic and social representatives. So I am calling for a kind of WEF of European politics! (laughs)

What should Switzerland be doing better?

Switzerland often has a tendency to navel-gaze these days. This means that we often lack awareness of how closely we are connected to global events and how strongly they affect us. According to a study by the ETH in Zurich, 80% of the Swiss population were of the opinion that solely the Swiss people and Swiss politics would influence the future of Switzerland. Linking the Franc to the Euro however, has made us realise, painfully, how dependent we actually are on the rest of Europe.

From the perspective of immigration policy, we are fighting against a lot of fear rather than seeing the opportunities that immigration can bring. Allowing immigration from non-EU countries is still a taboo topic politically even though current policy means that we lack the necessary workforce to keep our economic motor running. The economy should play a greater role in this discussion in the future. Switzerland must remain a country open to the rest of the world in order to guarantee our continued prosperity and to remain an attractive location.

You speak five languages. Which languages? Do you speak them all fluently?

I like to travel and I do travel a lot. So, I often have to rely on my knowledge of foreign languages in a working capacity as well. Obviously English is very important today. But the importance of French in Switzerland is often underestimated. In my capacity as president of a think tank that operates throughout Switzerland, I am very happy that I was able to spend two years living and studying in a French-speaking region. It means I can communicate easily. In addition, I also speak Italian, Spanish and a little Russian. Even though I spent several months in St. Petersburg, I was unable to get beyond the level of small talk in Russian, unfortunately. I would also really like to learn Turkish. Turkey is a fascinating country and very important from a geo-strategic point of view, one that we won’t be able to ignore in the future.

What are your personal and professional goals?

At the moment, I am putting everything into developing the foraus think tank (Foreign Policy Forum) into an acknowledged centre of excellence for foreign policy questions. Financing this ambitious project on an ongoing basis is a constant challenge. We want to increase funding by aligning with economic groups interested in constructive foreign policy for Switzerland and by receiving support from the institutional landscape. Our unique Swiss-wide network of almost 500 ‘High Potentials’ within International Relations will hopefully drum up some attention! Regarding my own personal journey? I don’t know, but I am sure that I will be able to work on interesting projects in the future, projects that demand a creative enterprising spirit on an international level. We’ll see!

Author: Nicola Forster is a Global Shaper. He founded the Think-Tank foraus – foreign policy forum – in 2009 and is currently president and member of the executive board.

Image: Nicola Forster

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