Extreme polarization has not led to paralysis in Geneva
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.
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.”