| | Interview

Ignazio Cassis: science and diplomacy key to inclusive development

Switzerland's foreign minister Ignazio Cassis at an event to mark the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter, at the United Nations in Geneva, 26 June, 2020. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Last year, the Swiss government launched an initiative aimed at bolstering Switzerland as a future hub for global governance and multilateralism. Breakthroughs in science and technology were identified as a field likely to play a major role in the future of diplomacy between countries - as seen this year with the race to mobilise the world’s best scientific institutions to create a vaccine for Covid-19.

The result was a new foundation, the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), that would identify the latest scientific advances likely to shape society over the next 25 years and then come up with ways to apply those findings to modern-day challenges.

Read: Geneva Science and Diplomacy foundation reveals its next steps

Ignazio Cassis, the head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, has been one of the lead instigators of the initiative. He answered Geneva Solutions’ questions about science, diplomacy, and global governance issues shaping international Geneva.

You have been one of the driving forces behind GESDA and in positioning Geneva as a future hub for science multilateralism. It is an ambitious vision: do you think it is one that can be achieved?

Today's world is undergoing profound change, partly due to technological development. This is not new. The world and ourselves as human beings have constantly evolved throughout history. This time, however, the changes are happening at an unprecedented speed. The role of GESDA is to anticipate these changes, to recognise the challenges they pose and the opportunities they present, so that the international community can act effectively in the interests of the world's population. This is not a matter of predicting the future, but of preparing our society for it in the best possible way. As a well-established hub, Geneva favours a coordinated response to global challenges and allows advanced technologies to be put at the service of an inclusive development that enables the social and economic potential of all sections of the population to be realised.

CERN is an example of science as a diplomatic endeavour – is Switzerland aiming to create second CERN?

CERN and GESDA are proof that science knows no boundaries. CERN is an institution that bases its strength on the common language of scientists around the world. Switzerland is proud to host CERN and supports it in disseminating its "Science for Peace" model, as it does, for example, with the Sesame Project in the Middle East or with SEEIIST in the Balkans. GESDA shares the values of scientific diplomacy with CERN. However, the tasks of the two institutions are different; GESDA is not CERN. Instead, the two complement each other in their work for a strong and inclusive society.

One element of GESDA is the creation of a new Geneva-Zurich Center for Science Diplomacy, how do you see science diplomacy as an effective tool for foreign relations – especially in the context of Covid-19?

Covid-19 has shown how important global answers to global questions are. Many of the challenges of our time – including not only the worldwide pandemic, but also the climate as well as the migration crisis or the food security of the world population – can no longer be solved within rigid national borders. The link between science and diplomacy is becoming increasingly important if we want to put advanced technologies at the service of integrative development. The Centre for Science Diplomacy is one of the institutions that is working on strengthening this alliance. Science can serve negotiation with innovative instruments, which is particularly important in today's world where international exchanges are increasingly complex and technical.

Switzerland has just launched its digital foreign policy strategy. What is your vision for this and where do you see the best chances for Switzerland or international Geneva to influence policy in this field?

Switzerland is a country of innovation. World-leading technology companies are based here. With its technical universities and research institutes, Switzerland is at the forefront of research into digitalisation. At the same time, Switzerland enjoys a high degree of trust and a good reputation internationally, based on its neutrality and good offices. It is a country, which can build bridges and facilitate mutual understanding. These qualities make Switzerland, and International Geneva in particular, the ideal hub for promoting the establishment of shared rules and enabling technological development in the interests of all.

Do you think international Geneva as a centre of multilateralism can survive in the context of current challenges? (UN institutions under existential and financial pressure, Covid-19 and the rise in remote working, cancelled conferences, high living expenses, competition from other cities?)

The world needs shared solutions, today more than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the absolute necessity of international cooperation. In an area of 10 square kilometres, Geneva brings together the knowledge, expertise and experience of a large number of international entities, public as well as private.. They challenge each other, put ideas to the test and work together on new ventures to help shape a resilient society capable of dealing with the unexpected. The special ecosystem of International Geneva increases the efficiency of international cooperation and development and therefore indirectly reduces its costs.

What do you see as the best path for reform of the multilateral system and how can Switzerland help shape that?

Switzerland is convinced that international organisations need clear mandates, in order to efficiently reach their goals and act in an effective way. They need to be well managed and serve the purposes of member states. Several organisations are currently carrying out reforms in this direction, which Switzerland supports.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a key institution here in Geneva, yet it is under enormous pressure to reform. Can it survive – and can "international Geneva" survive without a functioning WTO? What was Switzerland’s position on the US veto on the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo Iweala as director-general and what was does a Biden administration mean for the WTO?

The WTO is of great significance for International Geneva.  Likewise, the WTO's trading system is a very important pillar for Switzerland's economy, which is strongly oriented towards foreign trade. In the difficult circumstances of a global health crisis, the rule-based multilateral trading system of the WTO must be maintained as the central authority of international trade policy and, where necessary, strengthened by reforms. The appointment of a new director-general by consensus is therefore important. Constructive cooperation between all WTO members, including the US, is essential to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

And same question for the WHO: how do you see the US role on the global health stage changing under a Biden administration, which has pledged to recommit to the organisation?

The US has always played a central role in creating and developing the multilateral system. The announcement by President-elect Joe Biden and the US commitment to participate in the international debate on the future role of the WHO are strong signals in favour of multilateralism.

What are Switzerland’s new ambitions and goals in terms of its relationship with the UN?

Switzerland's policy in the UN is consistent and has always been based on fundamental values such as the rule of law and the humanitarian tradition, which are deeply rooted in Switzerland's DNA. A more secure, stable and prosperous world is in the interest of us all.

As for our goals in the relationship with the UN, Switzerland expects the same high quality standards that it offers, based on stable, fruitful, predictable and focused exchanges.

Switzerland’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council is moving ahead, nine years after starting the process. Why is it important now for Switzerland to hold this seat? Is it compatible with Swiss neutrality?

Switzerland’s political functioning is based on the union of different cultures, languages and opinions. This quality of bridge building is already one of Switzerland's great strengths on the international stage. Our neutrality, in this sense, is an advantage. The seat on the UN Security Council enables Switzerland to make greater use of its many years of experience as an accepted and globally respected bridge builder – for more peace and security in our world. Therefore we have chosen the following slogan: A Plus 4 Peace.