Published November 12, 2020
Insights on UN75 and the Future of Multilateralism
Life rarely plays out as expected. Earlier this year, in Davos, I was privileged to kick off the first UN75 youth dialogue of 2020 to discuss the future of multilateralism from a young person’s perspective with the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. At the time, we saw the forest fires in Australia as the most convincing illustration of one of the biggest challenges of our times, and a unique case study towards new models of collaboration. We also discussed the lack of trust young people have in global institutions, since the impact of such institutions rarely translates ideas to action.
We all saw 2020 as the opportunity to look into the next 75 years of multilateralism and encourage young people to be the change they want to see in the world. Little did we know that our lives would suddenly change. A global pandemic indeed disrupted the world as we knew it. In response to the health crisis, most of our interaction shifted overnight into the virtual, bringing into light our increasing reliance on technology giants to keep multilateralism and diplomacy as we know it afloat.
The convergence of a shifting multilateral order and the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco on October 24 emerged as a unique chance to circle back to Davos, to look into the future and ask: what are the different ingredients that make multilateralism a force for collaboration to tackle the complex challenges of our days?
In this spirit, swissnex SF and the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco hosted Microsoft President Brad Smith for a conversation on the future of multilateralism, technology and governance that generated crucial insights into this issue. Here are three main takeaways:
Institutions must focus on the concrete problems they want to solve. Brad Smith reminded us that at the time of its inception in 1945, the United Nations were meant to focus on “ the preservation of peace” as its core challenge. The UN also came as a response to the fact that this very first challenge could not be addressed by a “single country, or two countries working bilaterally”. This is a simple, yet powerful reminder that multilateralism is not just about bringing together actors on a similar platform, but addressing specific challenges together.
In order to address specific challenges, multilateral institutions must be agile and flexible.They need to bring the right people around the table, especially two types of non-state actors: NGOs and the private sector. This is particularly true given the complexity of the challenges we face today. Cyberattacks are a good example. Their dramatic increase during COVID-19 times, and their increasing focus on healthcare infrastructure requires new institutions to have flexibility to bring different actors together who can contribute most to solutions. In this sense, the creation of the CyberPeace institute in Geneva is surely a good example of institutional creation bringing new actors to the table while focusing on a specific issue. This also means creating a safe space for scientists and academics to provide their unique contribution to the challenges of our days.
A third facet of multilateralism has to do with a renewed understanding of the values that unify us, in particular the respect for human rights and democratic principles. To this effect, we need to look at technology as a tool that enables us to reflect these values and ensure they bring people together to work on the common challenges we face today. In times of polarization, we should not take these values for granted, but nurture them intentionally and ensure they are commonly understood and accepted beyond specific world views and interests.
While these three ingredients are not new, their interdependence illustrates a dynamic that we need and that is crucial to the times we live in. Our institutions must bring in responsible leaders that can cook these ingredients in an innovative way, going back to the basics of why multilateral institutions exist. It is about addressing specific problems, having the institutional flexibility to bring the right people to the table and translating values into tools, processes and the relevant technologies. In the end, it is about being “institutionally agnostic” and focusing on the impact and outcomes of organizations, rather than the organizations itself.
In fact, Brad loves to remind us that it is not a new experiment. In the 1860s, technologies made warfare far more horrendous for combatants and non-combatants, giving birth to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a case of institutional innovation. This surely illustrates what Brad Smith calls the spirit of Geneva: a much needed safe space where people can set aside their differences and explore new solutions embedding our common values to address specific challenges.
In this pandemic age, as technologies are becoming an even more integral part of our societies, we desperately need similar safe spaces to explore different types of models enabling the multilateral system to best deliver on its promises, and deliver tangible outcomes as to leave no one behind. Much more, such a safe space cannot deliver on its promises without providing a special role to academias, researchers, startups, artists and entrepreneurs as frontline workers in this search for a more inclusive and impactful model of multilateralism.
Insights written by Yannick Heiniger, Head of Partnerships, swissnex San Francisco
Photo Credit: Jean-Marc Ferré / UN Photo