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The UN or The WEF: the secret battle of Lake Geneva


The Geneva Observer - with Jamil Chade


November 3, 2020


NEWS - ANALYSIS



This article was first published as part of our newsletter briefing sent out on Friday November 3, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content the moment it's published, straight in your inbox.

There is a consensus in Geneva that, in a post-pandemic world—and maybe already in a mid-pandemic world—a reset will be necessary to revive multilateralism and international cooperation, to strengthen the economy, and to act decisively on climate change. But if there is a consensus on the need for a reset, there is a real dispute going on behind the scenes. Reset to what and by whom? UN or the WEF? That is the question. We’ve picked up on a polite but firm tug of war between the banks of Lake Geneva, happening over the WhatsApp and Zoom calls of power.



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Lockdown 2.0 may have closed international organizations, but diplomacy has not stopped, and neither has the jockeying in this turf war, in spite of the repeated assertions by our interlocutors that it is not so clear cut. Opened virtually on Monday (November 2), the Geneva Peace Week is a flagship initiative of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform in collaboration with the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), and five partners, and is supported by the Swiss Government. Its mission is to "galvanise leadership, build trust and contribute to transforming international cooperation in the wake of COVID-19". More precisely, this year’s edition is dedicated to "Rebuilding trust after disruption: Pathways to reset international cooperation." ‘Reset’. The term encompasses what is feverishly sought both in New York and Geneva. The UN-led multilateral system is the "natural stage" for the post-pandemic world to be redesigned. Starved of resources and its ability to deliver openly called into question, UN leaders want to use the pandemic to remind the world of their organisation’s inescapable role and relevance. António Guterres told the UN’s General Assembly that it was "our own 1945 moment.” For more on this, Antonio Patriota, former Brazilian Former Foreign Minister and a UN Ambassador under Lula da Silva, makes a strong case for the UN, while positing that it should be thriving in the multipolar world (on The G|O’s website).


The button is ours, claims the WEF


But on the opposing bank of Lake Geneva, the World Economic Forum argues that its annual event has gained new relevance in the face of the crisis. Even before knowing where and when its next event would happen, the WEF had already announced its theme would be “the great reset” of the planet, positioning itself as the stage for the debate on the ‘world we want.’ Led by the WEF’s Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab, the organizers believe they are the only ones who can bring the biggest companies in the world around the same table as political leaders. But it’s not just the global situation that would give them such legitimacy. Within the organization, voices indicate that the new status of the Forum, recognized as an international organization, widens its scope for action.

Regrets, I’ve had a few ...


In 2019, Guterres silently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the World Economic Forum, recommitting the UN to the WEF 20 years after Kofi Annan’s announcement of the Global Compact in Davos in 1999. The UN-WEF MoU was proudly displayed on the WEF website, but hidden away on the UN’s. The logic behind Guterres’ move was to find support among the most influential people on earth, at a time when the UN is under pressure from Donald Trump. Today, many inside the system question the move which, in practice, could have opened up a path of no return, giving the Forum the tools it needs to play the role of main stage.

Real obstacles for both sides


Critical voices in Geneva point out that both sides suffer from a fundamental obstacle to exercising a (in the case of the WEF, self-proclaimed) leadership position: legitimacy. On the UN side it is legitimacy of output. WHO’s hyper visible mistakes, the UN’s overall inability to overcome its bureaucratic burden, low accountability, and a paralyzed Security Council, place the system in a position of fragility. Seemingly trapped in every decision, the dispute for hegemony between Americans and China is undermining the UN’s central role. Although the WEF’s output is criticized as well, it also lacks an essential component for legitimacy: democratic accountability and civil society participation—and there is currently no sign that the oracle of capitalism is ready to open up in this way. If the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging by next summer’s WEF meeting in Burgenstock, we could see a replay of the January 2008 Davos WEF. At that meeting, nine months ahead of Lehman Brothers, many were aware of the challenges facing the financial system. Instead of a reset, the world could still be in crisis control mode. If part of the story involves the world’s failure to coordinate an international fight against the virus, those participating at the meeting will be ultimately and collectively responsible, and their ability to command the reset button will be further called into question.