Power trips - Issue 70 - Magazine | Monocle

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The diplomatic city that is bouncing back

Set above the placid waters of Lake Geneva and surrounded by parkland, the ivy-covered Château de Penthes hosts the Geneva School of Diplomacy, a small private university where eager young minds grapple with international law. It is a world away from the conflicts of the Middle East and elsewhere but for the best part of a century Geneva has been a centre for diplomacy. It was the venue for the creation of the League of Nations and the UN has its European headquarters here.Yet when the school was established in 2003, Geneva’s place as a diplomatic capital was under threat. Hundreds of international organisations may have still had bases there but decisions tended to be taken elsewhere. Geneva was not a place where diplomats rushed to be posted.

That has begun to change. A series of high-profile talks has put the Swiss city back in the spotlight. In recent months, the West’s big guns of diplomacy descended on the Swiss city to hammer out a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear programme and talks to halt the ongoing carnage in Syria are expected to be held lakeside. For a new generation of humanitarians, the lure of postings to far-flung corners of the world has been dampened – Geneva is, once again, on the up for diplomats and peacemakers.

“The power is in Washington, Moscow and Beijing but there isn’t anywhere in the world where it overlaps like here,” says Colum de Sales Murphy, president of the Geneva School of Diplomacy. “There are over 200 organisations in this neighbourhood: UN, wto, who.”

A 32-year UN veteran who spent tours in war-torn Somalia and Bosnia in the 1990s, the latter of which saw him negotiating truces with unsavoury types such as General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, Murphy founded his university 11 years ago within sight of his former employer. He works to place students into internships at diplomatic missions, UN agencies and the 200-odd ngos based in the area.

“Geneva has always been important but it is trendy now. This is the place to start a career in international relations. And it is paradise, with the lake and skiing close by.” His school’s recruitment paraphernalia features a 21st-century take on the finger-pointing Uncle Sam poster, once used to enlist troops, with the phrase: “We want you to save the world.” Courses cover migration, water rights and Russian foreign policy, and guest speakers include Nobel Peace Prize winners and China’s foreign minister. For Swiss undergraduate Renuka Keiser, 21, the appeal of being close to the decision-making process was a big draw. “Geneva is where you have civil society represented. The ngos are here lobbying the UN. You have friends who are sons and daughters of diplomats.”

Being a hub for the international community means big business for the city government, with chf5bn (€4bn) spent locally by people employed at embassies and international agencies. To keep occupants happy, officials have been upgrading infrastructure to prevent agencies from defecting. The ageing Palais des Nations complex, once home to the League of Nations and now seat of the UN, has leaky pipes and draughty windows – the Swiss government has offered chf50m (€40.9m) for renovation work. Tellingly, the recent Iran nuclear talks saw late-night negotiations held at the plush five-star InterContinental nearby.

Still, Geneva’s attractiveness outweighs the negatives, including the city’s tight housing market, which forces many to commute in from France. “Geneva is like a Swiss bank: it’s the capital of trust and discretion,” says David Harland, executive director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The non-profit foundation specialises in conflict mediation, making initial contact with combatants, often in jungles or dingy basements, to find ways to bring warring sides to the negotiating table.

Operating out of the 18th-century Villa Plantamour on the lake shore, a former stomping ground of legendary seducer Casanova, Harland and his team try to entice rebel leaders into ceasefire agreements. Young staffers alternate between desk work and days where they might be sitting with feuding tribal leaders in a village in southern Libya or dispatched to the highlands of Nigeria. “A generation ago, you had to make a decision about being at headquarters or on the frontline,” says Harland. “Now with technology and improvements in transport that has become blurred.”

For programme officer Francis Ward, 27, who previously worked in Afghanistan as an aid worker, the chance to work in the field and have Geneva’s enviable quality of life was hard to turn down. “We go in and out [of places] so we don’t have a heavy footprint like the UN. The work is varied and there’s travel.”

Up the road at the Palais des Nations, home to more than 4,000 UN employees, staff navigate long marble hallways adorned with clocks from Patek Philippe. When monocle visits, delegates are discussing the convention to ban landmines. In a fifth-floor wing, far from the debate and translators’ suites, sits the little-known United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Here, Ben Baseley-Walker, 30, heads a unit within the agency that studies potential flashpoints between member states. Researchers crunch numbers and organise conferences to bring together military, civil servants and private corporations to tackle issues such as cybersecurity and the threat of space junk colliding with countries’ satellites.

