The End of International Geneva? (27/06/2012)

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.


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