The Syriza-dominated government is a loner in the EU. However, not far away, there is Russia, a country that is ready to give an unconditional support to the fresh force in Athens. That makes this puzzle interesting: The new Greek government is a leftist and very secular one. The Russian Federation is a legal but not ideological successor of the late Soviet Union. So, what is the link missing here? Well, following lines could shade some light on the peculiarities of less visible, though ancient, links.
It was the African playwright, Wole Soyinka, who said that “what politics demonizes, culture humanizes”. In regions like the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe; which, with no doubt, have complicated sociopolitical particularities, politics are often overrun by cultural forces; and Religion always falls within the realm of culture. Since the dawn of human civilization, religion and politics are inextricably interwoven; with the religious leaders having often the last saying, due to the fact that they are holding an inter-temporal sociocultural power. Or, as prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic remarkably concludes on causalities in his ‘Quantum Buddhism’ manifesto: “reality must result from some elaborate interaction of consciousness with its environment”.
This is often so, especially in the Middle East, Euro-Mediterranean, South-Eastern Europe and of course in Greece – where religious politics were always playing a cardinal role in intra and inter-state affairs. A special case that deserves attention is the diplomatic role of the Greek Orthodox Church (GOC) as an interfaith mediator in the region through the course of history and in contemporary times.
Before getting to the merits, let me to clarify that when I refer to the GOC Christianity, I aim at the Greek Orthodoxy (GO) as a spiritual and cultural manifestation, which is channeled through Her various Institutions across Europe, the US, North Africa and the Middle East.
Among the most important and most influential of those institutions are the three Eastern Patriarchates (Jerusalem, Alexandria and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) and the Monastic communities of Mount Athos, of St. Aikaterini in Sinai and of Jerusalem.
Those institutions have been highly influential throughout the centuries and shaped the face of today’s GO. They survived and upheld the Greek Orthodox traditions and values for centuries, in places seemingly alien or even hostile to religious pluralism. Despite all odds, and despite the ever shifting geo political circumstances, the GO managed to secure the respect and the acceptance of different faith traditions, and was therefore able to broker numerous political deals employing interfaith dialogue as a diplomatic tool.
The GOC was forced to develop and perfect interfaith dialogue as means of communication with Her friends and enemies. It was necessary for Her survival.
The skills and channels established through centuries remain useful until this day and can be used to shape and transform the political landscape in Middle East and Europe.
During my research, I came to the conclusion that the GO bares several characteristics of a successful international mediator. I identified five of those characteristics that I would like to share with you.
The first characteristic is legitimacy. Legitimacy is crucial for a mediator, because it helps him to be accepted as such by the conflicting parties. The GOC derives Her legitimacy from her familiarity with the respective cultures and from her knowledge of the political and social dynamics of the countries where she resides. Let me explain.
Every political negotiation is necessarily a cultural event, and as such it always bears the self-evident, commonsense perceptions that people have about their world and about themselves. Therefore a conflict situation or a negotiation is driven and defined by the by sociocultural identities; which, those who participate in the conflict or a negation, construct. The Understanding of how these identities are formed is essential for conducting a conflict transformation process.
The GOC has a broad understanding of the national and regional history and culture and more importantly of the negotiating language of the respective societies. This is only possible because the GO is in an underlying relationship with the different faith traditions and sociocultural identities, especially due to Her longstanding, respectful and discrete presence in the societies in which She is imbedded. Hence, She is considered as a legitimate intermediary, when she acts within the realm of interfaith diplomacy.
The element of legitimacy consequently, functions as the source of trust building, which is another essential feature of the GOC as an interfaith mediator. Without trust the GOC could never be accepted by the conflicting parties as mediator, and trust is not established over months, it needs centuries to grow and manifest. Trust is the key to the GOC diplomatic power.
Furthermore the GOC presents itself and is perceived as neutral and impartial; that is because the Orthodoxy’s survival largely depended and depends in the maintenance of a certain status quo; hence, the GCO has developed as a neutral observer and impartial interlocutor.
