“Smallness has its advantages”: His Excellency Kurt Jaeger and the Principality of Liechtenstein
Maybe it betrays a lack of editorial creativity, but writing or talking about Liechtenstein without referencing its size is truly difficult. At 62 square miles (coincidentally, about the size of the District of Columbia), it is the world’s sixth smallest independent nation by land area.
As a result of its size, the Principality of Liechtenstein does not have a vast foreign policy apparatus, but the United States of America is fortunate to be home of one of Liechtenstein’s eight foreign missions. The quaint residence on the Georgetown Waterfront opened in 2002, and it is now home to its second ever Head of Mission, His Excellency Kurt Jaeger.
Ambassador Jaeger can trace his family history in Liechtenstein back to the 16th century, but his own youth was spent largely on the continent of Africa. His father, Kurt Julius Jaeger, is a former professional pilot and airline manager, who also wrote novels about contemporary African history. As a result of his upbringing, the younger Jaeger speaks English almost as a native speaker, and later acquired a similar facility in French, having attended the bilingual German-French University of Fribourg and McGill University in Montreal. Being married to a French native speaker for a quarter-century has also helped.
Ambassador Jaeger arrived in Washington in August 2016 after six years in Brussels as Liechtenstein’s Ambassador to the European Union and Belgium. He admits representing a small country is a challenge on the international stage. “We are very limited in capacity as to how many dishes we can cook in the kitchen,” said Ambassador Jaeger. But by being strategic, agile, and efficient, the country tends to box above its own weight class.
“You could expect a small country to be more vulnerable, especially in difficult times, but crisis situations are ones where smallness has its advantages,” said Ambassador Jaeger. Liechtenstein is quicker to react and pass measures to address acute challenges. “Our bigger neighbors often envy us on that.”
The Principality’s size is hardly its only distinguishing factor. Liechtenstein is generally recognized as one of only three remaining principalities. It is not a member of the European Union, although it is located in the geographic heart of the continent. The country is also doubly landlocked, which is to say that in addition to Liechtenstein’s lack of access to the sea, both of its neighbors (Austria and Switzerland) are also landlocked.
“We’re not a strategic power. We have no army,” said Ambassador Jaeger, bringing up yet another factor which makes Liechtenstein exceptional. (Only about 16 sovereign states exist without military forces.) “We’re no threat, so we have the privilege to focus on economic issues,” said Ambassador Jaeger. A privilege, indeed, but it is also, adds Ambassador Jaeger, a matter of survival. The Principality could not possibly produce everything it needs to be self-sufficient, but neither can its 37,000 inhabitants consume all of the goods and services produced and offered within its own borders. As one of four members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), it enjoys access to the European Single Market via the Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA) with the European Union.
“Where we try leave a mark is in showing the bigger European nations that despite our size, we can live up to what it takes to be a full member of the single market. Because it is quite a challenge,” explained Ambassador Jaeger. Some questioned whether a country the size of Liechtenstein could handle implementation, but the Principality’s legislative constitution system was designed to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy or complication. “When you’re the small guy, you have to be the good pupil.”
He knows these issues well. Prior to his ambassadorial posting in Brussels, Ambassador Jaeger served as one of three elected members of the Board of the EFTA Surveillance Authority, which is charged with monitoring and enforcing EU law in the EEA.
Without an army, Liechtenstein depends on rule of law and champions the role of international organizations.
“You have no other means to defend your freedom,” said Ambassador Jaeger. “It helps small countries to be accepted by the international community.
The United Nations is of particular value to Liechtenstein.
“The UN is one state, one vote. You have full access,” said Ambassador Jaeger. “And there, size of course matters as well, but you can very well take a prominent position on something regardless of your size. What counts is the people, the quality of the work you’re doing, and your focus.”
