PUBLISHED:April 12, 2011

Manuel Sager LLM ’85

Manuel Sager was practicing insurance defense law in Phoenix in 1987, when he was intrigued by an article about the Swiss Foreign Service in a magazine for Swiss expatriates. He immediately contacted the author who was, at the time, in charge of recruitment for the agency.


“I told him that I was interested in joining the Foreign Service, but didn’t know if I qualified because I had a foreign wife,” recalls Sager, who holds a doctorate from the Faculty of Law at Zurich University. “He just laughed and said, ‘Join the club. More than 50 percent of our diplomats are married to foreign spouses.’” Sager signed up and soon had a training post in Athens. He has never looked back.


On Dec. 7, 2010 Sager — joined by his American wife, Christine — began his third diplomatic post to the United States, this time as Switzerland’s ambassador.


In a March telephone interview, Sager characterizes his mission in broad terms. “Switzerland and the United States face very similar challenges, domestically as well as internationally,” he says. “These range from environmental issues to the current financial and economic crisis, education, migration, you name it. There is great potential to learn from each other in how we deal with these challenges. One of my primary goals is to do exactly that — to promote exchanges of knowledge and experience among experts, scholars, politicians, and the administrations. A very welcome byproduct of all of these is building institutional and personal relationships that can be beneficial to both countries.”


Even in areas of competition and occasional conflict, such as banking and taxes, Sager emphasizes the congenial nature of the relationship between Switzerland and the United States. “I’m sure we will always be able to reconcile our differences, as we did most recently in 2009 when we revised a double-taxation treaty and, more recently, in the agreement with the IRS regarding UBS,” he says, referring to the unprecedented 2009 agreement by the Swiss bank, UBS, to turn over information relating to American account holders to the Internal Revenue Service through a treaty request procedure. “There may be lingering issues but I’m quite confident that we’ll always be able to find mutually acceptable solutions,” he says.


Sager’s varied diplomatic portfolios have included heading communications in the Federal Departments of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs and, from 2008 to 2010, heading that department’s Political Affairs Division. Although a diplomat, he says, is a jack of all trades “almost by definition,” he considers finance and economics and international humanitarian law to be areas of specialty. He first was immersed in the latter when he served in the foreign ministry’s International Law Department during the Balkan wars.


“I was the secretary of a commission that was established to investigate war crimes,” he says. “During that time there were no investigations for reasons inherent in the statute establishing the commission due to some flaws in its legal setup. But it was a very interesting position to be in, with all the atrocities that happened in the Balkans during those years.” In 2001 and 2002 Sager served as head of the Coordination Office for Humanitarian Law for the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Partnership for Peace of the Directorate of International Law.


Finance and economics have been a major focus of Sager’s recent work. From 2005 to 2008 he served as executive director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London. Owned by 61 countries, the European Union, and the European Investment Bank, the EBRD was established in 1991 to help countries that were once under Soviet control transition to market economies. Representing Switzerland and eight other countries on the board of directors, Sager helped guide the bank’s strategic planning and investments. His favorite part of the job, he says, was visiting the countries he represented, including Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Some of these trips involved high-level political dialogue on adapting macroeconomic conditions in the country to optimize the investment environment, while others allowed him to see how EBRD investments were being used.


“The bank either financed projects through loans or through direct investments and projects could range from a huge pipeline project in Azerbaijan involving tens of millions of dollars to a microfinance loan to allow a farmer in Kyrgyzstan to buy a cow in order to set up a small dairy operation,” Sager explains. “The smaller the project, the more personally touching I found the experience. And that was probably the most rewarding for me — to see what actually happened with the money and how it changed the economic conditions of the recipients.”


In 2008, Sager chaired a committee of internal and external experts in the Swiss administration that advised the government on issues of international taxes and the exchange of banking information. “That was a very hot topic, because it involved the very issues that were at the center of the IRS case against UBS that was finally resolved last fall,” he says.


Reflecting on the variety of his work, Sager concedes that, as a lawyer, he sometimes misses not being able to dig deeper into an issue. “But at the same time,” he adds, “it is greatly satisfying to have such a broad overview of so many different areas.”