Another aspect of the diplomatic power of the GOC is Her ability to advance the political standing of others (a good example for that is the use of Athonite Monks in the last election campaign of V. Putin, who utilized them, in order to appeal to the religious and ethno-nationalistic sentiment of the voters.)
Furthermore the GO also possesses a wide network of contacts: mainly through the Diaspora and the respected Metropolises. That is why She can easily serve as a “back channel” for state officials, especially when the political relations are burdened with problems.
In order to understand the GOC’s role as an interfaith mediator, I believe it is necessary to see the history of the GOC’s engagement in interfaith diplomacy. There are many countries in which the GOC played an influencing mediating role. I would like to illustrate some of the most prominent examples.
In recent modern history the GOC played an essential role during the Cold War. To begin with, She was promoted by the Western states as a cultural and spiritual counterweight to the Soviet Union and the Russian Orthodoxy. Indicative of the GO’s influential position, is the fact that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox post-Soviet states chose to submit to the spiritual leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; not the Patriarchate of Moscow. It was important, for those states and for their western interlocutors, that they cut the cord from the ROC and the Soviet politics.
The GOC was an actor of diplomacy that could achieve both pulling those nations towards Europe, and keeping the ROC from moves that could further regional tensions. That was in particular the case, because the GOC had close ties and positive history of cooperation with the Churches of Western Christianity (let s not forget that the GOC was founding member of the World Church Council and passionate advocate of the Ecumenical Movement); while, Mount Athos, on the other hand, had good communication channels with the Russian Religious and political leadership.
These same properties of GO interfaith diplomacy have the potential of playing a positive role towards the stabilization of the current overwrought diplomatic relations between Russia, Ukraine, EU and US.
Another example of GO interfaith diplomacy is Egypt. The monastic community of St. Aikaterini in Sinai, along with the Patriarchate of Alexandria, has been playing for centuries the role of mediator in intra-state conflicts between the Muslim and Coptic communities. That is because GO is considered as legitimate and trusted facilitator, due to the fact that the Egyptian people recognize the GO as part of their history and culture. For example, during periods of peace, the Greek community in Egypt was fasting along with the Muslims during Ramadan. At the same time, Mount Sinai is protected in times of turmoil by local nomads. The mediating legitimacy of the GOC remains strong in Egypt; even after the recent revolution and the continuous changes of regimes.
One of the biggest bearers of the GO interfaith diplomacy potential in the Middle East is the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Patriarchate has upheld the Greek Orthodox character for over 1700 years. It is one of the most accepted mediators in the Jew-Arab conflicts, not only because it bears moral legitimacy and neutrality; But because it is one of the biggest owners of land across Jerusalem. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians prefer the Patriarchate to own the land, than to fight over it between each other, allowing it to be an equalizing power in the region.
Besides any material leverage, it is of crucial importance to illustrate further reasons why the GO is considered as a legitimate, credible and impartial interfaith mediator in the Middle East in general. First, the GO has a positive place in the collective unconscious of the people in the Middle East, regardless of faith; because the GOC never participated in Crusades and because the Greek state was never a colonial power.
Furthermore, the Arab-Muslim world views the GO as part of their glorious Golden Age; She participated in and witnessed the development of the Arabic culture, especially through the preservation and advancement of the ancient Greek philosophy and science. As a matter of fact, the majority of the Church reconstruction works across Middle East and North Africa are largely funded by Arab Royal Families. And interestingly enough, in the beginning of the Greek financial crisis, the first move of the GOC was to travel in Qatar and negotiate Arab investments to the ravaged Greek economy. This shows how deep the understanding and mutual respect between the two cultures and faith traditions is and how good of a political network the GOC has in the Muslim world.
The Jewish people on the other hand have always been in a positive and productive cultural dialogue with the Greek civilization throughout centuries. Moreover, even when the global public opinion towards Israel was not favorable, the Greek state’s diplomatic approach towards the Jewish state never changed; thus, creating a sense of trust between Israel and the GO.
Last but not least, I would like to make a special reference to the case of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and its role in the relations between Turkey, Europe and Greece. One would expect the Patriarchate to act as a major facilitator of communications between the Turks and the Greeks, for the purposes of constructive conflict management and reconciliation of the peoples; however, historically the Patriarchate has demonstrated neutrality and a position of passive observation!
