Samia Nkrumah speaks at the 2018 Rhodes Forum next to Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, Prime Minister of Guinea. (via: bit.ly)

Held under the theme ‘Making multilateralism work: Enhancing dialogue on peace, security, and development’ on the island of Rhodes, Greece, on 5-6 October 2018, the 16th Rhodes Forum drew together policymakers from a wide variety of countries, renowned experts from different disciplines, and representatives from international media and the business community.

The aim of the conference was to present fresh ideas and solutions for the world’s most pressing challenges, and to develop concrete and actionable policy recommendations. The Rhodes Forum examined the threats faced by multilateralism and developed ideas on how cooperation can be revived in areas that require global attention. One major topic of the Forum was also the challenge and impact of rapid technological change on societies.

Several keynote speeches, a leaders’ club meeting, panels, roundtables, and press conferences filled the two days of the conference. Speakers at the Forum included Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany (1998-2005); Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel (2006-2008); Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, Prime Minister of Guinea; Vera Songwe, Cameroonian economist and Executive Secretary  of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa;  Mario López-Roldán, Secretary of the OECD-Greece Joint Steering Committee; Dominique de Villepin, Former Prime Minister of France; Dimitris Avramopoulos, Greek politician and EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship; Samia Nkrumah; President of the Kwame Nkrumah Pan-African Centre; Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia and Special Representative of the President; Mary Dejevsky, writer and broadcaster for The Independent and The Guardian; Sophie Hackford, CEO of data and AI company 1715 Labs; Rob van Kranenburg, Co-founder of Bricolabs and Founder of the IoT Council, the largest independent IoT think tank; Justin Lin, Chief Economist and Vice President of the World Bank (2008-12); Mehdi Sanaei, Iranian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary; Georgios Katrougalos, Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece; Robin Wright, Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace; Renaud Girard, International columnist at Le Figaro; Angelos Pangratis, Adviser to the European External Action Service; and Stefan Grobe, Chief Correspondent for Euronews in Brussels.

Building inclusive multilateralism

Although the opinions which were presented during the conference varied, the message was clear. In many respects, globalisation has not lived up to its promise of delivering economic wellbeing and progress for all. Policies of the past few decades have failed to address the problems of the 21st century in a systematic and strategic way. Tendencies towards unilateralism, driven by opportunistic self-interest at others’ expense, as well as a lack of strategic long-term thinking, have generated a variety of intertwined problems, which today make continuing on the same track impossible. New challenges, conflicts, and economic, political, social, and cultural changes are shaping the world in a way that is becoming more complex, insecure, and unpredictable.

The main message of the Forum was that resolving the world’s most pressing problems – from poverty, inequality, and climate change, to protracted conflicts, mass migration, and religious extremism – requires enhanced cooperation and solidarity between global actors. It was acknowledged that multilateralism can only truly work if it is inclusive and beneficial for all. A more balanced world order and a multilateral system that allows equitable participation, diversity of values, and nurtures an atmosphere of dialogue is the only possible way to achieve peace, stability, and prosperity. The lack of responsible and strong leadership around the world is one of the key obstacles to achieving this.

One of the reasons for the current situation is that the shift towards a multilateral world order has not sufficiently been taken account of by some of the most important international organisations, former Ambassador of India, Ashok Sajjanhar, emphasised. The UN, for instance, is still working with instruments which were designed for the 20th century. He stressed that these instruments clearly need to be changed and appropriately adapted.

In terms of how to rejuvenate multilateralism, Mario Lopez-Roldan, Secretary of the OECD-Greece Joint Steering Committee in the Office of the Secretary General, made the following point: It is essential to connect multilateralism with the people. Representatives of civil society must be included in the process – especially trade unions, business associations, social movements, and NGOs. Otherwise, societies may see the development of anti-social tendencies which would be dangerous to further development.

Attention was also drawn to the fact that while rising powers must be given a louder voice, one must not forget that the United States has been and will remain a key player in the international system. Yet at the moment, with Donald Trump’s rejection of multilateral practices and alliances, the United States represents a corrosive force when it comes to multilateralism, Robin Wright, Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, argued. Nevertheless, if the US wants to remain a relevant player on the international scene, it will have to leave the path of unilateralism. As Renaud Girard, international columnist at Le Figaro, pointed out, without being an active part of multilateral structures and institutions, states are not able to project power for sustainable impact on world affairs. Sooner or later, the US will have no other choice but to resume multilateral policies.

Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany (1998-2005), described the European Union as the world’s most advanced multilateral player. He expressed confidence that the EU would survive its recent challenges, most notably Brexit and the non-democratic trends in some Central and Eastern European member states. “This EU will survive, and it will flourish”, Fischer said.

Managing interests in the European space of common security

A panel discussing the future of the European security architecture and relations between Russia and the West lamented the EU’s limited ability to be a strategic actor that shapes international affairs. In fact, as Alexey Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Science, argued, the biggest threat Europe is facing today is its increasing marginalisation from the global arena. Unless the EU becomes a true subject of international affairs, it will be difficult for other centres of power to build a more effective and functioning world order, Gromyko said.

The lack of political will in both Russia and the West are key obstacles to overcoming the current deadlock. In order to make progress, fundamental questions which have plagued Russia-West relations and hindered the building of a common security order, will have to be resolved. One such question is the unknown future of so-called ‘countries in-between’, i.e., countries that are neither part of Russian nor Western institutions. The Western Balkans were highlighted as a region with high potential for conflict. Ensuring that the region does not become a breeding ground for crises will require a new security architecture that takes the specifics and needs of the region into account and ensures close relations with the EU, the US, Russia, and Turkey.

