An Interview with Suzan LeVine, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein
Suzan “Suzi” LeVine has been the United States Ambassador to Swizterland and Liechtenstein since June, 2014. Prior to her appointment, she served as co-founder and chairperson of the advisory board for the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington. From 2009-2012, LeVine worked at Microsoft Corporation as Director of Strategic Partnerships for Student Developers and Director of Communications for Education. LeVine’s early career centered on software and the Internet. From 1993-1998, she worked as a Product Manager for Microsoft where she helped launch the final versions of MS-DOS and Windows 95. With Expedia, Inc. from 1998-2005, she worked as a Director of Marketing through the startup’s IPO and then as the Vice President of Marketing and Sales for the luxury travel division. LeVine is a graduate of Brown University with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering with aerospace applications.
The Politic: You were the first U.S. ambassador to be sworn in on a Kindle. What was your reasoning behind that decision?
Well let me clarify, while I was certainly using a Kindle, I generally reference it as an e-reader. I love all my electronic devices equally. Technology is very core to my essence.
They give you a choice: you can use whatever you’d like in terms of your swearing in. A lot of people have the Constitution they used in their law school, or the Bible that their great grandfather brought. But for me, technology is something with which I closely identify, and it really is core to my being. I had actually just acquired a copy of the Constitution on my Kindle to reread it in advance of taking on this job that is about upholding this document and representing this document. So when they asked me what I wanted to use, there really was only one answer: it was the one that I had, it was my device with my electronic copy on it. They said they needed to check if that was okay. It was sort of astonishing to me that this hasn’t been done before. So when I did it, they also had to make sure the Vice President was okay with it, and he loved the idea. That’s when it went viral. What I also found interesting is when people wrote about it, they saw that yes this was the first done on the federal level, and just a few months prior, the first documented had been done on a local level. What I loved is that it was actually in the town in which I grew up, Atlantic City, New Jersey. I believe it was firefighters in Atlantic City who had used it for swearing in. I love that it actually ties back.
The Politic: The Kindle was open to the 19th Amendment of the constitution in the swearing in. Why did you specifically choose that amendment?
As a woman with a very non-linear career path in which I’ve left to be home with my kids twice, and with my concentration in university as an engineer, I have often been one of the very few women. I worked in a technology industry in which I was often one of very few women in a group. So for me, where I am really truly, profoundly leaning in to this position, it was an expression of the extraordinary leaning in that was done by the suffragists to get the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, and a recognition of how women really can have an impact on the world and the future.
The Politic: Why did you decide to accept the President’s nomination to the U.S. ambassadorship to Switzerland and Liechtenstein?
He asked me. I had decided that I would be willing to serve my country in whatever way they needed me. I felt like it was very much a responsibility that I had to follow through on—my commitment to make the world a better place. My most recent engagement on that had been a civic engagement in getting people to vote and getting people to turn out and become involved. So I was willing to do whatever was needed, and when the president decided that this would be the best way in which to leverage my experience and my skills, I was extremely humbled and honored. And every day I am even more humbled and honored by this opportunity.
How would you characterize U.S.-Switzerland and U.S.- Liechtenstein relations today?
I think they are fantastic. There are a number of dimensions on which I look at our relationship and our strategic interests.
I’ll start with Switzerland and then I’ll share some crossover between Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The first dimension I look at is economic, and our relationship is extremely strong. We have over $80 billion in trade between our two countries on an annual basis. Swiss companies generate more than 460,000 jobs in the United States and Switzerland is the sixth largest foreign direct investor into the United States. The United States and companies from the United States generate over 80,000 jobs in Switzerland. And the United States, I believe, is number one, if not one of the top three investors into Switzerland. Liechtenstein also has very strong trade with the United States. You have companies like Hilti, ThyssenKrupp Presta, and Ivoclar that have a very strong presence throughout the United States. The relationship on an economic level is very strong, and I’m working on some key ways to make it even stronger, including growing apprenticeships in the United States and partnerships with Swiss companies.
Another dimension is what I call security and development. A couple of areas within this are really key. Today, the Swiss are our protecting power, meaning they represent us where we don’t have diplomatic relationships—in Iran and Cuba. It was amazing news with respect to Cuba where the Swiss have been representing us for 53 years, and they will help us along until the U.S. steps in with its own diplomatic corps there. They have been doing that on our behalf, and they still are doing it in Iran. Also from a security and development standpoint, we collaborate on countering violent extremism. Switzerland was also one of the four countries where chemical weapons were tested from Syria. They have also been at the forefront of hosting dialogue, whether its about Syria or Iran, and course they also have one of the UN locations in Geneva.
