#29 The G|O Briefing, December 17, 2020


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

Today in The Geneva Observer,  we peek at International Geneva from the future rather than the past with the formal launch of a new Swiss initiative, the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA).

We also look at the need to use multilateral institutions like the WTO to increase transparency and fight corruption. As more names are being announced in the new US administration, we keep an eye on how developments in Washington will affect International Geneva.

GESDA: an ambitious and welcome jolt for International Geneva

For a full day today (December 18), 68 leading scientists and seasoned diplomats, including former government members, meeting in four distinct thematic groups have been virtually gathered for the de facto launch of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator, (GESDA), a Swiss Government-led and funded initiative. By way of definition, here is how Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, GESDA’s Chairman of the Board, describes GESDA’s vision: “To ‘use the future to build the present,’ by bringing together representatives of different communities (academic, diplomatic, impact and citizens) in order to anticipate advances in frontier scientific work being done by the most advanced laboratories of the world, and to develop around them new initiatives, projects and solutions for humanity.”

Four frontier issues have been identified by the project leaders and will serve as platforms for GESDA’s work: Quantum Revolution and Advanced Artificial Intelligence, Human Augmentation, Eco-regeneration and Geoengineering and Science and Diplomacy. GESDA is structured in two fora, one academic under the direction of Joël Mesot and Martin Vetterli, presidents of the Zurich and Lausanne Swiss Technology Institutes, respectively, and one diplomatic forum led by former UNOG director Michael Møller.

“Science has a crucial role to play in society.  It is important that scientists engage with the political and the diplomatic world” - Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust

Science anticipators are abundant, and so are diplomacy think tanks. But it is the joining of science and diplomacy which is undoubtedly one of the most forward-thinking conceptual breakthroughs represented by GESDA.  Science and technology are now the defining forces of the human condition. They raise fundamental issues and offer hope for a better world but can also have a massively destructive impact.  

“Some scientific advances leave me worried, particularly neurotechnology,” admits Patrick Aebischer, former EPFL President and now GESDA vice-chair of the Board. “It is important we thoroughly examine their implications as we develop them and fully measure their impact on society. Scientists have a social responsibility,” Aebischer told The G|O a while back when discussing GESDA.  “Science has a crucial role to play in society. But it has advanced so fast that it has sometimes become difficult to understand.

It is important that scientists engage with the political and the diplomatic world,” Jeremy Farrar, London-based Wellcome Trust director and a member of GESDA’s Foundation, told Le Temps. As a matter of fact, in the mind of its originator, former Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, the idea of GESDA was born in part when observing his friend John Kerry negotiating the Iran nuclear deal alongside American Ernest Moniz and Iran’s Atomic Energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, both MIT-trained.

But GESDA aims to go beyond thinking. “It is a think tank and a do tank,” according to Brabeck-Letmathe, “do” being the operative word. In the future, for the GESDA team, that might mean “setting up a new international regulatory organization, drafting a new framework agreement—on ethics or governance of science, for example—or rolling out a large-scale program to implement next sci/tech advances.”

"Whoever becomes the leader  in artificial intelligence will become the ruler of the world.”  -Vladimir Putin

As Geneva has been celebrating one hundred years of multilateralism, a lot has been written on its successes and its failures, its promises, and disillusions. By “using the future to build the present,” but by doing so in leveraging the past, the entirety of International Geneva’s experience, and the richness of its unique ecosystem, GESDA might turn out to be a formidable attempt by Switzerland to reinvigorate international cooperation and multilateralism at a moment in history when both are under stress. Science and technology are now determining elements of global power, soft and hard. “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” Vladimir Putin famously stated in 2017, adding that “if we become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with the entire world.” China and the US are following the same scientific path, reminiscent of the old arms race.

GESDA’s aim to work to “ensure the well-being of humankind and the sustainable future of the planet” is laudable, as science is not just science anymore. It has entered geopolitics and geostrategy. All things that diplomacy knows well. It was high time to marry them.


The scourge of corruption

Corruption is one of the absolute scourges of the modern global world. It has many faces and operates in countless different ways. But the results are always the same: a few illegally enrich themselves and line their pockets while money meant to alleviate suffering, reduce inequalities, build needed infrastructure goes missing. Trust in governments and institutions is shattered, people’s discontent and anger grow. Lately, we have seen its devastating impact on Lebanon and reported how International Geneva might contribute to fighting the problem. The revelations coming of out the UK concerning how contracts for PPE equipment were being awarded during the first outbreak in complete secrecy to friends of members of Johnson’s government provides another shocking example of what, in an absolute page-turner, FT financial journalist calls Kleptopia—the world of dirty money and illegal gains. Quite a few scenes in the plot occur in Geneva. Corruption increases in time of emergencies and crisis, such as the current pandemic. Yet, there are instruments in place that, when used, can prevent it. G|O’s contributor John Zarocostas takes a look at the GPA, a little-known WTO mechanism often referred to as the “anti-corruption accord” on Geneva’s lakeshore.

Finally, we have already devoted some significant space to the reactions of International Geneva at some of the nominations announced by president-elect Joe Biden. ICYMI, the US reengagement with the multilateral order is real, expertise—and decency—are back. But—and it is a significant “but”—Washington’s reengagement, if generally welcome, will not amount to simply accepting that “American leadership is back,” as the President-Elect puts it. Latest case in point: the European position on Big Tech through its recently unveiled Digital Markets Act, arguably a very contentious issue from the start between Brussels and the new US administration.


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - John Zarocostas

Edited by: Paige Holt