#41 The G|O Briefing, February 24, 2021
A Silicon Valley memo with ramifications in International Geneva - A Rough and Tumble Human Rights Council Session and a nomination at WHO
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, how a strategic paper written by Silicon Valley and influential US political insiders about confronting China’s tech dominance might have an impact on International Geneva. We also return to the Human Rights Council with a round-up of its ongoing virtual 46th session. Says one seasoned observer: “It is a rough and tumble session with the UK, China, Russia and the USA going after one another in words.” Dare we say it is a fair summary? We also think it is for the best.
An ambitious American plan to confront China's tech dominance with ramifications in International Geneva
Can the current multilateral system and its institutions respond to the rise of China and its global dominance in tech? Should “techno-democracies” form an alliance against China and other “techno-autocracies”? How could the US, Europe, and liberal democracies around the world set the rules and shape the norms that govern the use of technology? … asks in substance a recent US working paper circulating in the Biden administration. Entitled “Asymmetric Competition: A Strategy for China and Technology,” the report, obtained by The G|O, is comprehensive in scope. We choose today to focus on the section most relevant to International Geneva called “Structures for the Future,” which addresses multilateralism.
In July of last year, a dozen of highly influential, politically savvy, and connected tech leaders, academics, VC investors, and policy analysts gathered at the invitation of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and former US State Department adviser Jared Cohen. The two men have known each other forever. Cohen, a Rhodes Scholar and a technology early adopter, was 24 when he was tapped by President George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to join the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton succeeded her, she kept Cohen where he worked under Alec Ross, Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation. With a carte-blanche from their boss and a deep understanding of the early promises of how social media could positively transform democracy—before we also discovered it could be for the worse—they were asked to bring diplomacy into the digital age.
In 2010, Ross and Cohen invited Schmidt and a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to a dinner at the State Department. “This new marriage of Silicon Valley and the State Department can, at times, seem almost giddy in its tech evangelism,” wrote the New York Times in a profile of Ross and Cohen. The bonds of that union between political insiders and tech have never been broken. After leaving government, Cohen went to head Google Ideas, the company’s own think tank. In 2013, Schmidt and Cohen co-authored The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Businesses. Today, Schmidt flies solo at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the advancement of science and technology, and Cohen is CEO of Jigsaw, an independent unit at Google working in global security challenges. Both sit on numerous foundation boards.
“The United States is no longer the global science and technology (S&T) hegemon” it once was.
That almost ten years after penning their best-seller, their recent white paper is quietly (i.e., some of its recommendations are controversial) circulating within the Biden administration as it puts together its China policy, is thus no surprise. Connections last and matter. The National Security Team assembled by Joe Biden is made of people who have worked together for a long time. From the president down, today all agree that the US is in strategic competition with China and that anything from quantum computing to AI technology and bioengineering is at the core of that rivalry. The giddiness, however, is gone, replaced by a sense of urgency.
“The United States is no longer the global science and technology (S&T) hegemon” it once was, the authors write. The landscape has changed, they concede: “America’s technological leadership is fundamental to its security, prosperity, and democratic way of life. But this vital advantage is now at risk, with China surging to overtake the United States in critical areas.” Moreover, they claim the competition is “asymmetric” as “China plays by a different set of rules that allow it to benefit from corporate espionage, illiberal surveillance, and a blurry line between its public and private sector.” It is a familiar narrative in US tech and policy circles. It conveniently hides other factors, among them a doctrinaire approach to any kind of industrial policy—at least publicly—and the belief that innovation can only be fostered by the private sector. Exhibit A: the US’s 5G debacle.
The China Strategy Group convened by Schmidt and Cohen has articulated its response to the challenge posed by China around policy frameworks in three areas: “technological battlegrounds, functional capabilities for the competition,” and lastly, “structures for the future.” This last element makes this document a blueprint for shaping a Pax Americana for the digital age. It aims to do so by pushing back against China and articulating policies for the US to “out-compete China without inviting escalatory cycles of confrontation, retaliation, or unintended conflict.” “We have agency—not to change China, but to shape favorable outcomes for US interests: we should assume that we will continue dealing with China as we see it today and not expect to change China’s trajectory or overall approach to technology and economics, even if we can do more to pressure their choices and blunt their power,” the report notes.
One of the central ideas advanced by the Schmidt-Cohen group is the creation of an alliance of “techno-democracies” regrouped in a new multilateral forum called the T-12. It has the backing of Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The “techno-democracies” concept was first exposed in a Foreign Affairs essay last November by Cohen and Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security. Kurt Campbell, CNAS’s co-founder is now head of the Indo-Pacific directorate at the NSC. Tony Blinken used the language during the first day of his confirmation hearing.
