Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

The question of owning or producing weapons of mass destruction has been the subject of anxiety among the superpowers since World War II. They have tried to control and bloc the djin that is now out of the bottle because of them. 

The tensions were at the center of attention of the Soviet MFA’s European Department, which was headed by Hamazasp Harutyunyan. 

He had noticed a surprising contradiction. It was much "easier” to negotiate with the superpowers that owned or produced weapons of mass destruction than their satellites and previous colonies or smaller countries. Time after time problems would arise with neutral countries, too. Not all of them, of course. Austria, a former ally of the Third Reich, for instance, resembled a timid young bride. It couldn’t have been otherwise. Austria wouldn’t dare to dream of arming again in the presence of the Triple Entente countries. And Switzerland, like the sated Gobseck who was a stranger to the smell of gunpowder and was sitting on all the world’s money, behaved like an enfant gâté. 

Violating its constitution, the Federal Council of Switzerland continued collecting war taxes, which should have officially ended in 1951. In order to continue collecting war taxes, the authorities decided to hold a referendum and make amendments in the constitution. In short, they were trying to put the country on the path of militarization. The US and UK secretly encouraged Bern’s military aspirations, France maintained a neutral stance, while the Soviet Union was categorically against it, realizing very well which countries Switzerland would side with after acquiring weapons of mass destruction and how the power relations in the international arena would change. 

Alfred Zehnder, the Swiss ambassador in Moscow, was trying to convince Harutyunyan that his country had adopted a new policy of "militarized neutrality,” which meant that the Swiss army would have modern arms to be prepared and to preserve national security. Harutyunyan, on the other hand, was trying to convince him that this was a dangerous course for Switzerland and Europe. It’s interesting to note that Zehnder personally was against weapons of mass destruction and opposed the increase in military expenses when he was the Swiss Secretary General for Foreign Affairs. 

So the questions of disarmament and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as Switzerland’s neutrality in international relations were at the center of discussions. 

The following incident can be seen as a brilliant diplomatic maneuver behind the scenes of the political debate, which was recorded from a conversation with Hamazasp Harutyunyan. 

June 12, 1958. Moscow. The Kremlin. There was a reception in the honor of Czechoslovakia’s General Secretary Antonín Novotný. After dinner the foreign ambassadors encircled the Vice-Premier of the Council of Ministers Anastas Mikoyan. 

Noticing the Swiss ambassador, Mikoyan raised his glass:
"I would like to toast to Switzerland and its neutral policy.”
Standing a few steps away, Harutyunyan froze . . .
According to the review of foreign radio broadcasts, which he heard just a few minutes before the dinner, the Swiss government had resolved to acquire an atomic bomb. Harutyunyan had asked the Swiss ambassador about it and the latter had given an evasive response, saying that the question was being discussed by a special committee but that nothing had been decided yet. Harutyunyan hadn’t had the time to report the news to his supervisor. And frankly speaking, he had been reluctant to take the unofficial news obtained from the media seriously. And here came the slap. Who would have thought that Mikoyan would play the Swiss neutrality card at the reception?
It took a second for Harutyunyan to regain control of himself and to react. 

"There is information that they want to obtain the weapon in question,” he managed to whisper to Mikoyan in Armenian. 
And Mikoyan wouldn’t be the best politician of his time if he didn’t know what to say and how to say it. 

"Yes,” he went on with his toast, "I would like to drink to Switzerland and its smart policy. It serves the interests of the Europeans and Swiss alike. We strongly hope that Switzerland’s neutral policy will remain unchanged and we are certain that the news about its militarization are groundless. That type of news can be discarded as political gossip, isn’t that so, Mr. Ambassador?” 

Blushing, the Swiss ambassador started to explain that not everything that the news agencies, including Reuters, report are accurate and that there was a huge difference between his government’s position and the news report. 

Then Zehnder made a diplomatic slip. 

"And, in any case, we are a small country, who would sell us an atomic bomb?” he asked. To which Mikoyan immediately responded:
"We could sell you the bomb, but what would neutral Switzerland do with a weapon of mass destruction?”
The question hung in the air, leaving an awkward silence. 

"I would discourage Switzerland from acquiring that type of weapon. If you acquire the bomb, a new target will appear on the map of countries that own weapons of mass destruction and I don’t think that being a target is in your interests,” said Mikoyan without a smile this time. 

The ambassador turned pale and assured Mikoyan that he would immediately notify his government of the Soviet Union’s views.
"And you should also tell your government,” Mikoyan continued with an encouraging tone, "that the Soviet Union highly values Switzerland’s neutrality. We proposed your model of neutrality to Austria when signing an intergovernmental agreement with them. And now it turns out that your model is changing? That’s not acceptable.” 

Later when Switzerland finally gave up its aspirations to weapons of mass destruction, the Swiss ambassador told Harutyunyan that Mikoyan’s words had a real impact on his government’s decision. There is a reason why Anastas Mikoyan was one of the most versatile diplomats of the Soviet Union.
1644 reads | 07.03.2014

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