#72 The G|O Briefing, September 30, 2021

GESDA: anticipation and cutting-edge thinking are coming to International Geneva | Is Donald Biden's true first name? | An encore for Dr Tedros

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

Today in the Geneva Observer, we shine our spotlight on the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA). You may want to remember its acronym as this new Swiss initiative may well have a major impact on International Geneva. A week before its official launch, GESDA, which bills itself “as a Swiss foundation with global reach and a private-public partnership working from Geneva to serve as an anticipatory science and diplomacy tool for greater impact and multilateral effectiveness” is definitely the talk of the town.

Overly ambitious and underfunded some say, mostly in private. Cutting-edge thinking and a jolt for International Geneva say the people behind an initiative that aims “to use the future to build the present.” Blue sky thinking or pie in the sky?  Read on, it’s all below.

Also today: should we call him Donald Biden? From foreign policy to immigration and trade–not mentioning the mistreatment of allies– it is becoming increasingly clear that Joe Biden and his team do not seem willing at this point at least to reverse some of Donald Trump’s most controversial policies. The WTO found that out this week as Washington refused to reverse Trump’s 2016 decision to block nominations to the Appellate Body.

And talking about nominations, Dr. Tedros is all but sure that he will be elected to a second term at the WHO. He’s garnered wide support and is running unopposed. But he will have to do with a significantly shorter leash.


The Geneva Science and Diplomatic Anticipator (GESDA) is a project of staggering ambition. It has the potential to transform International Geneva and to shape the future of modern multilateralism as science and technology assume an ever more important role in determining mankind’s future. If successful, it could reinforce and cement, for the foreseeable future, International Geneva as the center of global governance and multilateralism. “Potential” is the operative word here, but a week short of its official launch GESDA’s aims undeniably appear to be groundbreaking in their scope and vision.  

Now, a project not yet publicly unveiled, faced with a massive communication challenge given its nature, is bound to elicit questions and even criticism. Inserting such an innovative object in the Geneva international ecosystem has not gone without friction. Since the announcement of its creation two years ago by the Swiss Government and the Canton of Geneva, GESDA has ruffled feathers, bruised egos, laid bare the depth of some turf wars among some of International Geneva’s private local players. Parochialism has sometimes surfaced as action and ambition rather than continuity are the new project’s main driver. It is telling for instance that the fact that GESDA’s leadership in the hands of Patrick Aebischer, former president of  EPFL, the Swiss Technology Institute in Lausanne, and Peter Brabeck-Lethmathe, former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, remains today an object of suspicion for some of the people we spoke to; the two men are still perceived as “outsiders” with “no knowledge of International Geneva,” a perception that over many months slowed down the onboarding of some local stakeholders, a matter now solved by a hefty amount of fence-mending and …traditional diplomacy.

This article is based on interviews conducted with about a dozen people. Most of them have accepted to talk to The G|O under a strict condition of anonymity.

Several Swiss players and International Geneva stakeholders outside of GESDA seem to be hedging their bets as the launch approaches. Doubts and criticism about the project itself and the way it has been run so far are expressed in private. “I don’t want anything on tape”, one knowledgeable source in the scientific research community told us.  The level at which GESDA aims to operate is unusual for Geneva, and that alone might explain the wait-and-see attitude of some people we talked to.

There also is a fear: research and projects must be funded. Will GESDA become a powerhouse, massively funded, and thus compromise the ability of smaller players to fund their own projects?

“I am not surprised that people outside of the GESDA community, composed today of more than 4000 scientists around the world do not really understand what GESDA will do, because the summit will be the first time the GESDA really goes public and I am confident a lot of the questions that are being asked today will be answered,” GESDA ‘s Foundation President  Brabeck-Letmathe tells The Geneva Observer.

If there is one agreement among all, it is that next week’s Summit could be a make or break event.

World, discover a new Radar!

And so, next week, more than 500 academics and diplomats, UN officials and NGO representatives will meet in Geneva to discuss the scientific breakthroughs of the future and how we can best exploit them. The two-day event, which will take place at the Campus Biotech, will be organised around and fueled by what lies at the core of GESDA, the Science Breakthrough Radar, an interactive platform to help the global community to continuously monitor and assess the advancement of scientific inventions in the hope to steer it towards positive outcomes. In Aebischer’s words, the Radar will offer a comprehensive look at “what’s cooking in the labs” on a 5-, 10- and 25-year horizon. What makes GESDA’s Radar different from other attempts at mapping the future, however, is that this expert-based platform is “meant to operate as an honest and neutral broker across the different disciplines and issues,” stresses Stéphane Decoutère, GESDA Secretary-General.  As science and technology are being increasingly politicised – mastery of technology will soon be as important as GDP as an index of power and influence – GESDA’s stated position is to a large extent, unique.

