Home More News Tiny Liechtenstein, no bigger than DC, seeks outsize role in diplomacy

Tiny Liechtenstein, no bigger than DC, seeks outsize role in diplomacy

Tiny Liechtenstein, no bigger than DC, seeks outsize role in diplomacy
Ambassador Georg Sparber of Liechtenstein. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

With only 38,500 inhabitants in a territory the same size as the District of Columbia, Liechtenstein is the world’s wealthiest country. According to the World Bank, its annual per-capita income is $175,813, ranking Liechtenstein ahead of Monaco, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Bermuda.

Yet this 62-square-mile, German-speaking principality—wedged in between Switzerland and Austria—isn’t exactly a household name for everyone, conceded Liechtenstein’s ambassador to the United States, Georg Sparber.

“In the US, there are two kinds of people,” he recently told the Washington Diplomat. “Either those who know something about Liechtenstein and they’re always interested, and those who have never heard of it, and then it’s a fun conversation.”

Among the “fun facts” Sparber can share about his little Alpine paradise:

  • Liechtenstein is the smallest country in the world bordering two other countries.
  • It’s one of only two doubly landlocked countries (meaning countries surrounded by other countries without an outlet to the sea). The other one is Uzbekistan.
  • Liechtenstein has won more Olympic medals per capita than any other country—10 to be exact. All of them are in Alpine skiing.
  • Long before Meghan Markle, there was Angela Brown, wife of Liechtenstein’s Prince Maximilian. In 2000, the Panamanian-born fashion designer became the first person of African descent to marry into a reigning European royal family.
  • Liechtenstein is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of false teeth. And last year, it became the first country to issue a stamp honoring the blockchain industry.
Panoramic view of Liechtenstein, a 62-sq-mile principality wedged between Switzerland and Austria. (Photo courtesy of Embassy of Liechtenstein)

Sparber, 42, and his wife, Yvonne, have five children. He grew up in the ski resort of Malbun, about a mile from the Austrian border, and joined his country’s diplomatic service in 2009 after earning a doctorate in philosophy from Switzerland’s University of Lausanne.

“I never planned on becoming a diplomat, but when I finished university, I was made aware of a job opening at the Office for Foreign Affairs and thought I’d give it a try,” Sparber said during an interview at Liechtenstein’s gleaming sixth-floor embassy overlooking the Georgetown waterfront. “I applied out of the blue, and they hired me.”

No neutrality for Liechtenstein

Only half a year later, he was sent to Liechtenstein’s United Nations mission in New York, where he supervised development, human rights, global governance and elections.

From 2014 to 2016, Sparber served as deputy head of mission at Liechtenstein’s embassy in Vienna, with accreditation to Austria and the Czech Republic. He was also assigned to two Vienna-based bodies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Returning to New York in 2017 as Liechtenstein’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Sparber remained in that post until becoming ambassador in Washington last year.

Stylized “Welcome to Liechtenstein” sign near Vaduz, at Liechtenstein’s border with Switzerland. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

What surprises Americans most about Liechtenstein, he said, is that it’s older than the United States. Three years ago, the country marked the 300th anniversary of its creation as a principality in 1719 by Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Austrian Habsburg empire.

“In all this time, we have had no wars, no changes to our border, and no occupation—and that includes two world wars. This helps explain where we come from in terms of our foreign policy,” he said. “We don’t have neutrality in our constitution like Switzerland, so for sure we are not neutral. We abandoned our armed forces over 150 years ago and we have no defense agreements, so we rely on respect for the rule of law.”

For nearly 100 years, Liechtenstein has shared a customs union with Switzerland. Its people use Swiss francs and enjoy free flow of goods across the border. In addition, Liechtenstein addresses carry a Swiss postal code, the principality does issue its own stamps (a nice source of income) and since 1999 has had its own international dialing code: +423.

Liechtenstein’s reigning monarch is 77-year-old Prince Hans-Adam II, head of the Vaduz-based LGT Group. With a net worth of around $5 billion, he ranks as Europe’s richest head of state.

All license plates issued by the tiny principality are embossed with the country code, FL (Fürstentum Liechtenstein), and its distinctive coat of arms. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Liechtenstein joined the United Nations in 1990, a full 12 years before Switzerland took that step. Neither country belongs to the European Union, though Liechtenstein by popular vote is a member of the European Economic Area, which gives it access to the EU single market.

