A serious effort is being made by the Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) to “rebrand” his organization. Michael Møller, a Danish diplomat with extensive experience in the United Nations system, is energetically trying to give new life and a new image through a host of activities and presentations.
He is to be commended. Not only does the historic Palais des Nations need a serious face-lift if not major cosmetic surgery including implants and replacements, but many of the organizations associated with the UN in Geneva, such as the Conference on Disarmament and the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round, could use some massive adrenalin (testosterone?) injections. Add to that the growing role of NGO’s, the private sector and competition from other cities for hosting conferences and organizations, and one can see that Mr. Møller has a lot on his plate. And he is officially only an Acting Director who says he is not actively competing for the regular position!
Inviting people to a party is not always simple. Besides the logistical problem of deciding exactly how many people should be invited and anticipating how many will come, there is the more subtle problem of anticipating who will get along with who. Are these people friends? Does this couple know this couple? Should we try to introduce this unmarried woman to this bachelor? Who should seat next to whom? And the list goes on.
When most people think of diplomats, they think of aristocratic families and their descendants who attend private schools like Eton, Harrow or Le Rosey and universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or ENA. When most people think of diplomacy, they think of flying on special planes, feasting at fancy receptions in elegant embassies, sleeping in luxurious suites in hotels like the Hotel Intercontinental or savoring haute cuisine meals in restaurants like the Perle de Lac.
One does not think of diplomats as being creative. However, there are situations in which creativity is needed to get out of seemingly intractable situations. The current crisis in Ukraine is an excellent example. A large country with over 40 million citizens, Ukraine appears torn between entering into a customs union with the Russian Federation and some former Soviet Republics and an accession agreement with the European Union (EU). President Viktor Yanukovich said he would sign the EU agreement in Vilnius at the end of November, then changed his mind and appeared in Russia negotiating with President Putin. No one, perhaps even Yanukovich, knows his intentions.
Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.
There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.
A question making the rounds during the shutdown in the U.S. asks: “What’s the difference between terrorists and the Republican Tea Party?” Answer: “At least you can negotiate with terrorists.” Having failed to overturn President Obama’s overhauling of the country’s health system, the Republicans are now threatening to have the U.S. default on all its payments on October 17. The Suicide Caucus, as it is known, failed over 40 times to pass bills to repeal Obamacare; now House Republicans are trying to defund the entire government.
Their motive is that any form of national health insurance is leading the country down the slippery slope of socialism, and obviously ruin. And from this position they will not budge. Led by a group of 80 or so members of Congress from safe districts, they are willing to not only furlough 800,000 federal government workers but on October 17 to have the government default on its debt obligations, which will send shockwaves throughout the world.
Walking through the old town of Geneva, I was once again struck by the plaque showing the meeting place of Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, Henri Dufour, Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir. Near the Cathedral, on the wall of a simple building, the plaque marks the apartment where the idea for the Red Cross began.
Geneva has often been called the capital of multilateralism. With about 30,000 international civil servants and organizations like UNOG, WIPO, ILO, UNHCR, UNHCHR, WTO, ITU, WHO. IPU, WMO, UNCTAD, WEF and the ICRC, there is reason for the Genevois and Swiss to be proud of a small city being at the center of so much international activity. (Even if you are not familiar with all the above initials, please bear with me for my argument.)
Security is a major if not the major topic of conversation in Geneva. Citizens are worried about their basic safety, from unexplained violence to robberies to excessive noise. Security will certainly be a major item in the forthcoming cantonal elections. Newspaper headlines scream that Geneva has become the Bronx, although as a resident of the Bronx, I find this comparison outdated and imprecise. Is it reasonable to compare a canton of 400,000 people with a borough of approximately 1,500,000?
There is another comparison that crops up that I find equally disturbing. Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York from 1994-2002, is often credited for cracking down on crime in New York City.
Last week on my way home I was serenaded twice. A group at the train station was listening to recorded music and singing. However, they were noisy and I didn't like their music. I would not have protested if an officer had asked them to move on. A different group serenaded me in the tram with musical instruments and singing. In addition, the group in the tram asked for money. I didn't protest; I liked their music and contributed. I would not have been pleased if an officer had asked them to stop and leave the tram.