“To present ourselves as an honest and neutral broker is extremely important to us,” confirms Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. “We have no political agenda. We want to tell the world what is going on in the science world and we want to make sure these scientific achievements do not end up benefiting one laboratory or one university or one country. Technological independence is going to be one of the major diplomatic issues of the future and we know that nationalism might prevent these scientific breakthroughs to be shared. We think they should be inclusive and aligned with the 17 SDGs.”  
Equally, the Radar won’t, initially at least, make choices and recommendations about which scientific development should be endorsed. Instead, explains Decoutère “the Radar aims to initiate a global debate by opening a space for public debate” around the science and technology developments that are already happening in Switzerland and in the world. A tall order granted for what is still a 24-months old start-up with relatively limited financial resources.

Anticipation also poses another challenge in a world, where short-term thinking regularly prevails.  

“It is already challenging to solve today’s problems with the tools we have let alone the problems of the future,” recognises Ambassador Alexandre Fasel, whom the Swiss government named in February as the first special representative for science diplomacy in Geneva.

“Here we come with a radically different approach which is one of anticipation. The idea is to bring together different communities and be more knowledgeable about what is coming so that we can benefit from opportunities and find innovative ways to solve issues.”

Anticipation’s biggest booster as GESDA goes public might well turn out to be the COVID-19 pandemic. One of its lessons is that looking into the future and trying to predict outcomes has become indispensable. If the political response to the predicted pandemic has been criticised as a “collective political failure,” on the scientific side however, several vaccines have been developed in record time. And today, predictive models powered by big data can help us develop immediate responses to major challenges.

Months of distillation have pushed GESDA and more than 500 researchers here and abroad to orient their radar on four major areas: the quantum revolution and advanced artificial intelligence; human augmentation; eco-regeneration and geoengineering; and science and diplomacy.
These fields will be examined against the framework of three meta questions explains Peter Brabeck-Letmathe:

1. Who are we? What does it mean to be human in the age of robots, gene editing and augmented reality?
2. How are we going to live together? Which deployment of technology can help reduce inequality and foster inclusive development and well-being?
3. How can we assure humanity’s well-being while also sustaining the health of our planet?

The question is what happens next because GESDA aspires to be more than just a talking shop.

Indeed the doing has become imperative if GESDA is to survive beyond 2022. Public and private funders will want to see some bang for their buck after investing CHF 3.6 million and CHF 8 million respectively during this initial three-year phase.

“We have to show that what we are doing is useful and makes sense,” says Stéphane Decoutère, GESDA’s Secretary-General. "Like a start-up, we release our first products just before we start talking to our Founders about the future."

Success is never guaranteed

GESDA’s hopes of converting the uninitiated are clearly pinned on the Breakthrough Radar, but for all the hype, it’s impossible at this point to know if GESDA will succeed in ushering in a new era of science and diplomacy working hand in hand in a novel way.  

With hindsight, it’s phenomenally easy to see which trends and predictions we should have spotted and committed resources to.

Who wouldn’t prioritise new technologies to help us develop future vaccines knowing what we do today? Meanwhile, the history of invention is littered with the “next big thing” that wasn’t. What makes GESDA so sure that it can get it right?

The apparent mismatch between the scale of the ambition and the lack of clearly defined measures of success and performance leaves some observers sceptical.

“We usually say too big to fail,” says Xavier Comtesse. Comtesse is widely credited as being the father of modern Swiss scientific diplomacy when he created a Swiss scientific consulate on the edge of the MIT campus in Boston more than 20 years ago. “Unfortunately, this is too ambitious and they will fail.”

“GESDA’s identity is really weak because we don’t know what they want to do. There are too many topics and you need a huge amount of money to be a Do Tank. They simply don’t have the power, the background, the money or the network.”

Others, however, say there’s method in the “madness” and that the unrestrained discussion is in fact a stroke of genius. If consensus develops around any of these initiatives, support and money will likely follow. As diplomatic, scientific and financial actors coalesce around a promising project, it will develop a life of its own.

Indeed market forces may ultimately decide the direction GESDA takes.

Global commons

Positioning International Geneva as the place to discuss global challenges is a pillar of Swiss foreign policy. The seed-funding of GESDA fits into that narrative.

“We are small enough as a country that we see that our security, ability, stability is rooted in the global commons working well,” says Fasel.

Prof. Paul Arthur Berkman, Associated  Fellow of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and 2021 Fulbright Arctic Chair awarded by the United States Department of State with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes Switzerland should be lauded for such efforts.

“Science diplomacy is a language of hope,” he says. “There’s far too much doom and gloom in the world, that is polarised and paralysed largely because of short-term thinking.

“The challenge we have right now is to recognise that short-term thinking is related to self-interests. The primary responsibility of science diplomats is to build common interests, which means operating short-to-long term across a continuum of urgencies.”