Repeating the mantra that dialogue is needed between Russia and the West will not lead us any further. Instead, concrete, actionable, and realistic solutions must be presented to decision-makers. One example proposed by the panel include the creation of a European Security Council that would also include Russia and Turkey. The panel also supported implementing the idea of a UN peacekeeping mission as potentially a last hope of achieving progress in the Ukraine conflict. Due to the fact that the visions of Russia and Ukraine on the structure and format of such a peacekeeping force differ, one possible solution could be to combine them, by placing the mission on the line of contact – as proposed by Moscow – and gradually expanding it into the wider territory of the Donbass, as demanded by Kiev.

In the Middle East, co-existence is key

The keyword that should guide any solution to the crises in the Middle East – as elsewhere – is co-existence. It was argued that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only realistic solution. However, in order to achieve this, strong leadership and political will on both sides are indispensable. Settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important for the Middle East as a whole and would foster greater opportunities for the multiple crises which the region suffers from being resolved.

The speakers discussed the Syrian conflict’s emergence and development against the background of a multipolar moment. The fact that it has become a proxy battleground for external powers is one of the key obstacles to resolution. Settling the crisis in Syria will require efforts by all actors involved. A realistic solution is needed that will be sustainable over the long term, hence once that recognises realities on the ground, such as the fact Sunnis constitute the majority of Syria’s population.

The majority of the Middle East’s young generation is educated: this was acknowledged by speakers as a potential factor towards achieving substantial changes towards peace and security in the future.

Unlocking Africa’s potential

Apart from the conflicts and problems plaguing the Middle East and the European continent, the challenges of security and development which Africa deals with, received particular attention during the Forum’s ‘Summit on Africa’. The Summit was attended by African politicians as well as representatives from the EU, Russia, and China, who reflected on African countries’ potential and the issues the realisation of this potential. The main message was that while Africa is diverse, with more than 50 countries, a pan-African approach to development is a viable alternative to the individualised approach implemented after decolonisation. Through economic integration, the continent can become stronger and overcome the disadvantages brought on by the arbitrary national boundaries drawn by European powers. It was pointed out that small and medium-sized companies are key for developing a sustainable economy in Africa, rather than large international corporations. According to Prime Minister of Guinea Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, the agricultural sector is the future: African countries have the potential to produce far more food for the continent and would therefore have to import less food than at present.

Strategic decisions for sustainable change

One of the highlights of the Forum was the Leaders Club Meeting, during which leaders from around the world and the chairs of T20 convened to discuss topics from this year’s G20 Summit, which was chaired by Argentina. The meeting was particularly dedicated to the impact of technology on the future of work and the development of infrastructure. One important aspect of this context was the essential need to change the way we think about and relate to work. The line between work and leisure will become increasingly blurred for numerous white collar workers, and the fact we will work less due to automation and AI needs to be addressed in policy-making. In order to respond to the challenges of technology in the long term, access to the internet, proper education, and retraining that prepare the current and future workforce for the job market will be key.

With regard to infrastructure, it was concluded that the often centralised one-fits-all approach adopted by international institutions which finance infrastructure projects does not account for local particularities. This is one reason why infrastructure projects in the emerging world have not always been successful. The fact that many market players are only interested in short-term gains has a detrimental effect on infrastructure projects over the long term. Because governments are normally interested in long-term outcomes from infrastructure projects, the government is therefore a very important player in the field of infrastructure. More focus should be placed on the long-term effects of infrastructure projects, as the generations to come will sometimes be the first to benefit from projects begun by generations before. Metropolitan areas have to do more to absorb Co2-emissions because they are responsible for around 70% of pollution.

Shaping the impact of technology

Digitalisation is profoundly changing the world we live in; this is of concern for business people, policymakers, and societies more broadly. This was discussed and acknowledged by speakers at the Forum during a number of sessions on topics related to the impact of technology. It was pointed out that technology by itself will not save us; we need a new, radical policy. Against the fear of how technology – despite all its benefits – may have detrimental consequences, the good news is that policymakers can indeed shape the way technology will affect our lives. The speakers agreed that the human aspect of the world cannot be subsumed by AI and automation. It is also important to reconsider the way we think about robots and Artificial Intelligence, so that we do consider them as something completely separate from us. This sort of technology should be incorporated gradually so that it does not cause a massive disruption to the status quo.

Inequality needs global attention

The need for multilateral action also applies to the fight against inequality. One panel, which explored the phenomenon of economic inequality, came to the conclusion that it can be addressed effectively only when it is tackled at the global level. Efforts to resolve the problem solely at the national level are doomed to fail. The speakers warned of the far-reaching consequences of rising inequalities, pointing to their potential as fertile ground for social tensions and populism. So what can be done to reverse this? It is one of the key challenges of our time. The panel proposed that governments provide some social support for the poor to encourage social mobility, especially by making education free and easily accessible. The speakers further suggested that governments re-implement progressive taxation policy by increasing marginal tax rates.

The role of the private sector in promoting dialogue is key

In a special session, the role of foundations and the private sector in promoting dialogue was discussed. The starting point of the discussion was that the private sector is an undervalued agent of positive change and international diplomacy. In fact, commercial activities have contributed to cultural and humanitarian achievements. At the same time, investing in communities and promoting peace is essential for the success of companies. Nevertheless, cultural and humanitarian initiatives that lack a commercial incentive will still depend on action from philanthropic organisations. The panel proposed that large international philanthropic and commercial organisations follow a ‘venture capitalist’-type approach to promoting and amplifying successful initiatives delivered by smaller organisations that achieve humanitarian or cultural value.