"Summertime and the livin' is easy." After the long winter months and rainy spring, the fine weather encourages everyone to get out. The beaches and pools are crowded; restaurant terraces are overflowing; kids frolic in the parks; music is everywhere.
In colonial New England, the center of village life was the common green in the heart of the village. It was there that citizens met; it was there that discussions took place as well as market sales much like the Place de Marché in many small Swiss towns. The common green was a public space belonging to the people. Much like the common green, the term commons or common good refers to that which belongs to the people. It could be air, water or a common heritage of mankind earmarked by UNESCO. What is crucial to the common good is its public nature. It is something common to all but not a good in the sense of a commodity that can be bought and sold. The common good is a public good; it belongs to everyone and is not a commodity available on the market.
The Spirit of Geneva is firmly embedded in the liberal international order created by the West, and especially the United States, beginning at the end of the 19th century and particularly through the interwar period. From the Lieber Code during the American Civil War and the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Alabama Room to Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, the Spirit of Geneva is at the heart of International Geneva. And the Spirit of Geneva represents a liberal international order based on the rule of law, international institutions and arbitration for resolving disputes.
Recently I spoke with an Ambassador from one of the newly emerging world powers called the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). What surprised me in our conversation was his lack of interest in that traditional order. While recognizing the existing institutions and clearly conversant with the system itself, he kept referring to fundamental changes in the world system. In essence, he was politely telling me that the international multilateral system and the institutions in Geneva were being bypassed by other considerations.
What were those considerations? For him, they were firstly the national considerations of his country. Rather than extol the virtues of multilateral organizations, he, almost reluctantly, talked of their utility in certain situations for his home state. He was not dedicated to re-inforcing the system itself. It quickly became obvious as well that he viewed the current system as an outreach of Western imperialism. While appreciating the positive contributions of certain institutions, he was rather looking to a new world order wherein his country and the other BRICS were better represented and had more power.
In a recent editorial in the International Herald Tribune, Ian Bremmer and David Gordon write about the "Rise of the different". In describing the rising powers, Bremmer and Gordon note that "they see further development as a right, and remain more concerned with economic growth than responsible international stakeholdership..." With the United States more and more absorbed with domestic considerations, the lack of interest in international institutions by the rising powers does not bode well for a global order.
What does this mean for International Geneva? The Doha Round of trade talks has not concluded. The Conference on Disarmament is deadlocked. The Human Rights Council has little effect on the grave violations in Syria. The liberal international order had leadership and vision. That is what is behind the Spirit of Geneva and what made International Geneva. We are far from that leadership and vision today.
The Head of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation recently announced that he was seriously considering stopping the English radio channel or putting it up for sale. According to Roger de Weck, World Radio Switzerland (WRS) was no longer a priority for the state subsidized television and radio conglomerate since English was not a national language. (Disclaimer: I am a regular contributor to WRS.) Money was not a consideration since the station represented a tiny percentage of the overall budget.
December 11, 2011 witnessed a major re-organization of the Geneva tram system. Some lines have disappeared - Oh where oh where has my Number 13 gone? - while others are supposed to be operating with greater frequency. I have started meticulously timing my waits for the Number 12 since it is the only line left into the city from Carouge.
Someone took away my tram 13 in exchange, they said, for better service. I am constantly checking if that is actually happening. And I won't even mention the sprints at Plainpalais to change from Number 12 to 15! There is more physical action there running to change trams than in my gym on the treadmills.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Geneva for a short visit this week. The presence of the U.S. Secretary of State anywhere in the world is a major event. Those who complained about security measures at the United Nations Office and inconveniences in its neighborhood should be reminded of the power and importance of such events. Like it or not, Mrs. Clinton represents the world's major power - whatever that means - and is an important actor in her own right. Imagine the level of excitement if President Obama came to Geneva!
Mrs. Clinton "dropped by" Geneva in the midst of a whirlwind European tour, graphically described in the December 7 Tribune de Genève.