The T-12 is described as a “new plurilateral coalition of ‘techno-democracies’ to strengthen cooperation among like-minded countries; promote collective norms and values around the use of emerging technologies; and protect and preserve key areas of competitive technological advantage. To be most effective, the T-12 would be an international grouping, not a new, secretariat-laden international organization or an alliance with a mutual defense agreement. Rather, it would bring together key countries to coordinate responses to the types of technological questions that threaten the existing world order. A shortlist of countries that meet these criteria would include such members as the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain and Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea, Finland, and Sweden. India, Israel, and Australia are also logical candidates.”
The report also notes that “the United States cannot advance this agenda alone—in part because it lacks the resources or technology and in part because a unilateral approach alienates as much as attracts other countries. Progress needs to play out within a multilateral framework, not in an attempt to change China’s behavior, but to build critical mass to counter it.”
As the US administration actively and forcefully re-engages with Geneva and its multilateral institutions, its plan to counter China’s global rise in technology will clearly have an impact here. Recommendations for securing critical supply chains will guide US trade policies. If accepted, the controversial idea of creating “trust zones” that would, for instance, exclude countries using Huawei’s technology would have serious implications for all international standards development organizations (SDOs), such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Noting that the “US tech competition with China plays out globally along numerous fault lines, including China’s Digital Silk Road, and in norm-setting institutions such as the United Nations,” one of the main assumptions of the document is that “our existing multilateral structures have become increasingly anachronistic and deficient.”
With the T-12, the group explicitly advances the creation of new political bodies working outside the UN system, a proposal justified by the authors by the fact that, in their eyes, “there currently exists no mechanism at the global level where technologically-advanced democracies can coordinate geopolitical strategy with one another and their private-sector counterparts. The establishment of new multilateral mechanisms for state parties and key technology infrastructure companies would create the conditions for a coherent strategy and renewed American leadership on the global stage.” While the T-12 would be permanent but informal, Schmidt, Cohen et alia also suggest setting up a permanent centralized “global body for standard-setting, an international agency (akin to OECD or WIPO) with broadly inclusive membership responsible for developing a common values platform on technology. The organization—which could be an outgrowth or initiative of the T-12—would identify important new standards and support capacity-building around laws, regulations, and bureaucratic infrastructure.”
On the technological front, one of the most controversial ideas being debated is the “decoupling” of certain sectors of the US and Chinese economies. The report also calls for a redesign across the US administration executive branch to steer “a new era of technological statecraft.” When asked about the document, a senior Western diplomat who spent several years in Geneva told The G|O: “One of the mysteries of the previous US administration policy was why it had alienated its allies in its effort to confront China. The re-engagement of the US is extremely positive. But, just on the T-12 question, I fear that such a coalition might totally lack legitimacy, if it is anything else but informal.” Taking a harsh line towards China enjoys broad partisan support in the US. How much of the paper’s policy recommendations will eventually be adopted by the Biden administration, however, remains to be seen.
The “leak” of the report might also be a convenient way for Washington to take the temperature with its allies and partners. Beijing, no doubt, is also listening. One influential Chinese think tank just published a paper called “Competition without Catastrophe,” widely perceived by Washington as a first response.
The end of the “untouchables” at the Human Rights Council?
The presence of the P5 (all the permanent members of the UN Security Council) at the Human Rights Council (HRC) reconfirmed the importance of the Geneva-based body. However, it was feared that the HRC might thus also become paralyzed. The first days of the Council’s ongoing 46th session have so far proven the fear misguided. Instead, the debates have been more frank than before, to use the diplomats’ coded jargon. Powerful governments have been subjected to harsh criticism. It became clear very early as the session opened on Monday that there are no longer any untouchables in the room. Led by the British government, the change of tone was noticeable. UK's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the violations against Uighur Muslims an abuse of “industrial scale.” Britain's top diplomat said, “The reported abuses—which include torture, forced labor and forced sterilization of women—are extreme, and they are extensive."
Raab then called for the Council to pass a resolution allowing “unfettered” access to the camps where one million Uighurs are reportedly detained in what Beijing terms “re-education camps.” He also vigorously denounced China's repression in Hong Kong, where “the rights of the people are systematically violated.” Moving to Tibet, he described the situation as “deeply concerning.”
When his turn came, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also spoke out, citing “arbitrary detention of ethnic minorities” and “China's crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.” Japan also made its voice heard regarding the situation of China. EU High Representative Josep Borrell demanded that UN Human Rights High Commissioner be granted access: “We urge China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including High Commissioner Bachelet. This is key to enable an independent, impartial and transparent assessment of the grave concerns that the international community has.”
