Disarmament Insight


Sunday, 8 July 2007

Is there a Geneva / New York divide?

Bob Dylan played a sold-out concert in Geneva recently, mixing songs from his latest album, "Modern Times," with some of his old classics, including "Like a Rolling Stone," which contains the following cryptic lyrics:

"You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat..."

Nobody quite knows what this means, and Bob isn't giving any clues. I prefer a straightforward interpretation: The female subject of the song riding through Manhattan on a Harley Davidson driven by, well, a diplomat; possibly from South-East Asia (which could explain the Siamese cat reference).

All of this set me to thinking about the very different experiences that diplomats dealing with disarmament and arms control must have in Geneva and in New York - apart, that is, from featuring or not in Bob Dylan songs.

On one level, diplomats posted to Geneva and those posted to New York are supposed to be doing the same thing: defending their national interests in the face of competing interests of other countries and, in the process, providing and demanding concessions in order to squeeze the collective national interests of UN Member States into the frameworks of multilateral agreements.

On another level, however, New York and Geneva are like chalk and cheese (excuse the pun). New York is the political epicentre of the United Nations. The city is famous for its fast-paced, no nonsense, in-your-face way of doing business. Geneva, on the other hand, is the United Nations' workshop for disarmament and arms control with a reputation for being quiet and laid-back and with a history of promoting humanitarian causes. These contrasts must translate into quite different experiences for diplomats posted to each place.

But what if it goes further than that? It seems to me that differences between the political environments and ways of working in Geneva and New York is opening up a divide between the two UN centres that is making it harder for creative ideas on disarmament developed by States in one place to gain traction in the other. What a ridiculous idea, I hear you say. Surely diplomats, no matter where they're posted, will be following the same set of instructions from their Capitals, making it inconceivable that policy inconsistencies could develop between Geneva and New York? This is a reasonable view. But it doesn't match up with what we are seeing.

Geneva is less politically-charged than New York. Its permanent missions contain a much higher proportion of disarmament specialists. Also, disarmament diplomats in Geneva have a greater degree of informal interaction with non-governmental experts than do their colleagues in New York. All of this naturally translates into a good number of ideas and initiatives on disarmament and arms control being generated in Geneva. These aren't always well received in New York, however. I suggest that there are two main reasons for this:

First, while all 192 members of the United Nations are represented in New York, only 158 have permanent missions on Geneva. States without representatiion in Geneva are mainly developing countries, many of them from Africa and the Pacific. This makes it more difficult for proposals developed in Geneva to gain traction in New York, particularly if they concern conventional arms control issues with important humanitarian, development and assistance dimensions.

Second, proposals generated in the relatively calm and specialised Geneva environment often fall victim to the political maelstrom of issue-linkage and horse-trading that characterises United Nations politics in New York. This process is sometimes helped along by plenipotentiary Ambassadors who, on occasion, exercise their powers in New York by sacrificing "made in Geneva" initiatives on the alter of some higher national priority, despite that fact that their own country may have played a role in developing them in the first place.

All of this begs the question, what can be done? Apart from Geneva-based actors becoming more politically savvy and New York-based people becoming more willing to accept proposals from outside their sphere of influence, I'm not sure. I would be very interested in hearing other people's views on this, particularly those of diplomats and others working in New York.

Is there a Geneva / New York divide on disarmament and, if it does exist, what can we do about it? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind...

Patrick Mc Carthy


Photo Credit: Bob Dylan by legduma on flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/legduma/457080723/