When we think of democracy, we often confuse free and fair elections with a democratic culture. We can organize elections, we cannot create civil society; it is something that grows over time and not every society is hospitable to a civic culture. Public spaces to meet informally are one of the critical elements of any civil society. Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, wrote a fascinating study of the relationship between the decline in social participation by Americans through an analysis of the decline of bowling leagues in the United States. The fact that people were bowling alone, according to Putnam, indicated a disengagement from active civic participation and an undermining of a strong democracy because of a "social capital" deficiency.
I mention all of this as an introduction to my current praise of Carouge, although I am sure other communes in Geneva could be referenced here. I am constantly impressed by the Saturday marché, not only because of the delicious fresh produce being sold which is a festival to all the senses, but also because of the public space where people meet by chance, enjoy a coffee or tea, and have different forms of personal social intercourse. A morning at the marché is a chance to listen to a book reading and question two politicians, exchange opinions about the news with a local merchant, or just run into friends and chat about children and grandchildren. All these informal gatherings are terribly important for a democratic culture. Putnam ties the decline in bowling leagues with a decline in membership in traditional civic organizations; the presence of political parties and petitions at the marché are positive signs for Geneva, as are the fact that a citizen shopping can sit down and even share a drink with a Conseiller d'Etat! This informal public space is reminiscent of the original town greens in colonial New England, the village commons and democratic processes that have also been a part of traditional Switzerland.
Without belaboring my praise for Carouge, who could not have been impressed by the recent 225 year anniversary festivities? Bands playing, people of all ages dancing in the streets to the rock and roll of Elvis, different ethnic food being served, a variety of entertainment, a true community involvement with thousands attending; a wonderful example of an excellent use of an anniversary for social interaction. Public spaces are important, their proper use crucial to functioning democracies. While many bemoan the dysfunctioning of national governments, we should not ignore the importance of local, grass-roots activities and public spaces and their influence on civic culture and input into democracy.
A major local newspaper last week compared the lack of security in Geneva to the Bronx. I was offended. I was raised in the Bronx and have never understood why the Swiss Romand use the Bronx as a synonym for violence and chaos, although I continually have sought the origins of this tradition.
The Bronx - I will give some information here since I assume that even those who have visited New York City have skipped the Bronx - is one of five boroughs of NYC. Its size is 109 square kilometers and the 2010 census puts its population at 1. 3 million people. We are not talking about Carouge here. Although the Bronx is one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, about one quarter of its space is open areas. I grew up next to Van Cordlandt Park, 4.6 square kilometers, which has a large lake, sports stadium, two public golf courses, riding stables, and a famous cross-country track. In addition, my neighborhood was boarded by a large reservoir surrounded by 3 kilometers of stone walls. West of Van Cortlandt Park is the very chick neighborhood of Riverdale, which contains many stately mansions with tennis courts and swimming pools as well as the prestigious Horace Mann, Riverdale and Fieldston private schools. The Bronx also has the elite public Bronx High School of Science as well as several universities. The house of the famous poet Edgar Allan Poe is in the Bronx as well as the stadium of my beloved New York Yankees baseball team.
It is true that not all of the Bronx is peace and love. References to the Bronx Zoo are not always positive and do not always refer to animals in cages. From 1968 to 1969 I taught in a junior high school in the South Bronx. On my way to my first day at the office, I passed a man sitting on the sidewalk with a rifle in his hand. People passed him going to work as if nothing was unusual. I stopped to watch. Across the street from where he was sitting was a sewer opening to drain runoff water. From time to time, rats would run out of the sewer and he would shoot them. No one seemed surprised or upset at what I soon learned was a daily occurrence. And indeed, the South Bronx was, at the time and still to some extent, like a city bombed out after a war. There was a movie made entitled "The Bronx is burning," and a novel and movie were made about the famous 41st police station in the South Bronx nicknamed Fort Apache. Tom Wolfe immortalized the South Bronx in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
In short, I would not object if the headlines screamed "Geneva has become the South Bronx". But, please, be able to distinguish and specify. After all, not all Geneva is like my Carouge!