“The door to Xinjiang is open for the UN,” responded China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reiterating his government's invitation without, however, providing a date. So far, the conditions imposed by Beijing for such a visit have created a deadlock in the discussion. Wang, however, made it clear that China would not accept countries using human rights as a pretext to “meddle in another country's internal affairs.” “There has never been so-called genocide, forced labour or religious oppression in Xinjiang,” he said. “Human rights are not a monopoly by a small number of countries.” The EU, US, as well as Poland, Iceland, Latvia, Georgia and others, also used the opening session of the Council to put pressure on Russia.
“We have witnessed unacceptable repression against peaceful protesters in Russia,” said Borrell. “The EU condemns the Russian authorities’ decision to sentence Mr. Navalny; it is unacceptable and politically motivated,” he continued. “We deplore the widespread detentions and disproportionate use of force against protesters and journalists. We reject the legal pressure on independent civil society, human rights defenders and independent political voices. These restrictions run counter to Russia's obligations under international human rights law. In all our countries, people must be able to express different opinions and exercise their right to demonstrate without fear of repression,” Borrell went on. Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, answered with harsh criticism. The West, he said, promotes “blackmail and pressure” and resorts to organising “fake news campaigns” against “dissident views.”
In his first—and highly expected—remarks before the Council following Washington's return to the body, the soft-spoken US State Secretary Anthony Blinken put pressure on both Russia and China, reiterating Washington's demand for the release of Alexander Navalny and others arrested by Moscow while calling China out for its abuses. “We will speak out for universal values when atrocities are committed in Xinjiang or when fundamental freedoms are undermined in Hong Kong,” he said.
Blinken made an appeal for countries to avoid authoritarian regimes using the UN to justify their repression. “Together, we must push back against blatant attempts to subvert the values upon which the United Nations is founded, including that each of us as individuals are endowed with human rights and that states are obliged to protect those fundamental rights. Those who hide under the mantle of promoting economic development while seeking to undermine human rights will be held to account, including for their own human rights violations,” he said. Blinken also declared: “As the United States reengages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel. We need to eliminate Agenda Item 7—which focuses on the impact of the Israeli occupation on human rights—in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories and treat the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories the same way as this body handles any other country.”
Finally, Blinken confirmed that the new administration might propose that criteria be applied for the election of countries to the Council. “Those with the worst human rights record should not be part,” he said.
Asked about Blinken's remarks concerning item 7, Dr Riyad al-Maliki, Palestine's foreign minister, told a virtual news conference hosted by the Geneva-based UN Correspondents' Association (ACANU) Wednesday: “We are willing to cooperate with the USA to eliminate item 7,” but stressed, “under one condition, that the USA will guarantee Israel will stop its crimes against the Palestinian people.”
Elsewhere in the ecosystem
The director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has tapped the head of the Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) as his new Chef de Cabinet, WHO health diplomats said.Catharina Boehme, a German national, who has been CEO of FIND since 2013, is slated to begin as CdC on March 1, taking over from “the efficient but low profile” outgoing Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, also a German national, the same sources said, speaking on the condition of non-attribution.
Boehme, who holds a Doctor of Medicine degree in Internal Medicine (Ludwig Maximilian University, Germany) and diplomas in Public Health (Charité) and in Management & Leadership (IMD), is highly regarded in Geneva's international health community by WHO diplomats, experts, industry representatives, charities, and health and development advocacy groups alike.
The appointment comes at a critical juncture with the WHO in the midst of leading the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and, in particular, trying to help ramp up the global production and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, and Dr. Tedros preparing his bid for re-election as head of the agency in 2022.
Sources said her experience in public-private diplomacy and her wide network of contacts—especially with industry—coupled with her medical expertise and grasp of WHO's normative structures, are timely and valuable assets for her new assignment.
Dr. Boehme is also a member of the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on In Vitro Diagnostics (SAGE IVD), a member of the WHO Expert Review Group for New Diagnostics, a Critical Path to TB Drug Regimens Working Group Member and a Diagnostics Technical Advisor for the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership. She also serves as Lancet Commissioner for both diagnostics and TB commissions.
Moreover, FIND is also co-convener of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator Diagnostics Pillar, accelerating the development and production of new tools, as well as ensuring equitable access to testing, as part of the global response to the pandemic.
Since 2003, FIND—which has over 100 staff operating across 80 countries—has catalyzed the development of 24 innovative diagnostic tools. Over 50 million FIND-supported products have been provided to 150 low-and middle-income countries, and health experts and FIND say its work has been “transformative” in the diagnosis of tuberculosis and malaria and has helped bring “sleeping sickness” (trypanosomiasis) elimination within reach.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas
Edited by: Paige Holt