Can International Geneva survive the Covid-19 geopolitical fallout?

Jean-Marc Rickli (Credit: Le Quotidien Jurassien)

The current Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the limits and shortcomings of multilateralism, with many states taking unilateral action to respond to the pandemic. As host to more than 30 international organizations, hundreds of NGOs, thousands of meetings and conferences, is International Geneva’s multilateral ecosystem in danger? Or will it be able to adapt to the geopolitical realities of the 21st century? Dr. Jean-Marc Rickli, Head of Global Risk and Resilience at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) has some answers.

The Geneva International community stood out for its deafening silence during this crisis, can’t it do more than that?

«International Geneva » is largely composed of the United Nations and affiliated institutions. The UN is a collective security organization reflecting the interests of its member states. So, if states and especially the five permanent members of the Security Council decide to go about their national interests, there is not much the UN can do. International Geneva through the World Health Organization, notably, acted during the crisis but states interests demonstrated the limitations of its power. What is new with this crisis, is that International Geneva has been grounded operationally because of the ban on physical contacts. This has largely prevented meetings and negotiations which are the working principles of International Geneva.

What geopolitical realities does Geneva International face?

Since 2017, the US shifted to isolationist policies, limited their contribution to international organizations and left a number of treaties. At the same time, China has become more active internationally. Four of the 15 UN specialized agencies are headed by Chinese nationals. By becoming an active actor of multilateralism, China is also trying to stir debates and define a normative environment that supports its aspirations. With his Belt and Road Initiative, [Chinese president] Xi Jinping is also projecting power by reactivating the old Silk Route from Asia to Africa and Europe. The Chinese defense budget has increased by 85% from 2010 to 2019.

Does Covid-19 leave us in a less safe place?

Our perspective on security is largely based on the idea of countering threats through defense. However, our globalized and interconnected world is no longer characterized by threats, but risk, i.e. the probability that something bad might happen. The scope of risk is much broader than threats, and risks are very often connected. It is simply no longer possible to defend against all risks. Thus, we need to shift to resilience or the ability to absorb a shock. Understand where the centres of gravity of any systems or organizations are and how to keep them functioning in degraded situations. The Covid crisis has highlighted the limitations of our resilience because of our critical dependence on global supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing.

Could the next crisis be a military one?

The pandemic has not created new security threats, as such, but has exacerbated lingering tensions, as catalyzed for instance through the Chinese-American dispute over the WHO. In addition, as the USA is showing less global leadership, some states might use this as an opportunity to become more active by intervening directly or indirectly through surrogates such as in Yemen or in Libya. Great powers do not want to go to war or open a new front. Yet, in more volatile world, an incident has the potential to create a chain reaction.

Towards which system – fragmented, bipolar or based on international cooperation – are we heading?

We are at an inflection point in the international system where the unipolar moment inherited from the end of the Cold War is coming to an end. It looks like we are entering a duopoly system. Yet, we can also see elements of an apolar system characterized by the fact that no single state can dominate all areas of power. What is really new here is the emergence of non-state actors such as multinational companies - GAFAMs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and BATXs (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi) on the Chinese side – and transnational non-states actors that are increasingly challenging states’ sovereignty on a global level.

Is Geneva International up to this new geopolitical dynamic?

To reflect the geopolitical structure of the 21st century, we would need to reform the Security Council but this has proven impossible as the member states can never find an agreement. Also, the problems we are facing now are much more complex because of non-state actors. For instance, in terms of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) or synthetic biology, multinational companies very often are much more advanced in research and developments than states. We need a global governance system that take them into account to regulate these new fields and the UN is really not wired for that. Decisions are taken by states but in reality, practices are largely defined by these companies.

Is Geneva’s multilateral ecosystem in danger?

If the nature of the multilateral systems changes and slows down it could have an impact on Geneva. Yet, Geneva, because of its critical mass, is in a very advantageous situation. However, other countries and cities would like to attract new governance institutions dealing with emerging issues. For instance, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) has established its Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in the Hague. In 2017, private actors such as Apple, Amazon, Google’s Deepmind, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft, created a multi-stakeholder organization, the Partnership on AI based in San Francisco. For International Geneva to keep its lead, it will have to increasingly integrate these new actors.