Nonetheless, thanks to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the great diplomatic cooperation that had developed with the Turkish government throughout centuries, Turkey permitted the reopening of several GO monasteries in her territory. This facilitates the proliferation of GO pilgrims that besides the boosting of local Turkish economies, also contributes to the interaction with the local populations and enables the building cultural bridges and hopefully an even greater understanding of the two nations.
Moreover, the Ecumenical Patriarchate acts consistently as Diplomatic organ of the Turkish Foreign Policy. For instance, it is the main religious mediator in Brussels promoting the European future of Turkey; also, having in mind as well, the advancement of its own legal status within the EU. In conclusio it is legitimate to say that the Ec. Patriarchate promotes a positive view of Turkey and the Islam in Europe.
As illustrated throughout all the references of interreligious activities of the GO, it appears that there is huge potential of the GO in international diplomatic affairs. Unfortunately the Greek state is not being consistent regarding the strategic approach towards the GO outside its borders. That is because there were always more urgent political issues to devote her political attention. It is, however, shortsighted, as the GO, through her interfaith and interstate diplomatic network, can give Greece a strategic advantage in international diplomacy. It would be wise for the present and the upcoming governments to finally develop a consistent- long term policy regarding the GO, that it is not conceptualized only for the next years but at least the next decades to come.
*This text is based on a speech given at the conference organized by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), on the occasion of the World Interfaith Harmony Week, 06 February 2015, UN Vienna, Austria.
Covid19: Upgrading Diplomacy and Statecraft to prepare the new normal
The world is abruptly changing and this requires adaptation. The transformations are targeting not only individuals and specific countries, but the entire international ecosystem. The pandemic will only accelerate the trends we have seen for years in global politics, so the window of opportunity is closing for those who want to play an increased role in the post-Covid world, but do not fully understand or master the tools necessary to succeed in such a complicated context. I will sketch some of the elements that diplomats and decision-makers involved in international politics have to consider as they seek to navigate the new contours of power politics. Beyond talk of wolf warriors or video summits – and fatigue – diplomacy deserves a strategic comeback during and after corona: international affairs professionals needs to be conversant in both the old and new paradigms; in Western, Eastern, non-aligned and Global South vernaculars; and in both technological and old school human terrain navigation. To well serve their countries and organizations, diplomats (and also, as intellectual framework providers, Diplomatic Academies and Institutes) will have to be more adaptable than ever and willing to quickly learn and deploy new tools and techniques.
In this quest, one first has to acknowledge the challenges on the substance (beyond communications issues, such as disinformation in the latest form of the infodemic) and understand that they pose problems we never had to face before. Climate change will bring about coastal entropic systems collapse, desertification and food insecurity, with potential consequences related to increased refugee influx, civil wars and inter-country tensions. Pandemics are also here to stay: Covid19 is only the first major outbreak of this decade and, with the right technology, almost any country with minimal biotech capabilities can turn sneezing into anti-personnel weapons. Catalyzed by great power competition, deglobalization, protectionism, and the restructuring of global value chains, non-market and imperial economics revival will become a staple of the new era. Tech dominance and informational supremacy will be a highly sought after prize and the competition will only increase. Strategically, with the rise of China and a relative decline of Europe and the US, we should be ready for a world order that values a different type of multilateralism and is polycentric and non-Western based. The Gulf, as an ambitious global hotspot abundant in global and regional medium powers, is watching power shifts closely and adapting its strategies and actions accordingly. It also has, via Saudi Arabia and its chairmanship of the G20, a key role to play in “annus horibilis” 2020 global solutions.
Institutional transition and reform is complicated not so much because of inertia, but because since World War Two we were asked to focus and solve one problem at a time, by keeping all other variables constant. Given the above mentioned changes, to cater to institutional transition needs, we have to develop our capabilities to include the most unusual and un-practiced skills and knowledge that now has become, in our estimate, a must have in order to navigate from an age of certainty to a state of continuous flux. By being programmed to combine technological foresight, cultural intelligence, transversal inter-generational multicultural and integrated disciplinary approaches to statecraft and grand strategy, diplomats 2.0 (during and after corona) will be ready to engage comprehensively with a wide range of situations, geographies, and objectives. Research and innovation in international relations, grand strategy, statecraft and identity development strategies should be combined with communication efforts that integrate tools related to cognitive patterns discovery, subversive frameworks neutralisation, and multi-stage communication strategy development.