A number of people would also look at the area around banking. Frankly that is an area that is actually relatively small in our relationship but gets a lot of attention. We are at a place now where we know where things are going in terms of resolving things with banks. We are turning the page in that area.
One last thing I will also focus on is culture and shared values. The 1848 Swiss Constitution was modeled on the U.S. Constitution, and we were two of the few democracies among a world of monarchies. It grounded what we now call the Sister Republics, where we both have a basis on rule of law, a deep respect for the voice of the minority and as well as a deep protection for the voice of the individual. So those are areas in terms of shared values. From a cultural standpoint, you can’t turn around without having a jazz festival somewhere here in Switzerland, and there’s a deep love for that along with food and clothing and art and style.
There is also shared culture and shared priorities between the U.S. and Lichtenstein. Something that has been especially great with Liechtenstein, especially for a country as small as Liechtenstein, is what they have been able to do in terms of fighting against violence against women, especially in conflict zones. They have really been at the forefront of that in partnership with us, focusing on things like the Equal Futures Partnership, which is an effort to focus on women’s development and recognition that women’s rights are human rights. It has been a pleasure to work with closely with them in this arena over many years.
You are serving as an ambassador to two different countries. How do you manage both roles and how are they interrelated or independent of one another?
Switzerland provides a lot of services for Liechtenstein. For example, they are on the same currency. Liechtenstein doesn’t have a military; they are both neutral. They are both part of the EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, so they do a lot of economic work together and collaborate—or Liechtenstein essentially participates in what Switzerland is doing, so those are some of the crossovers in which it’s the same and not decoupled. If you break down my responsibilities into managing my team, doing economic diplomacy, doing public outreach, and focusing on security areas, the security areas are all similar, economic areas have some differences but really just between companies in one country vs. the other country, and then from a political standpoint I manage separately between the two countries. In terms of the team, it’s one team, so I don’t have an embassy in Liechtenstein, just one in Bern. Most of the ambassadors are dual hatted between Switzerland and Liechtenstein, so those folks who are here are serving in both capacities. I would say it’s not that much of an incremental load between the two.
You mentioned that bilateral relations are generally very positive, but are there tensions that you are still working to overcome?
I mentioned banking. That’s an area where we can see at the light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done with the Department of Justice, but we are working through it. I am very impressed at how responsive the banks have been to an agreement that the Department of Justice and Switzerland have, so it’s just a matter of coming to an agreement and resolving some of the issues related to taxpayer evasion. It is not actually a relationship between the U.S. and Switzerland, it’s actually a relationship between the US and its taxpayers, and the Department of Justice pursued this course of action specifically to keep taxpayers from avoiding paying their taxes. It’s keeping people focused on that.
The Politic: Your professional background has been largely in the private sector in areas such as technology and education. Can you tell us a bit more about your past experiences and how they have uniquely shaped your approach as ambassador?
I would say that of all the jobs that I’ve had over my nonlinear career, the one that prepared me most for this position is that of mom. There’s nothing like trying to navigate negotiations between a six year old and a three and a half year old. It really is one of the hardest moments.
There have been a couple of professional experiences that have equipped me well for this position. When I most recently worked at Microsoft, I had the opportunity to do a lot of youth outreach through a program called the Imagine Cup, where students were challenged to use technology to solve the world’s toughest problems. With this program, I got to meet people from all over the world and gain an extraordinary level of respect for peoples’ determination for innovation. So when I now think about Pakistan, I think of these students who came up for an alternative energy grid for Islamabad. When I think of Egypt, I think of these students who against all odds submitted a solution in the middle of the revolution for an electronic medical records system in a country that didn’t have that. It allowed people to identify physicians as opposed to people posing as physicians. My whole worldview changed dramatically through that program, so that’s one thing that equipped me greatly to just understand an opportunity around innovation and around youth and the future.
I was responsible in my latter years in Expedia for our work with suppliers, so airlines, hotels, tourism boards, on-the-ground providers, as well as our relationships with travel agencies. How do you build partnerships, how do you communicate a value proposition to those whose products you are trying to sell, as well as customize it for those to whom you are trying to sell? Trying to extract and distill value proposition, and understanding audience both primary and secondary, is really something that I have to apply and utilize everyday. Reconciling shared objectives as well as disparate objectives is something I do almost everyday in thinking about my world.
The Politic: You mentioned your inspiration related to technology and innovations. How do you think new technologies and innovation can be leveraged in diplomacy?
A terrific example is transparency, and another is sharing who I am and what my priorities are—giving people a vehicle with which to have a conversation with me whether or not I’m able to meet them in person has been an incredible diplomatic breakthrough. That said, I do believe that the best and most important diplomatic tool that we have is face-to-face connections. It’s just not viable with eight million people. I don’t have that many hours in the day and days in the week. I will try my hardest to meet as many people here as I can. What’s going to assist me is being able to reach people through social media.