“This has proven to be a very good foundation for economic development,” Sparber said. “For Liechtenstein, crossing borders is such a normal thing that we’re not even aware sometimes that they exist. And what the pandemic has showed us is that the deep integration we have with our neighbors is really very valuable to us.”

Land of blockchain, casinos and dental implants

In 2020, Liechtenstein implemented its Blockchain Act, which it calls the world’s first comprehensive legal framework for the token economy. Its aim is to protect users and ensure confidence in digital legal transactions.

“Our government evaluated the situation a few years back and concluded that this blockchain technology is here to stay, and therefore it’s better to regulate it,” Sparber said. On a more controversial note, Liechtenstein has also legalized casino gambling, with the result that it now has more casinos per capita than Macau, Monaco or even Las Vegas.

Church tower seen against the snowy mountain landscape of Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“There’s an ongoing discussion about casinos in overall terms, but this is not a very important factor in our economy. About 45% of our economy is in manufacturing,” said the ambassador, adding that the United States is Liechtenstein’s top overseas trading partner. The country exported $400 million worth of dental implants, precision instruments and other high-value items to the US market in 2021, accounting for around 14% of Liechtenstein’s total exports.

Eight Liechtenstein-based companies provide nearly 4,500 US jobs, led by false teeth maker Ivoclar Vivident, precision-tool manufacturer Hilti; steering component supplier ThyssenKrupp Presta, and microphone manufacturer Neutrik.

Yet for all its economic power, Liechtenstein has only eight overseas embassies and missions: Berne (Switzerland), Vienna, Geneva, Brussels, Berlin, Strasbourg (France), New York and Washington—as well as a non-resident ambassador to the Vatican. Thanks to a long-standing agreement, Swiss consulates are also open to all citizens of Liechtenstein.

Pumpkins for sale in a field near Liechtenstein’s border with Switzerland. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Interestingly, Liechtenstein is one of the world’s only countries without any foreign embassies on its soil. Not even neighboring Switzerland or Austria have representation in Vaduz; the Swiss and Austrian ambassadors to Liechtenstein both work out of their respective foreign ministries.

Besides its embassy in Washington, the principality also maintains five honorary consulates in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Macon, Ga.

Vaduz condemns Russian invasion of Ukraine

On March 14, 2022, Liechtenstein marked 25 years since the first US ambassador was accredited to Liechtenstein as well as Switzerland. That diplomat was former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who was posted in Berne from 1996 to 1999. In 2000, Claudia Fritsche became the first woman to serve as Liechtenstein’s ambassador to the United States.

In a statement marking the occasion, Scott Miller, the US ambassador to Liechtenstein, said “the United States and Liechtenstein have built a strong, durable and productive partnership. We share a commitment to democratic values, the rule of law, the power of education and innovation, and the need for responsible behavior in the international community.”

Customs checkpoint in Schaanwald, at Liechtenstein’s border with Austria. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Miller added: “Our companies trade and invest together, we jointly combat money laundering and other illegal banking activities, we cooperate to ensure the digital economy is secure and productive, and we passionately fight against modern-day slavery and trafficking in persons.”

In the same vein, said Sparber, “our government has strongly condemned the illegal, unprovoked aggression by Russia—supported by Belarus—against Ukraine. This is an absolutely blatant violation of even the most fundamental rules.”

The day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, Liechtenstein contributed 500,000 Swiss francs (about $503,000) to the UN Refugee Agency and the International Red Cross. Three days later, the country’s parliament allocated 1.8 million Swiss francs ($1.82 million) for housing, food, medicines and other assistance to Ukraine.

Souvenir shops and boutiques line the main street in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

And since the war began, Liechtenstein has taken in 255 Ukrainian refugees. That may not sound like much, but it’s the proportional equivalent of the United States accepting 2.2 million immigrants.

“We’ve been one of the strongest supporters of the International Criminal Court. It was under our leadership that the court received jurisdiction over the crime of aggression,” Sparber said. “Reports about war crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine need to be brought to the ICC, as well as the decision by Russia’s leaders to wage war against Ukraine.”

We asked Sparber what should be done with Putin himself when the bloodshed ends.

“I certainly think he should face responsibility for this aggression. He wouldn’t be the first person to be tried for such crimes,” replied the ambassador. “Whether he will ever do so is an open question.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.