J. DeissDo you feel as though you are helping to bring about a form of soft governance? If this phrase does not seem appropriate, which words would you choose?

If what you mean by that is governance characterized by the search for consensus rather than by imposing constraints, yes, I think we could call it that. Moreover, on two levels. First of all the General Assembly is essentially a place of soft governance: it is composed of sovereigns states and applies the principle of ‘one country, one vote’. Habitually, resolutions are adopted by consensus. These resolutions themselves are not binding, but it is assumed that as everybody has agreed, each member will make it a point of honor to put the resolutions into practice. In reality, it is not as simple as that. With regard to soft governance at the level of my position, I don’t have the power to impose restrictions. I am frequently asked why I don’t turn off the microphone when someone or other speaks for too long on unconnected topics. But one of the duties of the President is to make sure that everybody has a chance to be heard, so how could we possibly justify such an infringement of the members’ fundamental right to the freedom of speech? Ironically this sort of remark often comes from Switzerland, where, during the campaign for membership, one of the major preoccupations was to ensure that the Swiss would not lose out on sovereignty.

Would you say that as President of the United Nations Assembly it is possible to imprint one’s mark?

Yes, certainly, both on the method of working and the substance of our work, but the margin for maneuver is very narrow, and you have to make the most of it. For example, I am trying to encourage a certain working  rhythm. Right from the beginning I have made it clear that meetings should begin on time. And in the end people appreciate this punctuality. Lots of people talk to me about it. It has even become a model for the Presidents of the Committees. With regard to the subjects addressed, the agenda of the 65th session has, to a large extent, already been dictated by resolutions taken during the previous sessions. Nevertheless, it is possible to highlight certain themes, for example, I can make a declaration at the opening of the session to underline the importance of a particular topic. As President, I also have the privilege of proposing a theme for the general debate, and of organizing informal thematic debates. So, during the course of this 65th session, I am using these tools to focus the work of the Assembly on three major issues: global governance, and, more precisely, reaffirming the central role of the UNO in global governance –this is the theme I suggested for the general debate; the reduction of poverty, within the perspective of the follow-up of the MDG Summit held in New York in September; and finally, green economy.

The G20 is a very recent institution. How is it managing to fit itself into the activity of the General Assembly and the relationships between states? Why did you organize informal debates at the UN, before and after the last G20 summit held in South Korea with the presidencies of the G20 and the Secretary General participating?

Within the debate on governance and the role of the UNO, one of the key elements is, in fact, to comprehend the relationship with the G20. Let’s be clear about this, I think the G20 is a useful instrument. This has already been demonstrated by the rapid and concertedresponse given soon after the financial and economic crisis. So this is not about a campaign of G20 bashing. We need efficient mechanisms to prepare global solutions to the increasingly numerous global challenges. The UNO is often reproached for being cumbersome. Consequently, if other authorities can produce quicker responses, why not? The important thing is to make sure that mechanisms of information, consultation and cooperation between these new actors in governance and the UNO exist. This was my objective, in organizing informal debates at the General Assembly, both before and after the G20 Summit, in which the presidencies of the G20 and the Secretary-General participated. Thus we offered all member States, whether invited to Seoul or not, an informal institutional framework where they could exchange information and express views on the agenda and outcome of Seoul. It was a first step in the process of legitimizing the decisions of the G20. I am pleased that the French presidency is ready to follow the road we have opened with South Korea. I have had discussions on the subject with Mrs Alliot- Marie, Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, and with Mr Levitte, Mr Sarkozy’s sherpa. The next ministerial summit takes place in Cannes in the second half of 2011. I intend to schedule the General Assembly informal debate prior to the G20 summit much earlier than previously. This will enable the General Assembly to improve its contribution to the discussion in Cannes. Perhaps we will see other interactions of this type before the summit. In addition, my team is working on the organization of an informal debate on the theme of global governance in New York during June. One of the aims will be to explore means of revitalizing ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) to enable this important organ of the UN to play its role fully in economics and finance.

Does the absence of G20’s legitimacy as a representative body concern you?

Yes, for two reasons. Firstly, there are only a small number of countries represented, who often decide for the others. This is not admissible from the point of view of sovereignty. Secondly, because the group is informal, the list of members is not fixed and may be modified according to the discretion of the organizing country, which implies an arbitrary factor. Depending on the subjects under discussion, the G20 is more or less representative. For example, take the reform of the governance of the IMF. The G20 countries alone represent about 80% of the votes, so if they agree a solution among themselves, there is a high chance that it will be adopted when submitted to the relevant body, in this case the Council of the governors of the IMF. But if you take other spheres, such as economic development, commerce, or the economic and financial crisis, well, there we have a more acute problem of legitimacy where we need to ensure that non-members of the G20 can be involved in the process of decisionmaking. They will be affected by the decisions taken by a more limited group, so we must give them the possibility of participating in the discussion. And that is the key role of the UNO, which, with its 192 member States is an ideal structure for legitimacy.

