High prices, high salaries and low esteem are pressing in on the headquarters of international bureaucracy in this lovely city by the lake.
At a local cafe, a small bottle of cola costs two Swiss francs. Not bad if you're Swiss. But if you're an American or a U.N. employe buying francs with vastly devalued dollars these days, that drink costs $1.20. In the supermarket, a pound of beef costs $11.
On the hills overlooking the lake - where thousands of the world's bureaucrats sit in comfortable, carpeted rooms comtemplating the loftier issues of the United Nations or a score of other international organizations - the price of a Coke and the nosedive of the dollar overseas have cracked through the traditional care-free, tax-free attitued toward money.
Geneva has alwasy been expensive, but suddenly, the city has become so expensive - mostly because the dollar has lost 30 percent in value in relation to the Swiss franc in the past several months alone - that there are now faint rumbles about some international organizations pulling out.
The idea has already been broached by some executive board members of the World Council of Churches and the World Health Organization. Even in the huge U.N. sponsored International Labor Organization, a finacne committee member has raised the same question.
The dollar's fall has put many organizations in the red before they started this year because their budgets are calculated in dollars and were approved - at higher exchange rates - months before they went into effect.
Thus far, however, no one has been observed packing up, and the sheer size of the physical facilities already here make it hard to conceive of any major organizations moving.
Yet, the growing expense has added one more source of uncertainty about the future of a city that has been the neutral heartland of international organizations since the Swiss set up the Red Cross here during World War I and the Leagues of Nations was founded when that war ended 60 years ago.
Among the developments:
Last November, the Carter Administration - In an unprecedented move reflecting longstanding U.S. unhappiness and frustration with the communist and Third World political forces arrayed against it - pulled out of the 135-nation ILO.
Aside from leaving a 25 percent, 44 million hole in an ILO budget that had already lost $20 million due to the dollar's drop, the pullout has potentially much greater meaning.
It has, as American officials here say, "alarmed a lot of people about what it could mean to the whole U.N. system. Is it the first step toward some form of disintegration of the United Nations?" they ask.
The growing power of the developing countries is leading to increasing demands that facilities be spread around more. One result is that the new U.N. environmental headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya.
The image of Switzerland itself - which is not a U.N. member - has been somewhat tarnished, especially in the eyes of those developing countries.
In 1976, the Swiss voted down a request by the International Development Agency for a $120 million loan, and one of the big Swiss multinational companies, Nestle, has been accused of allegedly excessive promotion of its dried milk product in the Third World. These and other incidents have lead to cynicism about the relative components of commercialism, neutrality and humanitarianism in Swiss policy.
Ultimately, however, it probably will be the element of rapidly rising costs that determines whether Geneva will fade as the international headquarters, because soaring salaries and budgets will feed the already severe public relations problems the United Nations has within the country that pays most of the bills - the United States.
Last year, a Senate committee report made clear the congressional view that much of the U.N. bureaucracy is bloated, with vastly overpaid employes getting very little accomplished in expensive surroundings.
Indeed strolling through the corridors of the ILO, for example, and listening to snatches of conference-room statements, it is hard not to feel drowsy and completely removed from the pace of the world outside.
And it is true that shortand typists in the middle of their pay classification take home the current Swiss franc equivalent of $25,200 annually. Translators take home a good deal more than that.
Virtually no one among the experienced officials here argues that the United Nations is not grossly inefficient and badly in need of a structural shakeup.
Yet, the questions of costs and competence have been distored to some degree.
For example, many officials and observers here feel the poor U.N. image is in part the result of the political debates and decisionmaking at the General Assembly and Security Council in New York.
Here at the European headquarters, many functions are more technical. It is on this level where some of the smaller agencies work best. They range form those trying to help regulate air safety to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development seeking to set commodity trading procedures.
"Is what goes on here relevant? My answer is definitely yes" says George Henri Martin, the respected editor of the Tribune de Geneva.
"There are really no important questions these days that can be solved within purely national borders."
As for Geneva's prospects, Martin says, "The life of cities is like that of human beings. There are times when you are in good health and times when you don't feel so good."
If Geneva presently seems a little down, Martin suggests, new organizations coming to deal with crucial issues, such as Willy Brandt's north-south commission on dealings between the industrialized and underdeveloped world, may help recovery.
"When it does a job for which there is a need, it will perpetuate itself," Martin says of the bureaucracy here. When there is no need, you've got to get rid of the deadwood.
"But I don't think there is more deadwood here than in bureaucracies in Washington. Do all the people in the Pentagon do useful things?" he asks.
Much of the controversy about the bureaucracy here, he believes, is related to the value of the dollar.
In 1971, before former president Nixon moved to allow the dollar to float freely on international currency exchanges, he pointed out, you could buy 4.3 Swiss francs for one dollar. Today you can buy 1.7 francs. A secretary paid 42,000 Swiss francs annually in 1971 could be paid with $9,770. Today it takes $24,700.