Swiss-Born US Envoy to Talk Trade and NATO

Who says you can't go home again? After emigrating to the United States from Switzerland with her family at age six, Madeleine Kunin returned last month as US ambassador.

"It's a very nice circle to close," Ms. Kunin said in a Monitor interview. "To have left under difficult circumstances and to come back as ambassador for the country that granted me and my family citizenship says something about the United States. There are probably very few countries in the world where you could make that journey in quite the same way."

She was born in Zurich to a Swiss mother and a German Jewish father who took their familiy to the US during World War II. She served as governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991, then as deputy secretary of education.

As ambassador, Kunin wants to improve already-solid US-Swiss relations, focusing on trade.

"The fact that Switzerland is such a financial center makes it a significant player," Kunin says. "Switzerland's overall growth rate has been negative. So that is a concern for Switzerland, and it's also certainly a concern for the United States."

The US is Switzerland's fourth-largest supplier of imports. In 1995, Switzerland imported 5.8 billion Swiss francs ($7 billion) worth of goods from the US.

And it's the third-largest market for Swiss goods. In 1995, exports to the US amounted to $9.8 billion.

The US, however, has sometimes called Swiss agricultural policy protectionist. Kunin says the US seeks trade agreements in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and machinery, so that the US can enjoy the same rights with Switzerland as European Union countries.

Kunin will also stress the US desire to see traditionally neutral Switzerland join NATO's Partnership for Peace program. The US views Switzerland, in the heart of Europe, "as indispensable in preserving the peace in the post-cold-war era," Kunin says. "This is in everybody's interest. Switzerland has one of the biggest armies. Even with the [Army's planned] reduction in size, it is still a formidable Army."

Switzerland has let NATO send materiel through its borders to Bosnia. During the 1991 Gulf war, it allowed coalition planes to use its airspace. Swiss soldiers also served in Bosnia in humanitarian-aid roles.

A sticking point in relations concerns the bank accounts of Jews who fled Nazi-controlled territory in the 1930s and '40s. After the Communist bloc collapsed in the late 1980s, many Jews in Eastern Europe began to inquire about money they or their families had left in Swiss banks. Recently, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York has pressured Switzerland to investigate claims by American Jews.

Although some say the Swiss banking community hasn't been forthcoming about the fate of the estimated millions of Swiss Francs, Kunin is optimistic.

"I think there is a strong sense that this time they want to do it right," she says. "I think there is a determination to tell the whole story and see to it that justice is done."

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