#121, The G|O Briefing, December 8, 2022

The resilience of multilateralism | Lula's government is taking shape–and it's good news for Geneva | We need to rethink how to produce food

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, some brief on-the-ground stocktaking on the state of multilateralism. From conversations with diplomats here, what emerges is a picture of cautious optimism, not only about the resilience of the multilateral system itself when submitted to a massive and unprecedented shock like Russia’s aggression on Ukraine but also about the conditions under which it can ensure its enduring relevancy.

Based on numerous discussions with seasoned watchers of the multilateral scene, extreme polarization has not led to paralysis in Geneva. This is not to say that global challenges will be easily solved—given their inherent complexity and the multiplicity of actors involved, expecting otherwise would be unrealistic. But at the very least, as the outgoing President of the Human Rights Council, Argentinian Ambassador Federico Villegas, told a group of reporters this morning, “it always gets more polarized when one doesn’t talk.” And dialogue has not ceased here, even around highly disputed issues. Because it simply can’t. Unlike New York, Geneva is multilateralism’s engine room; as Villegas stressed, the veto right is not known here: “We are all equal. Every vote counts. It doesn’t matter if you have 3,000 nuclear weapons or if you are the richest country in the world.” In Geneva, one has to build coalitions by convincing others—and to do that, States have to have “good arguments.” They have to engage.

In our guest essay today, referring to the recent G20 summit held in Bali, public intellectual and Asia expert Kishore Mahbubani makes a related point: “Culture matters for diplomacy and Indonesian President Joko Widodo embodies the ‘soft’ and sophisticated elements of Indonesia’s dominant Javanese culture, which prizes [consultation and consensus]. [...] Western diplomats, too, often fail to grasp or appreciate this intangible side of diplomacy, reflecting a strong tendency toward black-or-white judgments.”

Regardless of whether or not you agree with his judgment, Mahbubani’s point highlights another consequence—and a positive one when it pertains to the future of multilateralism—of the great upheaval we live in. Probably not since the end of the Cold War has the West simultaneously strengthened its resolve and grown so introspective. The rest of the world is showing the same resolve and self-examination.

As a result, globally, a clearer focus is emerging, with promises of a more representative multilateralism—illustrated, for example, by the rise of a newly independent African diplomacy or by the discussions among the BRICS.

Lastly, both in Geneva and New York, creative diplomatic efforts have been deployed to prevent the Ukrainian tragedy from contaminating every single issue. Diplomatic firewalls have been successfully erected to allow for other challenges to be addressed. The peace and security pillar of the UN has taken a direct hit, but progress, albeit slow, continues here: on trade or around a pandemic treaty. And the humanitarians are rising to the challenge everywhere, despite enormous difficulties.

For sure, multilateralism has been muddling through this year. Yet, as Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group says, “it made it through 2022 in pretty good shape.”

Staying with the subject, Jamil Chade also reports that Brazil’s stated objective to reengage with and reinvigorate the multilateral conversation is taking shape, with the decision by Lula to appoint veteran multilateral diplomats to senior positions in his administration.

Stretching the strict boundaries on International Geneva, he also reports on a newly released report by the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that calls for major changes in the way we produce food to meet a growing problem.

It’s all below. Thank you for reading us.



By Jamil Chade

Brazil’s new government looks set to put two of the country’s most vocal supporters of the multilateral system, Celso Amorim and Mauro Vieira, in charge of its diplomacy, The G|O has learned.

President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should announce his cabinet next week.

As we previously reported, Amorim—former ambassador in Geneva, former chair of the Tobacco Convention of the ILO Council, and key negotiator for the G20 at the WTO–will take the role of Lula’s special advisor on foreign policy, a newly created position. The experienced diplomat was Foreign Minister for eight years under the new President’s first two mandates and, later, led the Ministry of Defense under Dilma Rousseff’s presidency.

Vieira, meanwhile, former Minister of Foreign Affairs under Dilma Rousseff, is slated to return to his previous position as head of Itamaraty (the Foreign Ministry). The ink on his contract is not dry, however. “Like at the World Cup, Brazilian politics is hard to predict until the very end of the game,” we are told.

Vieira is also a well-known face in the multilateral world. As head of the Brazilian mission to the UN in New York, Vieira was credited as being a talented negotiator and a staunch supporter of the rules-based multilateral system.

After four years of a far-right government that made nationalism, isolationism, and the refusal to strengthen international organizations the cornerstone of its policy, the predicted reappointment of the two men is a powerful symbol of Brazil’s return to its former diplomatic roots and tradition.



