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Multilateralism and Diplomacy in an Age of Disruption

On 5 November, the participants of this year’s CAS in Foreign Affairs & Applied Diplomacy met in Zurich to celebrate completing their continuing education course, which is already in its fifth year. To enable them to immerse one last time in the world of international relations, Corinne Momal-Vanian, Executive Director of the Geneva-based Kofi Annan Foundation, was invited to Zurich to share her insights on multilateralism and diplomacy in the age of disruption.

Momal-Vanian speaking at the UN

Momal-Vanian served as Special Assistant to Kofi Annan in 2005 and 2006 and worked for a total of six years in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. She was Director of Conference Management at the United Nations Office at Geneva (2015 – 2020) and Director of Information (2010 – 2015). Image: UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré, 2018

Momal-Vanian started her presentation by talking about multilateralism, an institutional concept coordinating relations among states based on agreed principles of conduct, as defined by John Gerard Ruggie in the 1990s. The world has changed a lot over the last few decades, which has not only affected the global balance of power but has also led to the emergence of new interpretations of multilateralism. Momal-Vanian served in the UN for over 30 years. Recalling her time working at the UN headquarters in New York in the 1990s, she described it as being characterized by optimism and hope after the end of the Cold War. Global governance was perceived as a positive force. In those extraordinary times, the UN succeeded, for instance, in expanding its peace-keeping operations significantly from a previously very limited level. In recent years, there has been a major shift with the very visible rise of China as a major player in the multilateral system: The People’s Republic has overtaken Japan as the second most important contributor to the UN, and Chinese nationals are in the top position at four of the 14 specialized agencies of the UN.

Diplomacy Today: Broken and Disconnected?

Over the past five years, serious doubts have emerged as to whether the multilateral system is still able to make good on its promises. There has been no major multilateral agreement since COP21 in Paris. The international system seems broken. The UN was unable to find a solution, for instance, for the deadly conflict in Syria. There is a lack of cooperation on many newly emerging issues. This absence of leadership at the international level reflects today’s diplomacy that, from an outsider’s perspective, seems broken and disconnected.

One example: Although there is a lot of talk about gender balance, and while the UN Secretary General has appointed a balanced cabinet, the truth is that most decision-makers at the UN are still male. In Geneva, about 30 percent of the ambassadors are female – that is progress but still not a reflection of the reality in terms of the world population. Beyond that, little space is given to young people in the world of multilateralism. A lot must be done to make diplomacy more inclusive and representative.

A Glimmer of Hope

At the same time, recent developments offer hope: Travel restrictions due to the pandemic have helped to accelerate digitalization in diplomacy, for instance, with the first hybrid session at the Human Rights Council in Geneva taking place in June 2020.

According to Momal-Vanian, there is an awareness that cooperation is needed to work on emerging technologies, be it via the AI for good initiative or in the context of the courageous Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), which participants of the CAS visited during their excursion to Geneva. Concerning gender balance, good platforms such as the leadership network International Gender Champions, have also been created.

During the pandemic, Geneva has been able to demonstrate its strength as a well-functioning knowledge cluster: Research at CERN on how to measure aerosols (the spread of droplets), for example, proved useful to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Momal-Vanian also noted that the more technical the topic, the easier it tends to be to find a consensus. This conclusion supports Switzerland’s intention to support Geneva as a place to accelerate science diplomacy.

The event concluded with a Q&A on a wide range of topics. On the issue of Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition due to organizations such as the ICRC, it ended with the call for diplomats not to give in to cynicism but to hold on to their high principles and remain optimistic – despite all challenges – in order to contribute to a better world.


Florian Keller, Head of Program CAS Foreign Affairs & Applied Diplomacy, International Management Insittute