Switzerland’s UNSC Membership: Interview with Fabien Merz about his Research on Swiss Foreign Policy
What does it look like to work within the fields of counter-terrorism and Swiss foreign policy, in Switzerland? If you aspire towards having a career as an international relations (IR) researcher and analyst, then the international security focused work and personal story of Fabien Merz will greatly inspire you. Merz is a Senior Researcher in the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. He is also a co-editor of the Center’s policy brief series. In this interview you will learn about Merz’s: current position at the CSS and the journey he took to obtain this meaningful IR focused job; his views regarding Switzerland having been elected to the United Nations Security Council for the 2023-24 time-period; and his valuable advice to junior scholars and practitioners who are interested in following a similar line of research and work as the one discussed in this interview.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. Currently, you are working as a Senior Researcher in the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), and as a co-editor of the Center’s policy brief series CSS Analyses in Security Policy. For those unfamiliar with your line of work, could you please describe: What do these two positions entail, what are some of your responsibilities, and who are the main actors and the audiences you interact with?
Answer: In my current job at the CSS, I am mainly responsible for two areas or topics. The first one is related to counter-terrorism and C/PVE (Countering/Preventing Violent Extremism). The second one is related to Swiss foreign policy, with a particular focus on Switzerland’s upcoming UN Security Council Membership for the years 2023-24. More specifically, I conduct research, publish papers, interact and exchange with institutional partners, do media as well as public outreach work, and I organize events such as conferences and workshops related to these two topics.
My work as an editor is part of my portfolio as a Senior Researcher. As such, I am a co-editor of one of our Center’s flagship publications, the CSS Analysis in Security Policy, which is a short format publication aimed at shedding light on particular aspects of international security. “The topics are often analyzed for their relevance to Switzerland, but are generally also of interest to an international audience.” We publish two analyses monthly (in three languages: German, French, and English), and usually, I am the lead editor for one of the two publications. I share the editing responsibilities with two of my colleagues.
I have the opportunity to interact with a broad spectrum of actors and audiences, such as the public at large (i.e., when participating on a panel, at a public event), journalists (i.e., when conducting media related work), and a variety of specialist audiences (i.e., when interacting with: peers from the academia and other think tanks, civil servants working for the Swiss administration, or different representatives working for international organizations).
Q2. When and why did you become interested in learning about and becoming an expert on the topics of: Swiss and European foreign and security policy, the MENA region, as well as counter-terrorism and C/PVE?
Answer: The way I see it, every branch of science is basically aimed at understanding, or at least is working towards better understanding, how a particular layer of our world works.
In my case, I was always fascinated and had a certain affinity for everything related to how human societies organize themselves and interact with one another, which is why I chose to do my undergraduate studies in political science and international relations at the University of Geneva. Thereafter, for my postgraduate studies, I decided to specialize in a relatively narrow subfield, terrorism. I chose terrorism studies particularly because I really wanted to better understand why people would resort to terrorism as a method meant to bring about social change through the use of violence.
To further elaborate, Jihadi terrorism was and, to a certain extent, still is the primary focus of my work at the CSS. Since this particular manifestation of terrorism initially emanated from the MENA-Region, I also started to continuously build regional expertise in order to better understand the local dynamics that had contributed to the emergence of this phenomenon. Building up my expertise of Swiss foreign and security policy, in parallel, was basically a function of me working at a Swiss think tank which, amongst other things, also does a lot of work related to these areas. That means that oftentimes there will be a Swiss angle to my work, like for example, looking at C/PVE in Switzerland or at the phenomenon of Swiss foreign fighters.
Q3. Prior to starting the aforementioned positions, you worked at “the Swiss section of Amnesty International (AI) and at the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs’ (FDFA) Crisis Management Centre, where” you focused on “issues related to terrorism.” In retrospect, what type of educational training(s) and work experience(s) did you have to obtain to be able to work at AI and the FDFA?
Answer: My job at Amnesty International (AI) was part of what in Switzerland we call “civil service” (or “Zivildienst,” in German), which is what one can choose to do instead of serving in the Swiss army. My job at the FDFA was part of their so-called academic trainee program (also known as “Hochschulpraktikum,” in German). So, my work at AI and at the FDFA were basically my first two significant work experiences related to my fields of study.
