#31 The G|O Briefing, January 19, 2021

The transition of power is now truly underway in Washington.

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, the transition of power is now truly underway in Washington. A few hours short of Joe Biden's inauguration, today sees the beginning of the Senate confirmation hearings of Janet Yellen as new Treasury Secretary, of Anthony Blinken at State, and of Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, all of which will have repercussions, direct or indirect, on International Geneva over the next four years.

We asked Dr Jean-Marc Rickli, Head of Global Risk and Resilience at the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP) to highlight what he thinks America's urgent defense priorities will be. His interview is below.

We also come back to the marathon WHO's Executive Board meeting that started yesterday (January 18) with a somber statement by Dr. Tedros that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophe and moral failure—and the price of failure will be paid with the lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries.”


“It is not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in people in poorer countries,” Dr. Tedros said in his opening remarks, drawing the point home with a single statistic. As of yesterday, “more than 39 million doses of the vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, while just 25 doses have been given in one low-income country,” said the WHO's D-G, referring to Guinea. And yes, you read that right: only 25. One of them was the President."

In “Globalizing the COVID Vaccine,” a companion piece on our website, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says as much. “Allocating vaccines to the highest bidder will merely prolong the crisis,” writes the former board chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance (and currently designated by the WTO as its next director, a decision vetoed by the Trump administration which might or might not be reversed by Joe Biden). Denouncing the shortsightedness of governments and pharmaceutical companies, she writes, “As long as the coronavirus can be transmitted between people, many will continue to be infected. (..) The hope of returning to normal trade, commerce, and travel will remain elusive. To end the cycle, we must protect all people everywhere.”

According to Dr. Tedros, the COVAX Facility, the global vaccine sharing fund precisely created after 2009 to avoid a repeat of the H1N1, when rich countries hoarded the flu vaccine, is again being undermined by governments and pharma alike. Forty-four bilateral deals between countries and manufacturers were signed last year, 12 for January of this year already. Countries “are going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue,” accused Dr. Tedros. Manufacturers, he said, rush to have their vaccines approved in rich countries where they can expect higher profits rather than registering with the WHO and having their vaccines included in the COVAX facility.

This, as well as an independent intermediate report presented to the WHO's Executive Board concludes, as we reported last week, that the story of the response to the pandemic is one of a collective failure.

Chaired by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Nigeria and New Zealander Helen Clark, both former prime ministers, the “Second Progress Report” contains extremely harsh observations about the global response to the pandemic. Among its key messages:

• The pandemic response has deepened inequalities.
• The global pandemic alert system is not fit for purpose.
• There has been a failure to take seriously the already known existential risks posed by pandemic threat.
• The World Health Organization has been underpowered to do the job expected of it.
• The Panel believes that the COVID-19 pandemic must be a catalyst for fundamental and systemic change in preparedness for future such events, from the local community right through to the highest international levels.

The report also makes an interesting observation about international cooperation and multilateralism in response to the pandemic:

“The Panel has also been struck by the limited effectiveness of significant international groupings in having an impact on the course of this pandemic. For example, both the G7/8 and the G20 have given priority in past meetings to health security and pandemic preparedness, including by running simulation exercises, but their action in the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely reactive, as has that of the G7.”


UNCTAD's Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi has resigned, effective February 15. The Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Isabelle Durant of Belgium, will be appointed as Acting Secretary-General of UNCTAD until a new name is selected. Kituyi, a very respected international public servant, is widely believed to be running for the Kenyan presidency after having discreetly tested the political waters over the last few months, making no secret of his intentions in his home country, explaining why he believes he is the right man for the job. __________________
The Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Jan Egeland, made an impassioned call on Tuesday for the Biden administration to revoke the last-minute terrorist designation of Ansar Allah (Houthis) by the outgoing US Secretary of State to avoid a horrific famine in war-torn Yemen.

“They need to do this on day one,” and ahead of re-joining the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and re-entering the World Health Organization, Egeland said in a virtual press conference with the Geneva UN Correspondents Association on Tuesday. The NRC chief pointed out that Ansar Allah are the de-facto rulers of three-quarters of Yemen's population.

