History of the FDFA

Image of the inside of the dome of the Swiss Parliament
The mosaic that adorns the top of the Parliament dome is an emblem of Switzerland’s political system and Swiss history. © Parliamentary Services 3003 Bern

The FDFA was created in 1848 and initially called the Federal Political Department. In 1961 the divisions for public development assistance and for relations with Europe were formed, and in 1979, the position of FDFA state secretary was created.

As of 1848, the Federal State was governed by the Federal Council, each of whose seven members headed one of the seven federal departments. The Federal Political Department (FPD) was tasked with Switzerland’s foreign policy, and at the time was headed by the Swiss president for a one-year term. With very limited means at its disposal, it boasted but a handful of officers in Bern and a meagre diplomatic and consular network abroad.

Reorganisation and new activities

The 1914 Federal Administration Act stipulated that the head of the FPD should no longer change from year to year, and conferred upon the Department, in liaison with the Department of the Economy, increased competence in commercial matters. The activities of the FPD considerably increased with the representation of foreign interests during the two world wars and Switzerland’s accession to the League of Nations in 1920.

Time and again the Department was reorganised. It was, for instance, increasingly entrusted with handling litigation linked to the Swiss financial centre beginning in the 1940s. The development of other new activities emerged with the evolution of the global political scene, marked in particular by decolonisation and the Cold War. In 1961, specific structures were created for the administration of official development assistance and for fostering relations with Europe. Today, these domains represent two pillars of Swiss diplomacy.

Enhancement of competences

In 1979, the Federal Political Department was renamed the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). At the same time, the position of FDFA state secretary – the number-two person at the Department – was created. The competences of the Department were increased in sectors such as disarmament, human rights, and science policy. In 2002, the Switzerland’s accession to the UN reflected the extension of the activities of Swiss diplomacy into the realm of international organisations.

In parallel to the expansion of the FDFA headquarters in Bern, the Swiss diplomatic and consular network has not ceased to develop. From the time that the first permanent representations abroad opened back in 1798 (in Paris with a legation that is today an embassy, and in Bordeaux with a consulate), Switzerland’s foreign network has expanded and comprised 173 foreign representations (embassies, missions, consulates-general, and cooperation offices of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC) in 2013.