The citizens of the Republic and Canton of Geneva have spoken. Having made some comments on the campaign, which had most interesting feedback, I will now venture some comments on the results:
The mood at Uni Mail on Sunday was festive in the sense of a large gathering of citizens celebrating the democratic process. The hall of the University was like a large town meeting - or in the classic American equivalent village green - with people of different parties mingling with journalists and concerned citizens. It was all extremely informal, face-to-face, with Pascal Decaillets and the team of Leman Bleu playing their role as public broadcasters. It appeared to be direct democracy at its best.
The pronouncements by the winners and losers were less than inspired. Once again, as with the campaign, emphasis was placed on the political parties, alliances, winners and losers. Very little was said about competence or accountability. If the majority of the executive of the City of Geneva is on the left, how should they be judged before the next election? They are in power, and thus responsible. Who will get what department? It is one thing to talk of campaign slogans, it is another to hold those elected to their words. American pragmatism says that Candidate Obama promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; President Obama has not done that, and there are people who remember. Officials should be judged on bottom-line results, not slogans, ideological pronouncements or impressions. Having a majority, such as the left in Carouge, means that the electors expect performance. There are fewer excuses now. The Democratic Party in the United States was not able to pass a national budget when they controlled the Parliament and the Executive and they were punished by the Republicans in the new Congress. Victory has a price.
I attended a celebration of one of the parties Sunday evening. Lots of joy and congratulations. I was reminded of the famous line by Robert Redford at the end of the movie "The Candidate" just after he had won. He turns to an assistant and asks, "What do we do now?" Campaigning and governing are not the same thing. There are excellent campaigners who are poor administrators and vice-versa. Those concerned citizens who were at Uni Mail on Sunday would do well to be vigilant towards those in power. Direct democracy involves not just voting, but holding those in office accountable. I am surprised that the local papers do not analyze the votes of Geneva's representatives in Bern. Vigilance towards those in office is as important to a direct democracy as the voting procedure. Let the process of accountability begin.
April 18, 2011
Recently, Barack Obama announced the beginning of his campaign for the 2012 US Presidential election, 19 months before the election itself. Many in Switzerland were surprised that the announcement was made so early. People were also surprised when experts predicted that this would be the first campaign to cost over one billion dollars; Obama's 2008 campaign cost approximately $750 million, a record at the time.
The elections for communal executives in the Canton of Geneva are scheduled for April 17. Last Saturday I made some observations at the market in Carouge and Place de Molard, fascinated by the low-key aspects of the campaigns. I have participated in several political campaigns in the United States, and am always impressed by the Swiss system. Several people asked me to compare the two campaign styles and I will make some short observations, acutely aware of differences in size and my lack of professional expertise here.
A great deal of time and energy is spent on discussing the political parties positioning and alliances. The situation in Vernier seems to be a flagrant example. However, much less time is spent talking about the competence of the candidates to direct certain departments. Since departments are chosen among the elected, it would make more sense to see how competent people direct specific departments. This is certainly true as well at the cantonal and national levels.
The actual division of departments also is intriguing to a foreigner. On the cantonal level, department titles and responsibilities change with the elections. Again, one would assume that departments are assigned logically. One would also assume that not all executives are competent to run all departments.
Although I presume there is complete transparency behind campaign funding, little attention seems to be given to making public where the money comes from. Elaborate signs on trams from one party may indicate more resources, although it is not necessary that more money spent will win an election.
The United States has two major parties and the differences are generally clear. The proliferation of parties here makes it difficult to fully comprehend what each party stands for. In addition, a party's position in one canton is not necessarily the same as in another.
Finally, the idea of a militia government means that executives have other jobs. Does that affect their decisions? There are ethical questions here that are not at all evident.
In general, I find the campaigning extremely low-key, with the population having easy access to the candidates. I find the public debates on television such as Leman Bleu and in the media somewhat helpful, but the level of discourse, like in so many other places, often strident and unnecessarily personal. I am often asked to explain the American electoral system here in Switzerland. Since there are many foreigners in Switzerland, it would be interesting to see if clear explanations of the voting system here were available to the large foreign population.
There is little polling before the vote so we will all watch if there are major surprises April 17. Because of extensive polling in the United States, there are few surprises.
April 11, 2011