Diplomacy, the D, in GESDA’ acronym, however, will have to wait before sharing center  stage with science. First, the results and the feedback of the Summit will be analysed and discussed, including with civil society, before imagining how to integrate science into the multilateral regime.

Scientific diplomacy, a fairly new field, is articulated around three dimensions: informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice (science in diplomacy) facilitating international science cooperation (diplomacy for science) and using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries (science for diplomacy).

The stakes are high: “We strongly believe is that if we leave scientific breakthroughs in the hand of three private companies, and three or four countries, then we will be living in a dangerous world. I believe that is the task of GESDA to prove that, to discuss it with the diplomats of the world and to propose innovative solutions to govern science in a multilateral context. CERN is a good example of that,” says Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.

If excitement lies in anticipation, GESDA has certainly come out firing on all cylinders.  Whether or not it delivers on all or any fronts, time will tell. But the first answers will start coming in next week.

-PHM, with additional reporting from Vincent Landon

Could Joe Biden first name be Donald?

The rhetoric coming out of Washington has been consistent: Listening to Joe Biden you could believe that Washington planned to forcefully and rapidly reengage with multilateralism and that, after Trump’s assertive isolationism, international cooperation would be high on the list of the new administration’s priorities. Eight months later, International Geneva is still waiting for the rhetoric to become reality. For a number of US allies and partners, patience is not only running thin but there is also a growing consensus that Biden’s foreign policy will in fact be more continuity than a rupture with Trump’s.

A case in point: This week at the WTO, the Biden administration refused to break with Trump’s legacy, deciding to oppose the nomination of new judges to the seven-member Appellate Body. This strikes at the very heart of the WTO, for the Appellate Body is the ultimate adjudicator of trade disputes. Citing concerns over its operations, Donald Trump had blocked any new nominations since 2016, but there have been high expectations that the Biden administration would abandon this hard line and, with allies and partners, work on reforming the Appellate Body (once reconstituted) from within. However, Washington wouldn’t be swayed.

In a closed-door meeting earlier this week, speaking on behalf of 121 members, Mexico once again introduced the group’s proposal to start the selection processes for filling vacancies on the Appellate Body. “The extensive number of members submitting the proposal reflects a common concern over the current situation in the Appellate Body, which is seriously affecting the overall WTO dispute settlement system against the best interest of members,” said the Mexican delegation.

During the meeting, over 20 delegates took the floor to reiterate the importance of resolving the impasse over the appointment of new members as soon as possible, and of re-establishing a functioning Appellate Body. They included the EU, the African Group, and the LDC Group.

When the US took the floor, it simply reiterated that it was not in a position to support the proposed decision to unblock the crisis, as the US continues to have “systemic concerns” with the Appellate Body, which it has explained and raised over the past 16 years and across multiple administrations. The US made it clear the WTO must go through fundamental reforms if the dispute settlement system is to remain viable and credible. The American delegation once more insisted it is ready for discussions with members on those concerns and open to “constructive engagement with members at the appropriate time.”

On behalf of the 121 members, Mexico again took the floor to argue that the fact a member may have concerns about certain aspects of the functioning of the Appellate Body cannot serve as a pretext to impair and disrupt the work of the dispute settlement system. The group claims that there is no legal justification for the current blocking of the selection processes, which is causing concrete nullification and impairment of rights for many members.

The chair of the meeting, Didier Chambovey from Switzerland, emphasized that resolving the impasse is of great interest to all WTO members and a matter which also requires political engagement by all members. Seasoned WTO watchers will feel like history is repeating: It was the 46th time the proposal to start the process for filling vacancies has been blocked.


Dr. Tedros will see you again

The renewal of Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus’ mandate at the WHO is considered to be a done deal. Despite the lack of transparency in the process, diplomatic sources tell The G|O that the current director-general is running unopposed, as the deadline for nominations has now elapsed.

Germany and France were instrumental in building a coalition of 17 EU members to support his reelection in exchange for his commitment to reform the institution, whilst the Biden administration also indicated it was not opposed to a second term for Dr Tedros. Accused of being “soft on China” by the Trump administration, the WHO D-G has, over the last few months, taken an increasingly hard stance against Beijing, supporting further investigations in China into the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

His tenure has been marked by some serious issues, from his alleged lack of independence towards China, to the sexual abuse scandal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (for which he publicly apologized last week), to the failure of COVAX to ensure vaccinations in developing countries. Serious management issues at the WHO were also brought to light in a scathing audit of the organization. “It is very difficult to change the pilot while the plane is in free fall”, joked one diplomat to The G|O.

For member states, this means a somewhat weaker director-general—but also one that will now have no choice but to extensively consult with them, instead of, as has often been the case in the past, making unilateral decisions. In other words, the member states have decided to regain more control over the organization by reigning in its D-G.


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Edited by: Dan Wheeler