In retrospect, I think that the work experience I gained especially at the FDFA’s Crisis Management Center was instrumental in helping me to thereafter obtain a job at the CSS for a number of reasons. For example, being able to assist senior diplomats with handling terrorist kidnappings of Swiss citizens abroad allowed me to not only gain first-hand work experiences but also to apply practically what I had previously learned in theory during my postgraduate studies. Furthermore, by working at the FDFA I was able to gain a basic understanding of how the Swiss administration functions. These past experiences are now very useful in my current position at the CSS since the Swiss administration is one of our most important interlocutors and partners.
Q4. This year, “187 UN Member States […] elected Switzerland as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2023-2024 period. Switzerland will thus get a unique opportunity to contribute to international peace and security at a critical moment for international affairs and add a Plus for Peace” (www.aplusforpeace.ch). Can you please briefly describe what are some of your views regarding Switzerland having been elected to the UN Security Council? For example, are there some clear negative and/or positive expected outcomes for the country itself and for the UN member states?
Answer: I think that this will truly be a historic opportunity for Switzerland to promote and advance the foreign policy values that it traditionally advocates and stands for such as, a rules-based international order and the respect for human rights and humanitarian law.
The election of Switzerland to serve on the Council in 2023-24 is good news for everyone who shares and stands up for these same values. This is particularly important within the backdrop of the current international context that has recently seen these values as being continuously eroded and weakened by a number of powerful actors such as Russia and China.
After having engaged with this question extensively in the past, it has now become clear to me that the benefits of joining the Council clearly and, by a substantial margin, seem to outweigh the potential risk or negative externalities for Switzerland. I have tried to shed light on this question in a number of my publications and would encourage everyone interested in this topic to go check them out on my CSS profile page (accessible here) or at the end of this interview.
Q5. Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young analysts/practitioners interested in following a similar line of work such as yours?
Answer: This might sound obvious but try to find out what you are passionate about and then focus on constantly becoming better at it. While the former point might be more important during a person’s younger years, I think that the latter point (i.e., the mindset of working towards improving oneself on a constant basis), is the key to long-term success. And it is important to note that these two elements are closely linked together: in the sense that having an intrinsic motivation and passion for something specific will make it easier and more pleasant to continuously work towards becoming better at it.
And there is one more, maybe less obvious, point that I would like to add. At least in my experience, I came to realize that often, the role of luck and coincidence seem to be grossly underestimated when it comes to a career. This is not to say that it is not worthwhile to put in the hard work (i.e., get good grades at university, etc.) However, I see this more as being necessary and not particularly as being a sufficient condition for someone to obtain a good job or an internship. This means that you will, of course, have to do the hard work, but that at the same time you will also need to make sure that you do not put yourself down if you do not get your dream job or internship right away.
Often a person will get a specific job also due to factors that are entirely outside of their control. For example, in hindsight, I am convinced that the alignment of a number of factors, over which I had no influence, helped me obtain my current job at the CSS. The CSS was initially looking to hire someone with enhanced expertise on Russia or Turkey. I was almost certain that I would not stand a chance in the application process, but because I greatly admired the work of the CSS, I decided to apply anyways. In the end, it turned out that due to the Islamic State group being perceived as becoming a greater problem during that same time period, the CSS thought that they might benefit from hiring both someone like me, with a background in studying and analyzing terrorism, and a person with expertise on Russia. To go back to my initial point, of course my application showed that I had reasonably good grades, from good universities, and that I have had several relevant internships, etc., but, ultimately, it was the alignment of several factors over which I had no influence that helped me get my dream job.
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The Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich | Switzerland
Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Merz’s work?
You may follow Fabien Merz’s work on the CSS website.
To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult the following publications.
Merz, Fabien (2022), No. 299: The State of the Islamic State, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich. Read here.
Merz, Fabien (2021), Improving National PVE Strategies: Lessons Learned from the Swiss Case, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich. Read here.
Merz, Fabien (2020), No. 262: The Swiss Candidacy for the UN Security Council, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, Zurich. Read here.
Merz, Fabien (2016), No. 199: Switzerland and Jihadist Foreign Fighters, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich. Read here.
Illustrations by: The main article photo is by Mathias Reding, downloaded from Unsplash, courtesy of Wix.com photo gallery. The profile photo included on this page was made available by the interviewee.
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