By Jamil Chade

The international community has recently received a request from the UN for a record sum of money to come to the rescue of over 339 million victims of humanitarian crisis: For its operations in 2023, the organization puts its price tag at a staggering $51.5 billion.

And now a new report issued this week by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reveals that there is another looming crisis contributing to the humanitarian challenge: the world’s ability to nourish its ever-growing population.

“If agrifood systems remain on their current paths, the evidence points to a future characterized by persistent food insecurity, degrading resources, and unsustainable economic growth,” the report says.

As things stand already, at least 222 million people in 53 countries will face acute food insecurity by the end of 2022, while 45 million people in 37 countries risk starvation. The forecast is bleak: Increasing populations, urbanization, macroeconomic instability, poverty and inequalities, geopolitical tensions and conflicts, fiercer competition over natural resources, and climate change are leading the world towards a constant situation of humanitarian crisis.

In less than 30 years’ time, there will be 10 billion people to feed—an impossible challenge if significant attempts are not made to reverse current trends. Without broader socioeconomic and environmental change, the FAO claim, sustainable agrifood systems will be impossible to achieve, and millions will be trapped in permanent food poverty.

In ‘The Future of Food and Agriculture—Drivers and triggers for transformation,’ the FAO warns leaders that a lack of vision and a reliance on “quick fixes” will come at a high cost for everyone. The report points out that the world is “tremendously off track” to meet the SDGs, including agrifood targets.

A change in direction for production, consumption, and governance

For the FAO, a perpetuation of the current system is not an option. "Past conditions are no longer available to replicate the development formula adopted by current high-income countries [i.e., achieving power and status through empire-building]... Future global development patterns depend on the resolution of key questions: institutions providing solutions for sharing the ‘global commons’; the distribution of political power and wealth; and the resolution of the extensive inequalities present in today’s economies,” the report argues.

In the 440-page document, the FAO claims the urgent need to change course will require governments to implement public policies for the establishment of a new system of food production.

Consumers will need to be more responsible actors since they “hold the power to trigger transformative processes by shifting demand towards more environmentally and socially responsible, and nutritious products.” But this alone will not be enough. The transformation will require better income and wealth distribution and a new production pattern with innovative technologies and approaches.

“A change of mindset is needed—'more of the same' will lead the world to the point of no return,” argues the FAO. “As it fatally compromises agrifood systems, the short-termism era will inevitably end either abruptly, with inestimable costs for everyone, or with a gradual and costly transition instigated by a new mindset that prioritizes long-term objectives.”

Production changes

The first stage is to acknowledge the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that prevailing agricultural practices, which rely on the intensive use of agrochemical inputs and energy, are endangering the future of agrifood systems—not to mention contributing to massive greenhouse gas emissions and unprecedented loss of biodiversity.

In short, the need to produce more with less is unavoidable, and producers must improve land and water use, increase the efficiency of their energy use, protect biodiversity, and restore soils and forests.

Part of the solution will come via technological innovations and its capacity to serve the more vulnerable. The FAO has hopes that digitalization and data analytics will help improve the operational efficiency of agrifood systems—including input use, disease control, supply chain management, and automation.

However, the challenges are enormous. “The reality is that the bulk of R&D spending is concentrated in only few countries, with a considerable share in the hands of private corporations,” the FAO claims. “This poses a risk of technological dependency and difficult access for a large part of the world.” Furthermore, there is a concern that big data and analytical capabilities are also concentrated in the hands of a few players. “Unless duly regulated, this will accelerate power concentration and imbalances, generate more inequality, and exclude poor and unskilled workers,” the FAO argues. There is a more existential consideration: “Relying on technology as the panacea might be too risky as a strategy—it may not arrive in time to save humankind.”

The report admits that a transition towards sustainable agrifood systems is likely to drive up prices. For this reason, policies that favor a more equitable distribution of income within and across countries need to be pursued. The report urges greater investment in social outcomes and increased social capital—to get people out of poverty, not just out of hunger. Such a move will require governments to secure access to land, water, forests, and capital.

Urban production

The transformation also requires that agrifood systems should no longer be considered from the rural perspective only. “The borders between rural and urban areas are increasingly blurred and they are becoming more interdependent,” the FAO claims. “A considerable part of activities conducted in agricultural value chains are set within, or close to, towns or peri-urban areas.”