On January 10, outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his agency would notify Congress of Ansar Allah as a designated terrorist entity and a foreign terrorist organization. The designations came into effect on January 19.

Last week (January 14), the UN's top humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, warned the UN Security Council that “the most urgent priority in Yemen right now is to prevent a massive famine.” He also noted data show that “16 million people will go hungry this year. Already, about 50,000 people are essentially starving to death in what is essentially a small famine. Another 5 million are just one step behind them.”

Lowcock also told the Council that for months, aid agencies “have unanimously opposed this designation. They believe it will accelerate Yemen’s slide into a large-scale famine.”

An interview with Dr Jean-Marc Rickli, Head of Global Risk and Resilience at The Geneva Center for Security Policy

The G|O: What will be the defense priorities of the new US administration?

JMR: There are a couple of issues that will require their immediate attention. The first will be the New START arms control agreement with Russia which expires on February 5. Its expiration would end decades of control and limits on strategic weapons on both sides. Biden has expressed he was favorable to its extension.
One can also expect the Biden administration to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty that the Trump administration quit, but the matter is complicated in light of Moscow’s announcement a few days ago to exit it. But the big question is the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The problem is that the situation has dramatically changed since Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018. The Iranians have hardened their position ever since. They have restarted their uranium-enrichment program. Hard-liners and conservatives are getting the upper hand in Iran over moderates. In addition, the Biden team has indicated that the US might want to broaden the scope of the agreement, which is a non-starter for Teheran.

What could be the way forward?

JMR: I think it might possibly involve a lessening of the “maximum pressure” policy imposed by the Trump administration to offer some economic incentive to Iran. One can also expect a significant change in the dynamics in the region as the Biden administration will not continue supporting the anti-Iran coalition that Trump has built with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The fact that Joe Biden selected Lloyd Austin, former head of CENTCOM as Secretary of Defense indicates the importance the new administration places on the Middle East, with the objective of also thwarting Russia’s influence in the region while keeping the jihadist movements in check. Given the cost of the coronavirus crisis, one could imagine that the US will resort to surrogates on the ground supported by US special forces in order to reduce the American footprint in existing conflict zones. For instance, one could imagine that the Biden administration will re-engage with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so as to continue fighting ISIS while at the same time maintaining the north of Syria out of control of the Assad regime and Russia. This would also increase the US bargaining power towards Turkey, that has proved a difficult ally in the last few years. Biden even called Erdogan an autocrat.

Should we expect a complete break with the Trump administration’s defense policy?

JMR: On many fronts, yes. I see a return to a different kind of engagement with allies, in Europe and elsewhere. The NATO bashing will stop even if the objective of having European allies contribute a higher share of their budget to the alliance will probably continue.

The biggest question is China, it’s the elephant in the room. Considering the growing assertiveness of Chinese diplomacy during the Coronavirus crisis as well as China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority and attitudes towards Hong Kong and Taiwan, I expect the US position towards China to remain confrontational. Ouvertures to Taiwan for the sake of provocation, for instance, might stop, but the US posture will remain confrontational, although I don’t expect it to escalate to a military confrontation. The escalation that we witnessed last year might soften up but there is a real risk that we might see a technological decoupling between the USA and China.

Will the US defense budget increase or decrease? Will it be adjusted to reflect new priorities?

JMR: The US defense budget is quite resilient. I do, however, see closer ties to be developed with the private sector and Silicon Valley to monitor the developments in AI and robotics, and other emerging technologies in general and to find ways to militarize these technologies. The cooperation with the private sector is likely to deepen though this presidency will have to tackle the growing influence of the GAFAM and the US government's position on trust. One can also expect increased investment in cybersecurity, considering the extent of the recent espionage operation likely committed by Russia in the Solarwind hack. And I think a major change in terms of national security strategy will be the integration of climate change into the national security formulation. This will require a multilateral approach to deal with such a risk.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas - Edited by: Paige Holt