Organizations need to function more like networked capabilities and teams of teams, rather than relying on traditional multi-tiered track diplomacy and traditional engagement practices. In my experience, the more non-central and non-mainstream actors are, the more they will engage asymmetrically. Furthermore, their engagement tends to be more reputational and personalised than the traditional Western expectations of structure, objectivity, and calculated gains would have us believe. For a long time, with the exception of the actions of great powers, the policy and academic discussion has focused on how the international environment overwhelmingly shapes domestic politics. The international will continue to matter, but we will see a strong pushback from national politics to shape the conversation in global affairs. Diplomats, as the platform between the state and the rest of the world, are on the forefront of meeting the challenge. The context of economic crisis and uncertainty generated by the pandemic will mean additional pressure on mainstream parties and a threat to political stability, so populism and protectionism will also affect diplomatic action, and nationalism diminish diplomatic efforts.
Based on the experience of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the Nordics and the Baltics, one can encourage International Relations and Diplomatic institutes and academies to develop general public content and training to increase societal resilience, governance and democratic literacy, and citizen esprit de corps. From an elements of power perspective, these vectors need to be developed within every national strategic studies institution to complement the traditional areas of preparedness for which nation states prepare. Five topics are particularly important, in my opinion: T-profile development of people: transversal, interconnected, broad knowledge, with one vertical in depth (versus the current extremes of either breadth or ultra-specialisation); Bellingcat type of skills for information acquisition from OSINT, use of digital means, and understanding of online behaviours (social media aggregation and analysis would also play an important role); increased attention to global Architectures and competition between “Old” and “New” global and regional organisations; IP Diplomacy that focuses on networks of innovation, capital, technology and entrepreneurship – today, intellectual property diplomacy is practices by a handful of countries currently (Singapore, Switzerland, China, Israel), but will become the cornerstone of future exchanges, the same way Silicon Valley is for tech, and NY for global capital. Last but not least, each MFA Academy and IR institute should create its own simulation of the world based on AI, behavioural and statecraft modeling capabilities, and its own „handbook of world views and strategic interests”. Interestingly, in context, wargaming and redteaming of policies and strategic decisions are currently under development in a handful of institutions and will start rolling out to national security establishments towards the end of 2020.
All these points are relevant especially for countries that want to punch above their weight, both regionally and globally, especially current middle powers and aspiring middle or great powers. But they also carry lessons for other states, in case they want to deal with the pressures and risks attached to great and middle power competition in a diplomatic-efficient manner.
Beyond Twiplomacy: Diplomacy and the Digital Fast Forward
The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.
Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.
Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.
As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.
Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.
This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.
A Dose of Communicative Multilateralism
Authors: Elizabeth Deheza and Srgjan Kerim*
The COVID-19 blame game is underway and it has already severely inhibited the implementation of a co-ordinated, multilateral response to fight the coronavirus. When the need is greatest for international cooperation and collective action to confront the most severe global challenge since the Second World War, world leaders are moving away from globalisation and public trust in international institutions is evaporating. We believe this divisive behaviour has been compounded by the lack of clear communication between the World Health Organization (WHO) and Member States and that ‘communicative multilateralism’ must play the central role in beating the virus.
The WHO, a United Nations (UN) specialised agency, has a mandate from its 193 Member States to provide science-based recommendations to protect human health worldwide. The agency had been calling for better preparedness for epidemics or pandemics long before the current crisis, highlighting the vulnerability of many healthcare systems towards such crises. Unfortunately, when the moment arrived, the absence of a clear and simple communication framework and common understanding between the WHO and the Members States undermined previous work and the goodwill the agency once enjoyed.