The FAO explains that “Urbanization is a source of major changes in dietary habits, and cities offer a context in which food systems evolve rapidly and innovate. For transformations to be inclusive, particularly for small-scale farmers, strong institutions will be needed.”

Global governance

Finally, the UN agency claims that a new power structure must be established to address international issues like capital flows, climate change, and international conflicts. “An overall institutional vacuum is perceived in the discrepancy between the global level of issues at stake [… and] the increasing weakness of most of the sovereign countries in governing on such issues."

“With few exceptions, the size of most countries is […] too small to be able to influence, at least to some extent, these global dynamics. Therefore, transformative processes require, as a precondition, much stronger, more transparent and accountable institutions and governance across all domains of agrifood systems and their socioeconomic and environmental contexts,” the FAO concludes.



By Kishore Mahbubani*

The world seems like a calmer place after the G20 meeting in Bali in mid-November. The question is why.

We know that US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a three-hour in-person meeting that went well, despite their many policy differences and their countries’ growing antagonism. It was also helpful that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t show up, and that Russia’s war in Ukraine didn’t overshadow the Sino-American discussions. In fact, the G20 issued a statement declaring that, “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi also had a relatively successful meeting in Bali. The two leaders smiled and shook hands, which was a significant improvement from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in September when they could barely make eye contact.

So, the conditions in Bali were amenable to serious diplomacy, which was more than most observers had hoped for. But how did this atmosphere come about, and does it portend positive results and agreements?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. Indonesia, the host, worked steadfastly – both visibly and behind the scenes – to ensure that the summit would not fail.

Culture matters for diplomacy, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo embodies the “soft” and sophisticated elements of Indonesia’s dominant Javanese culture, which prizes musyawarah and mufakat (consultation and consensus). To prevent the Ukraine war from derailing the summit, he visited both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their capitals. In the event, this show of respect paid off: by not turning up in Bali, Putin demonstrated a willingness not to make life more difficult for Jokowi.

Western diplomats, too, often fail to grasp or appreciate this intangible side of diplomacy, reflecting a strong tendency toward black-or-white judgments. Zelensky is virtuous, Putin is evil, and all other considerations must follow from those premises. At a time when the West is shunning and isolating Putin, Jokowi gave him the respect that he so clearly craves. Likewise, while Western diplomats tend to draw clear lines between political systems (democracies are virtuous, and autocracies are wicked), Jokowi treated Biden and Xi with equal respect.

Does this softer Javanese approach hold broader lessons for international affairs? The answer depends on our judgments about the world order that appears to be emerging. Since the “End of History” in 1989, the West has assumed that global developments generally flow in only one direction: toward Western-style democracy with Western-style market economies. In fact, we are entering an era that will be multipolar, multi-civilizational, and thus multilateral.

In such a complex world, black-or-white descriptions will almost always prove to be too simplistic. India, for example, is an important ally of the West, even though Modi will never be seen in a Western business suit and complains about the “slave mentality” surrounding use of the English language in India.

It is telling that Javanese shadow plays (which borrow from Hindu mythology) feature a wide range of characters who do not fit neatly into categories like good and evil. One major advantage of this worldview is that it creates more opportunities for rival sides to seek peace or find common ground.

As matters stand, it is politically inconceivable that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit Tehran or Pyongyang to talk directly with Iranian or North Korean leaders, and Europeans are becoming equally allergic to the idea of visiting Moscow. Yet that is precisely the kind of flexibility we need if we are going to maintain relative peace and stability in the twenty-first century.

Beyond the recent G20 summit, the open-minded Javanese approach has also proven effective in the smaller multi-civilizational laboratory of Southeast Asia. No other region on Earth boasts such diversity. Southeast Asia’s population of 685 million has 240 million Muslims, 140 million Christians, 200 million Buddhists, and so on. Yet, owing to the intangible contributions of the Javanese ethos within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region has remained peaceful.

By and large, the principles of musyawarah and mufakat have prevailed. While one can easily imagine Indonesia treating Timor-Leste as a kind of “Kosovo” – a national territory that has been “lost” – it instead champions that country’s application for ASEAN membership. Such magnanimity is in short supply in our deeply fractured international community. We could all benefit from learning a lesson or two from Javanese culture and heritage. Doing so would help soothe a troubled world, just as Jokowi did in Bali.

Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is the co-author of The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace (National University of Singapore Press, 2017) and the author of Has China Won? (PublicAffairs, 2020).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Guest essay: Kishore Mahbubani

Edited by: Dan Wheeler