Madame President.

Each year, during the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly plenary, Columbia invites various international figures to speak in our hallowed halls. This series of discussions, often attended and moderated by President Bollinger himself, is known as the World Leaders Forum. Covering one of the first events, neophyte writer Sam Baron recounts his experience listening to the President of Switzerland, Madame Doris Leuthard. 

The start of the World Leaders Forum kicked off with a talk with Her Excellency Doris Leuthard, the President of Switzerland—the talk was moderated by none other than PrezBo himself. Switzerland, unlike the United States, does not directly elect a unitary head of state for a fixed-year term. Instead, the Swiss hold elections for a ‘Federal Council’ wherein the Executive branch is controlled by seven members, with each member heading certain departments within Swiss government. These members then rotate the official title of the ‘President of Switzerland’ every year. The current President, Doris Leuthard, is the Council member who heads the Swiss department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications.

Wanting to get a better understanding of Swiss politics and society before the talk, I attended the forum with a friend from Switzerland. As it turned out, the Swiss consulate collaborated with Columbia to give Swiss-nationals who registered for the event ‘VIP’ treatment—a Swiss flag-pin, front-row seats, a handshake with the Swiss ambassador, and a private meeting with President Leuthard after the event was over. Thankfully, despite not being a Swiss national, I was able to enjoy three out of the four before PrezBo came onto the stage to begin the forum and introduce President Leuthard.

The theme of the talk was the “Rule of Law or Law of the Jungle,” and in her opening remarks, President Leuthard placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of implementing, expanding, and enforcing the current conventions of International Law. She spoke ill of the current strain of nationalism, populism, and economic protectionism permeating throughout the Western world—and in a subtle swipe at President Trump, warned that such movements threatened the security of the current international order. In the latter half of her speech, President Leuthard spoke of Switzerland’s efforts to foster diplomacy and open dialogue between leaders on an international scale. In her view, Switzerland is in a unique position to act as an international mediator due to the country’s long history of political neutrality and absence from NATO. Of particular interest was Switzerland’s efforts to diffuse tensions in North Korea—where President Leuthard claimed Switzerland is only one of two Western countries that the North Koreans have allowed into the country to administer humanitarian aide to its citizens (the other being Norway).

After her remarks, PrezBo opened the conversation to questions from interested students. Questions ranged from climate change, Brexit, Switzerland’s insulation from populism, and the efficacy of international sanctions, but perhaps the most interesting—and provocative—question came from a student that asked President Leuthard about Switzerland’s role in supporting the authoritarian President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi:

“Madame President, you have been talking about how Switzerland is involved in peacemaking, however, this is not the case with Egypt…Switzerland supports the current authority in Egypt, which is led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi…this general has been killing youth in Egypt…this general has been detaining youth in Egypt…and I can’t see how Switzerland is bringing “peace” to Egypt by supporting such a dictator. I have friends who are supposed to be in University but they’re rotting in prison…but they’re now dead…because of this man. This man is actually attending the United Nations, and helping to create this ‘International Law’. So how can I believe in the United Nations and International Law and Switzerland’s role in peacemaking when you support someone who attained power via a military coup and not democratic institutions?”

President Leuthard responded by saying that although we may not like certain international leaders, it is important to respect the authority of leaders who are elected democratically. She also claimed that it is far better to work with these regimes than against them if international actors wished to engage in humanitarian projects in countries such leaders rule.

The student then attempted to correct President Leuthard by pointing out that President Sisi was not democratically elected—but was interrupted by PrezBo himself opining that “we could debate this for hours,” and moved onto the next question. At the conclusion of the event, I bid farewell to my front-row seat, and the authentically Swiss members of the front-row went backstage for a Photo-Op with President Leuthard herself. It was during this brief moment that I wished I was Swiss.

The event was livestreamed on the Columbia University YouTube channel, and can be viewed in its entirety here.

Her Excellency via Bundeskanzlei / Swiss Federal Council