When several cases of pneumonia were first reported in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, the WHO noted the new threat and started independent epidemiological investigations to understand the cause. WHO’s communications stayed close to China’s official line and even endorsed a preliminary investigation that the virus might be limited to animal-to-human transmission, despite warnings from Taiwan of the possibility of human-to-human transmission.
Later, on 10th January, the WHO released an interim Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) guidance note for Member States and on 14th January it warned hospitals of the possibility that the virus could spread between humans. On 20th January China confirmed human-to-human transmission and after a further ten days of deliberation, while the virus was already spreading internationally, the WHO declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) – one of its highest levels of alert under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), a legally binding agreement between Member States to work together on global health security. At this point, several Member States became anxious, but most did not have a clear idea of what a PHEIC alert actually meant in the context of their response.
On 4th February, WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the world had a “window of opportunity” to invest in prevention and control as there were a limited number of confirmed cases outside China. By 21st February Dr Ghebreyesus called the international community to action as “the window of opportunity was narrowing”. How did Member States really interpret this message? Was the international community really grasping the idea that we were about to miss the last opportunity to contain the spread of the virus? Was it already too late?
As February rolled into March, the WHO highlighted a huge shortage of equipment for frontline healthcare around the world and finally on 11th March, nearly three months after the first reports, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Throughout April, the WHO made desperate calls to global leaders to put aside any differences, step up collaboration and act in unison. However, by this point, some Member States were struggling to stay ahead of the virus and could only think of themselves, instating measures to protect their citizens and borders without the time to consider a concerted multilateral response.
At the time of writing, with over 5.2 million coronavirus cases reported globally, more than 336,000 deaths and many more unreported cases, the pandemic still rages on. While China claimed to have recovered from the virus, its north-eastern city of Shulan is currently in lockdown after a cluster of coronavirus cases emerged, fearing a second wave. Meanwhile, its political adversary on the issue, the United States, has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases with more than 95,000 deaths, the highest in the world. Other regions like Europe are slowly emerging from strict lockdowns but in Latin America the number of confirmed cases has passed half a million and continues to rise, with Brazil the worst affected.
This is the first truly global health crisis that “We the Peoples” have suffered since the foundation of the UN: every citizen of the world is at risk. The pandemic has forced governments to impose draconian restrictions in an attempt to mitigate the collapse of their public health systems while simultaneously injecting unimaginable levels of capital directly into their economies to soften the financial impact. And yet, if all the governments had rapidly coordinated their responses, collaborated at an early stage and acted in unison, the global impact may have been contained and the recovery period shortened. Moreover, if clearer communication had come from the WHO in a more timely fashion, even the most self-interested and ill-prepared Member State would have known what pre-cautions to take as the viral threat grew and their citizens could have held their governments accountable.
The wider UN has also been lacklustre in its response. Who better than the UN to digest WHO’s early warning messages and convey the right message to its Member States? Who better than the UN to orchestrate a coherent global response through its Security Council (UNSC)? “The UN has a huge role to play in bringing together countries and people during these trying times,” says Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum, to ensure that “no one is left behind”.
There are 3 articles of the UN Charter that clearly determine the UN’s role in such emergency situations: Article 13 refers to the UN General Assembly’s role in initiating international cooperation on economic, social and health issues, Article 57 describes the need of engaging specialised agencies, such as the WHO, and eventually under Article 99, the UN Secretary General must bring forward any matter which may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council. Unfortunately, to date, the UNSC has not produced any meaningful statement to tackle COVID-19 as efforts have been obstructed by political conflicts between the U.S. and China.
While the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has referred to the pandemic as “the biggest challenge since the Second World War” and has acknowledged that “normal rules no longer apply”, the General Assembly started to address COVID-19 only in mid-March and its response has not passed beyond a non-binding resolution that called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the coronavirus.
Despite WHO’s leadership through the SARS, MERS, Ebola, Avian Flu outbreaks and its extensive knowledge of past pandemics throughout history, Member States have voiced their frustration at the WHO’s handling of the pandemic. One of the organizations biggest donors, the U.S., has even suspended its funding and has threatened to withdraw its membership if substantial changes are not made. Other countries, such as Australia, have requested more transparency and an independent investigation of the causes of the coronavirus outbreak. A resolution, presented by the European Union (EU), on behalf of 100 Member States, called for an independent inquiry into the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and was approved at the first virtual annual assembly (WHA) of the WHO’s 194 members on 20th May. The day before, on 19th May, an interim independent review on the WHO’s conduct and response to the virus was released by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.