The Politic: You have quite a presence on social media—including Twitter, a blog, and Reddit. Why did you decide to have such an active role online, and do you have more plans to branch out on social media in the future?
Well I am my own social media manager. I am doing all that myself so I only have so much bandwidth. The key was looking at what is actually being used here in Switzerland and in Liechtenstein and not just projecting what we use in the United States. For example, many people are on Facebook but not that many are on Twitter. But media is on Twitter, so it’s a question of how to balance the channels through which I am reaching folks, and also what I have the bandwidth to do. For me, it was looking at what are people using here. One of the primary audiences I want to reach is youth. How do I reach them, what are they doing today, how do I go to where they are as opposed to assuming they will come to where I am? That really drove a number of my decisions to get involved in social media. Getting involved in social media really wasn’t a question. It was just a question of which channels I was going to use.
In terms of additional expansions, absolutely. From a Facebook standpoint, right now I am largely using the Embassy site, but I am going to be launching an Ambassador Facebook page where I can interact with people a little bit more effectively. I find that Twitter is okay on that front, but I would like to have a deeper dialogue and be able to present more photo albums, as opposed to one-off pictures that I may be able to put on the other sites. I’m going to continue the blog. I have some fun ones coming down the pipe that I’m working on right now. And I’ll continue to tweet.
The Politic: Could you tell us a bit more about the daily life as an ambassador? How do you prioritize which activities and initiatives you take part in?
No two days are the same, and in fact they can be extremely different. I try very hard to get out of the capital as much as I can. I love being here—it’s a beautiful town and I have lots of wonderful conversations here—but I am not just the ambassador to Bern; I am the ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. A lot of my days include traveling. To give you a sampling of two weeks ago when I was here:
One day I went to visit an art and design school where I got to see a dance performance. I got to see a woman practicing a beautiful stunning organ. I listened to sound engineers who had recording trees speaking. I got to fly a virtual reality bird, had some political conversations later in the day. So that was one day.
Another day I drove down to Geneva and went to the Geneva Center for Security and Peace, an organization that is focused on bringing people together from all over the globe on progressing peace. Another day I did a fireside chat at Pfizer, one of the U.S. companies that has a presence here. With their country manager, I got to sit down and talk about everything from our priorities to what it’s like to be a working mom. No two days are alike.
One of my favorite days was June 17. I got to take a super puma helicopter from Meiringen Air Base down in this valley where I swear it must be where Tolkein went to be inspired, and up to a glacier where a U.S. military plane had crashed in 1946. I got to dedicate the memorial to the plane crash and learn all about it. I got to blow an Alp horn up there, hear yodelers, and drink a glass of white wine. There was another day, September 6, we went to go see this hydroelectric power plant where you can drive under a lake and see the whole apparatus, and the lakes act like batteries..
When I started, a lot of people asked me about my vision for my time here. There are three areas that are my priorities. One is growing our economic ties; two is increasing our collaboration around security and development; and three is increasing awareness and appreciation of our cultures, values, and policies. But that triplet is intentionally broad and can include anything. What I wanted to do, then, is come in listening and meet with any and everybody, whether it’s government leaders, business leaders, students, baristas, farmers, or my staff in the Embassy, and just do this listening tour. Ten weeks in, we did a strategic planning offsite, and at that offsite we set five clear priorities. Anything and everything that I do has to map against those priorities. One of those priorities, for example, is having a healthy and happy workplace for my staff. Another priority is taking care of American citizens, whether they be here or whether it’s about border protection back in the U.S. Another is promoting our shared values. Another is shared prosperity, and how do we have a situation where all boats rise between our two countries, two countries being Switzerland and the U.S. and Liechtenstein and the U.S. Last but not least is what we are doing in terms of countering violent extremism and fighting terrorism. So with those five priorities, perhaps I am able to say, ‘This is a great idea but it doesn’t match against any of our priorities so we are not going to do it.’ It also gives my team a North Star off which to work as well, so that we can always say, ‘Here are our priorities. What are our strategies to achieve those priorities? What are our tactics within those strategies, and how might those change over time?’
What has been the most rewarding part of your time as ambassador so far?
I wake up every morning and think of how the world is going to be a better place because of my actions. Every single day here, I have an answer to that question, because the work that we are doing is moving the needle. Whether it is making people safer, whether it is helping increase the economic ties and improve the number of jobs that we have both here and in the United States, whether it is contributing towards peace and dialogue, the impact that I am able to have from this