“Diplomacy is no longer about a guy on horseback wandering into the long grass to represent your interests somewhere,” says Baseley-Walker. He’s right, it’s not. But whether on horseback or around a table, diplomats need somewhere to rest their head at night. As we went to press it was announced that the delegates for the Syria talks would have to stay in nearby Montreux – a luxury watch fair had taken up all the rooms. For Geneva’s comeback to be complete, it may need to invest in a couple more hotels.



Southeast Asia

The country with increasing diplomatic clout

Until 2011, Burma was widely shunned by the West as a “pariah state”, run by brutal generals and their harsh, secretive regime. People were locked up for daring to even utter the name of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi; electronic surveillance, censorship and social control were pervasive. Now it is a diplomatic darling that seems to punch way above its weight in the world of international relations.

These days, Suu Kyi sits in parliament and also travels the world as the “democratic icon” celebrity. Burma’s low-key president, Thein Sein, a former general, is also received in leading Western staterooms, not least at the White House by US President Obama in mid-2013.

Correspondingly, in the past year, Naypyidaw, the bizarrely designed capital, has become a diplomatic magnet. The hectic pace will only intensify in 2014, as Burma makes its diplomatic debut as chairman of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In step with its growing profile, famous politicians, investors and personalities are often seen in Yangon’s top hotel lobbies, which buzz with large conferences and business events.


Yonaguni  Island


The military base to watch in 2014 

Yonaguni is Japan’s endpoint: any further southwest and you’re in Taiwan. So remote is Yonaguni from mainland Japan that the Ministry of Defence never gave much thought to protecting it – at least until the rise of China started to pose awkward questions about the vulnerability of Japan’s outlying islands.

All of a sudden Yonaguni is firmly on the geopolitical map. The Chinese don’t claim Yonaguni itself but they do claim the nearby Senkaku Islands, now one of East Asia’s most notorious flashpoints.

As a result, one of Japan’s main security plays in 2014 will be establishing a new Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) base on Yonaguni, making the island the new frontline in the tussle with Beijing. So far, ¥15.5bn (€109m) has been earmarked for the base, which will serve as an advanced listening post for the monitoring of Chinese ships and aircraft. The MoD will station around 100 troops there initially but has yet to reveal whether it will add further capabilities, such as anti-ship missiles, once the base is fully operational.

The stakes are arguably highest for Yonaguni itself, after the islanders voted narrowly in favour of accepting the JSDF base in 2013 following a “yes” campaign led by Mayor Moriyoshi Hokama. The island’s population has dwindled from a high of 12,000 in the 1940s to just 1,500 today and the locals hope the influx of JSDF money and personnel will reverse fortunes – even if the island becomes a potential target.

However, Gavan McCormack, a professor at Australian National University and observer of Okinawan affairs, argues that the security costs of the JSDF presence are likely to outweigh the financial benefits, as the people of Yonaguni contemplate “their island being wiped out by Chinese missiles”.




A new home for Germany’s intelligence agency

In the 1970s, Germany’s intelligence service – the Bundesnachrichtendienst (bnd), which reports directly to the Federal Chancellery – first considered moving its HQ, established after the Second World War in the small Bavarian town of Pullach, to Bonn.

The move never happened but that is perhaps a good thing, considering the turns German history took. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989; the government moved to the once-divided city 10 years later. By 2003, a new decision to move the bnd’s central offices to Berlin was finalised. It would take a further decade though before they could even think about moving.

In 2006, builders broke ground for a complex that will house 4,000 secret service employees on a 10-hectare plot (the land, in Berlin-Mitte is not far from the Museum of Natural History). It will be one of Germany’s largest administrative buildings, with work surfaces equal to 35 football fields.

“The outside of the building is nearly finished, but outfitting the buildings’ interiors to security standards still needs some time,” says bnd spokesman Ralph Schlitt, explaining that simply moving all the employees to the central location is scheduled to take a year and will occur in shifts.

Intelligence agents will work in sleeker, more modern digs and much closer to the Chancellery. With upcoming bnd expansion in the field of technical surveillance and with a focus on “more transparency” in light of this year’s surveillance scandals, it all makes perfect spy sense.

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