Communication is the most important tool in any international crisis and ‘communicative multilateralism’ must be at the core of all response strategies. The IOAC report calls for “greater global solidarity and stronger multilateral cooperation” but a close reading of the recommendations underlines the clear need to improve the clarity of the communication framework between the WHO and its Member States.
‘Communicative multilateralism’ has also been at the heart of suggested reforms by the IOAC report to the WHO’s response framework. It has been reported that some Member States do not consider a PHEIC declaration a “sufficiently clear trigger” due to its broad coverage between a small outbreak and a pandemic. Alpo Rusi, a distinguished Finnish diplomat recently told us, “A more effective early warning system needs to be urgently set up at the UN”. There have been other sensible calls for change including, “a stepped level of alerts and galvanization of response measures added to the IHR” and “IHR-nominated focal points in governments to adequately raise the alarm”, that must be heeded.
Additionally, the people must be able to hold their governments to account and how can they do this without clear and simple communication, well defined categories of alert and detailed response measures from the WHO? “Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the health and economic well-being of our society. As individuals, we have readily conceded life-changing decision-making to our leaders, and we now assume and indeed expect them to do what is in our best interest”, exemplifies Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum.
The IOAC’s recommendations provide the opportunity to explore further the mechanisms already in place and well known by Member States that could “trigger” a much needed sense of urgency that the WHO tried but failed to convey to the international community. Lessons could be learned from other disaster response strategies, for example, there are clear and simple categories of alert to the likely effects of hurricanes and earthquakes that have been tried and tested for over 50 years and are widely understood by governments, scientists and the public alike. There are clear lessons that the WHO and the UN can learn from such natural disaster response systems.
There is a general understanding that this pandemic will have far-reaching political, economic and social implications. Parag Khana, an expert on international relations told us, “If we are lucky, the world will pass ‘peak virus’ within the next six months. But the economy, governments, and social institutions will take years to recover in the best-case scenario. Indeed, rather than even speak of ‘recovery,’ which implies a return to how things were, it would be wise to project what new direction civilization will take. That too will be a bumpy ride. The next 3-5 years will remind us that COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder”.
There are opportunities to improve following any crisis but before we transform the way society has functioned for hundreds of years, we must determine whether multilateralism and globalization is to blame or if there are other weaknesses in the system that have led us here, such as an alarming weakness of national economic, social and health systems?
We must be careful that rising geopolitical tension is not exploited by some national political elites as an excuse for imposing inward-looking policies and strategies. This may bear fruit on the short- term but will be counterproductive longer-term. A shift to nationalism would disrupt global supply chains of goods and services, doing harm to economies of scale and the provision of aid which will worsen health security. World leaders must step back from knee-jerk reactions to retrench and instead should come together in order to pursue modalities of international cooperation.
Clear communication channels only work if the message is simple and the recipients are educated on the subject. While the IOAC’s recommendations call for “more robust use of WHO collaborating centres around the world, expert networks, such as technical advisory bodies, and public health institutes”, we believe that they should be more ambitious and aim to strengthen the understanding of health systems and pandemics within schools, universities and the public at large. As for the international organizations such as the UN and WHO it must be clear: reforming them and updating them to the requirements of the globalized digital era necessitates ‘communicative multilateralism’ and the launching of ‘Verified’ by the UNSG António Guterres on 21st May, to create a cadre of “digital first responders” to fight misinformation, may be a positive step to adjust.
* Srgjan Kerim, President of the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly, is a seasoned diplomat, scholar and businessman with more than 30 years of international political experience as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia. Mr. Kerim began his academic career as a professor of international economics at the University of Belgrade. In addition, he was a visiting professor at the University of Hamburg (Germany) and at New York University. Mr. Kerim is also a recipient of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Award and has been decorated with honours by nations such as Italy, Germany, Austria, the U.S. and others.
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