It helps that Liechtenstein, like many smaller nations, rotates their top diplomats on a far less frequent basis. Ambassador Jaeger’s predecessor, Claudia Fritsche, was accredited to the United States for 16 years before her retirement. The consistency saves money and resources, but it also allows their diplomats to become true experts on a strategic set of issues. It also fosters institutional knowledge among the diplomatic corps at a given posting, with Liechtenstein’s ambassadors in a relatively senior position.
Liechtenstein also relies on trade across the Atlantic. Some 4,000 people in 30 of the United States are employed by Liechtenstein’s private sector. “That might not sound like much, but it’s the equivalent of around 10% of our population, and we are very proud of this,” said Ambassador Jaeger.
Ambassador Jaeger has plans to visit every US state, whether it’s home to a company from Liechtenstein or not. Ambassador Fritsche famously accomplished this feat during her tenure, and Ambassador Jaeger understands the value of this challenge.
“You have to travel the US because you can only understand it if you have seen beyond Washington, DC,” said Ambassador Jaeger. He believes many Europeans underestimate the diversity of the United States, mistaking the generally common language of English over such a large land area as evidence of homogeneity.
He has a head start too in visiting all 50 states. Over the past decades, extensive vacations have taken him to the American West and Northeast.
“My love for mountain hiking has its bearing on this; it’s the vertical dimension,” explained Ambassador Jaeger. “It’s not only the physical part of it and the beauty of the landscape — I lived two years in Canada, in Quebec, I studied there. A flat country has a huge disadvantage because, if you travel two kilometers, or two miles horizontally, it gets you nowhere. Let’s face it, two miles from here, I’m in Virginia, I’m in Arlington. Two miles upwards is a huge difference.”
For Ambassador Jaeger, mountain hiking is an escape. In the summer, he can retreat to cooler climes at higher elevations. In spring, he can enjoy both skiing on the snow caps, and the blossoming trees and flowers at sea level. And especially in Liechtenstein and its neighboring Switzerland, when the otherwise beautiful lakes produce fog blankets landscape for almost a month out of the year, he need only get above 2,000 meters to end his confinement.
“Every painter will tell you that horizon matters,” said Ambassador Jaeger, inducing flashbacks in your humble writer to lengthy discussions in a German Romanticism seminar about the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. And like my college professors, for Ambassador Jaeger, horizon is more than a principle of art. “Flatlanders think differently than mountain people.”
Suffice it to say, Ambassador Jaeger is not likely to be found on a beach. In fact, he has never been to Florida, although he does look forward to visiting soon. But first, some of his other hobbies will influence his upcoming travel. He looks forward to visiting the American South to explore the birthplace of blues, folk, and jazz.
The Embassy of Liechtenstein posted a Q&A with Ambassador Jaeger on their website to help familiarize the USA with their new Head of Mission. The final question revealed Ambassador Jaeger as a wine aficionado, and he explains in response that he sees wine as a passport to the world, but also a catalyst for deepening human relationships.
Talking of wine’s strong social dimension, he shared — in an almost hushed and reverential tone — a story of one of his most memorable glasses of wine.
“I used to travel to Italy very often,” said Ambassador Jaeger. “When you live in Switzerland, it’s very easy, only about a two-and-a-half hours drive to go the Piedmont area of Italy. I know a few good restaurants there, and I was introduced Angelo Gaja, who is one of the big wine makers. He was about 70 when I met him, I think. So I had the opportunity to share a glass of wine with him and was graced with a bottle of 1961 Barolo from his father, because I’m a 1961 vintage.”
“That was a memorable experience,” continued Ambassador Jaeger. “Why? Because he’s a grand monsieur; he’s the old school, pure humanist; he’s formed the wine industry.”
And if he had a time machine? “I would have loved to taste a good bottle of wine with Thomas Jefferson,” said Ambassador Jaeger. “He was a great wine aficionado, one of the first Americans who brought European wine to the United States, and an Ambassador himself.”
But until we can make time travel more science than science fiction, the Ambassador will have to resign himself to gazing in the direction of the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin from the Embassy in Georgetown. Perhaps with a glass of wine in hand.