Merchant Diplomats. Multinational Trading Firms and Swiss Consular Services in Asia, 1860–1945

Julian Wettengel

Company building of Diethelm & Co. in Bangkok Sept. 1945. The Swiss consulate and the ICRC office were operated by the company. Source: ICRC Audiovisual Archives

First supervisor: Prof. Dr. Madeleine Herren-Oesch
Second supervisor: Prof. Dr. Martin Lengwiler

Using a global history approach the dissertation project investigates the diplomatic functions of Multinational Trading Companies. It therefore conceptualizes border-crossing firms not as mere economic but instead as political actors on a global level.

The research focuses on the early Swiss consular relations with Asia between 1860 and 1945. Swiss trading firms acted both as merchants and as honorary consuls at the same time and therefore participated substantially in the development of Swiss consular relations with Asia from the second half of the 19th century onwards. This dual function represents a multifunctional diplomacy which was dominated by trading companies until the restructuring of the Swiss foreign ministry after 1945. Additionally, in times of crisis trading companies did not only perform consular duties for the Swiss state but also served diplomatically as delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Key questions of the research project are: How were trading companies involved in the development of the Swiss consular service and what are the specific characteristics of a diplomacy based on honorary consuls? Furthermore, which role did trading companies play in times of war concerning the consular representation of “Foreign Interests” and the humanitarian work for the ICRC in Asia?

Besides investigating Swiss merchants the research project also examines British trading firms which serve as a basis of comparison and allow for identifying a specific Swiss type of diplomacy.

Empirically the research project is based on source material from archives of states, companies, associations and international organizations.