Two visits to Geneva say a great deal about world affairs. Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Switzerland from January 15-18, 2017. During that time, Xi met with Swiss President Doris Leuthard, had discussions with representatives from international organizations in Geneva and Lausanne, and opened the 47th annual World Economic Forum in Davos. At each venue, he praised multilateralism and China’s willingness to cooperate.
There is no question that Secretary Tillerson is a busy man. And there is no question that his visit to Geneva focused on the Syrian crisis. Although on his proposed agenda, he did not meet with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, because according to ICRC press people, “en raison du calendrier chargé de M. Tillerson." Mr. Tillerson was too busy to meet with the head of the world’s largest humanitarian organization who might have had some input into discussions on the situation in Syria.
Tillerson was also supposed to meet with Filippo Grandi, the Director-General of UNHCR. That meeting was also cancelled. Another meeting that was cancelled involved the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), William Swing, a former United States Ambassador. Neither the ICRC nor UNHCR would comment on the cancellations. The IOM said it was "disappointed." Joel Millman, IOM spokesman, told Voice of America "no reason was given as to why the meeting was cancelled.”
Geneva prides itself as the world’s center of multilateralism. As a reminder: There are 165 countries represented in Geneva, 33 international organizations, and 250 non-governmental organizations. Important summit meetings such as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 have taken place in Geneva. The Secretary of State could only visit for a drop-by?
A former Secretary of State, John Kerry, made more than a drop-by to Geneva on October 20. His presentation to a select audience was filled with nostalgia for his efforts to conclude the Iran nuclear arrangement and harsh criticism for the Trump administration, specifically its efforts to unravel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Kerry’s presence and emphasis on multilateralism was a most welcome reminder that the Tillerson snub of multilateralism is recent history. The hawkish nationalism expressed in the same room by Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations – “For our part, the United States will not sit quietly while this body [Human Rights Council], supposedly dedicated to human rights, continues to damage the cause of human rights.” - has not always been U.S. policy. Ambassador Haley rightly referred to the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in the establishment of the Human Rights Commission. But her challenges to the current Human Rights Council were thinly disguised threats to withdraw, as the United States has recently done from UNESCO.
China is showing more openness than the United States. U.S. arrogance, with its “America First” agenda, has put off world opinion and highlighted its retreat from multilateral leadership.
Problems such as climate change, terrorism and refugees will not be solved by unilateralism. Resurgent nationalism may appeal to local populations and local politicians. But unilateralism will not solve 21st century global problems.
The Xi visit symbolized China’s recognition of the need for global cooperation and its desire to lead. Mr. Tillerson’s drop-by symbolized America’s retreat. Both visits were certainly analyzed by Geneva’s international community, and most probably elsewhere as well.