Olaf Wientzek, on International Geneva
This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter of May, 26, 2021
We took a literal look at International Geneva, with the help of the Concise Atlas of International Geneva 2019–2020 just published by The KAS Foundation—Multilateral Dialogue Geneva.
The Atlas is a gem of a document, packed with high-impact information presented in a compelling way; a policy wonk’s dream, and fit for a truly great quiz. Like: “What’s the ITU Council and how many member states is it composed of?” Or: “What resolution on the role of human rights did China introduce at the 37th Human Rights Council Session in 2018?” Do take a look.
The publication is organized around seven chapters, each with their own rich iconography: Global Health, Humanitarian Aid, Global Trade, Digitalization, Human rights, Flight and Migration, and Alliance for Multilateralism.
Our interview with Dr Olaf Wientzek, Director of the KAS Foundation Geneva, is below. The report itself can be downloaded in English here, or here for the German version.
The G|O: What prompted you to produce this atlas?
Olaf Wientzek: In many ways, developments in International Geneva reflect broader trends that can be detected in international politics. One motivation was certainly to underpin the sometimes abstract discourse about multilateralism and its importance with some concrete facts and developments. It is fascinating to observe which countries tend to be in the driver's seat in which organizations, who allies with whom… Some of the results confirm generally held beliefs, whereas others are quite surprising.
Another goal was to highlight the key findings of some of the reports published by Geneva-based organizations which, although very interesting, do not receive the public attention they deserve. This is a pity, because they have the potential to contribute to a more sober or fact-based debate on a national level. From our experiences, a map can say more than a thousand words—hence the attempt to illustrate some of these trends.
This is only a glimpse of what is happening in international Geneva; there are many organizations we could not cover in this issue and some developments are just difficult to illustrate. But we hope that this atlas can be a modest contribution to understanding some of the developments in Geneva, and perhaps trigger some interest in following them more closely in the future.
Who is your target audience?
OW: Anyone who is interested in developments in International Geneva, in one of the policy fields discussed here, or in multilateralism more broadly. The Geneva public will likely be fully aware of the various trends discussed in the atlas, so it is probably aimed more at a global audience, on a national or international level. The key issues discussed in Geneva are reflected in policy agendas in Brussels and in Berlin—the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights, international trade, to mention just a few examples. Our objective is to build bridges between these discussions, and the atlas is a very helpful tool as it displays some of these developments visually.
Would you say that the importance of ‘International Geneva’ is not fully recognized, and if not, what are the consequences of this?
Definitely. Sometimes it is overshadowed by New York, and sometimes the very technical nature of some of the Geneva-based bodies can be a barrier. There is often a lack of knowledge, unfortunately, as to what the organizations can and cannot do, and why certain problems inside these organizations exist. This in turn may lead either to exaggerated expectations or to a very negative image—the misunderstanding around the role of WHO in the context of the pandemic is just one example.
One of the trends you identify is an “increasing (geo) politicization of multilateral organizations. Is it fair to assume that this trend will continue, given the US’ stated reengagement with the multilateral system?
This remains to be seen; there are certainly indications of that, looking at the first session of the UN Human Rights Council this year, for instance. The US is back participating in many forums, however other big players such as China are of course not particularly eager to cede the ground they gained when the US left a vacuum in some of the Geneva-based bodies.
Can International Geneva, as a center of global governance, act as a rampart against the creation of a world order increasingly dominated by the US-Chinese rivalry?
OW: Yes and no. This rivalry can be felt and seen in various multilateral bodies. Deep interest-based disagreements between both sides will not vanish into thin air. I would, however, underline two things:
First, whilst the China-US rivalry is certainly key to explaining some blockages in international forums, it is by no means the only element responsible for deadlocks and lack of reforms. Let us also not forget that both sides—particularly the US—play a very constructive role in many areas, as in the case of the UNHCR.
Second, as our atlas visualizes, actors such as the EU and its member states (for example Germany and France), as well as other ‘friends of multilateralism’ such as Canada, Australia, Korea, Chile, Japan and the United Kingdom, have all brought forward important initiatives in Geneva-based forums.
You identify several examples and initiatives that offer hope of a renewed and reinvigorated multilateral system. Where do you see the biggest threat to multilateralism coming from, and how can it be combatted?
OW: I would emphasize three threats:
Firstly, the attempts by authoritarian states to change the narrative and the understanding of certain norms in multilateral bodies. This is particularly worrying in the area of human rights. Multilateralism should not only be rules-based, but also ‘values-based’.
Secondly, a short-sighted, zero-sum game mentality, which leads to a piece-meal approach, blocks crucial dossiers for petty reasons, and cripples reform efforts—but also leads to a continual underfunding of multilateral bodies.
Thirdly, the absence of basic trust among member states—which is a prerequisite for making the bold reforms which are necessary.
There are no magic formulas for addressing these three threats. In all cases it will take political will and courage. Achieving agreement on some pressing (and overdue) dossiers in the WTO (such as fisheries), or on a pandemic treaty later this year could be important steps towards rebuilding trust and moving away from that ‘zero-sum game mentality’. Regarding the first threat in particular, this will require stronger engagement and quicker (and more thorough) coordination of democratic countries in the various Geneva-based forums.
Should the EU be more engaged in what is happening here?
OW: The EU is already playing an important role in many organizations and is better than its reputation. One field that I think requires more attention—not only from the EU and its member states, but also from the private sector from Europe—is the development of standards in organizations, such as ITU or ISO. New technologies, which are being standardized there, ‘carry’ certain values with them. Artificial Intelligence is the prime example of a technology which can have far-reaching implications for society. We need to look at technical standards from a broader perspective, taking into consideration how they affect human rights more generally. The EU and member states have become more active in recent years and it's important to continue this approach; the EU needs to coordinate more quickly, to make its weight count and in order to forge the necessary alliances with like-minded allies.