Could you talk to us about the informal meetings you have set up? In the past, was this practice used a little, a lot?

Up to now, as mentioned earlier, I have called informal meetings, both before and after the Seoul summit, in order to establish a bridge between the General Assembly and the G20. The participation of the member States was excellent, with discussion nourished as much by the need to co-operate closely with the G20 as by the content of the agenda. In the wake of these debates, one hundred member States proposed a resolution on global governance and the UNO, a resolution adopted by consensus, and one which will allow the discussion to continue beyond the 65th session. In addition, confronted by the cholera epidemic and deterioration of the situation in Haiti, I also set up an informal debate during which the Secretary- General informed the member States about the latest developments in the country. Finally, I also organized an informal debate to enable the Secretary-General to brief the General Assembly on his recent trips and his activities abroad, such as the Cancun Summit or the meeting of the OSCE in Kazakhstan.

Are there other tools or levers which you have used, or you would like to see used, as part of the prerogatives of your post, and which, in your opinion, would benefit the functioning of the Assembly?

There you touch on the question of the General Assembly revitalization, a subject which has been on the agenda for several sessions. The President has significant tools at his disposal, and, in view of his role as representative of the member States and of ‘superfacilitator’ I don’t believe that he should necessarily be given further powers. In this way, power is limited, but there is nevertheless plenty of potential and a margin of maneuver to grasp. What matters is to make good use of it. For example, I have established regular contact with the Secretary-General, with the Presidents of other important bodies such as the Security Council, ECOSOC and the Human Rights Council. I have quickly nominated or reconfirmed the facilitators in charge of the processes of negotiation on important questions, and I have regular updates with them. Efficiency in this post also depends on the ability to prioritize and not to let oneself be distracted by unnecessary detail. It is true, though, that the prerogatives of the President may suffer, to a certain extent, from the unwieldy administration of the machine. In addition, the fact that a certain number of informal thematic debates are obligatory, as a consequence of resolutions adopted in the previous session, reduces the time available for discussions on topics suggested by the President. One considerable step forward is the election of the President at least three months before the start of the session. This allowed me to start working with my team during the summer. Another fundamental aspect to improve is the institutional memory. In the role of President, there is no rehearsal before the performance. You can only do things once, so it’s worth getting it right the first time! It is essential to thoroughly understand the inner workings of the General Assembly and its procedures, and to be aware of the current state of discussion on the various hot topics. My team is in the process of preparing a handbook for the use of future presidencies, with a view to improving institutional memory.

Does the Cancun Summit and its outcome mark the return to a policy of small steps? In spite of its difficulties, does this exercise in dialogue, this planetary, political debate have the virtues of democracy?

Are the steps taken by the international community at Cancun as small as all that? Compared to Copenhagen, it is more like a leap forward, don’t you think? Of course, at a certain moment, we nearly failed to advance at all, with one country threatening to block everything. But the fact that, in spite of everything, we reached agreement is rather a positive sign for the future of multilateral diplomacy – and remember that this happened after the Nagoya summit on biodiversity, which had already achieved some success. In my view, Cancun is the proof that we can advance, even if we are numerous, as long as the negotiations are well managed and everyone is aware that each must accept their share of sacrifice to achieve a balanced solution. Cancun has also shown us that, even in a system of consensus, a single country cannot stop the machine on its own, if the will of the others is sufficiently strong.

Do you think that the assembly of nations played its role fully in the preparations for the summit? Didn’t we neglect this opportunity for multilateral discussion? Copenhagen made a deep impact on us with the abandoning of a project for global agreement. Since then, the bilateral, the ministerial dialogues – in fact, dialogues of any geometrical form in terms of numbers of participants – have multiplied. Do you think that multilateralism needs to reinvent itself, that soft power has been overtaken, and that a smart power must prevail? (Joseph Nye, Joseph Deiss who conceived Soft Power, has laid to rest his own conception of soft power).

The Assembly is not the place for negotiation on the question of climate, which takes place within the framework of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Having said that, there have been several high-level meetings and events on climate change at the General Assembly in the past few years, in order to attract the attention of the international community to the issue. With regard to Cancun in particular, I organized an informal meeting immediately after the Summit so that the Secretary- General could inform the Assembly of the results. Yes, multilateralism needs to reinvent itself. The world of today is no longer the world of 1945, where most of the multilateral organizations around today, like the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, were conceived. Information technology erases frontiers and distances. Consequently we are confronted more and more often by challenges which are global and which can only be resolved by global action. We are also witnesses of the shift in economic and political power towards the emerging countries, who demand better representation in global governance. To take up the ideas expressed by Pascal Lamy, we must find the best articulation between legitimacy, expertise and leadership.

Pascal Lamy describes world governance as a gaseous space. What do you understand by his vision? What deficiencies do you perceive in democracy at the scale of global governance?

The gaseous state evokes the idea that the definitive face of 21st century global governance is still unknown, and that it is in opposition to the solid state of national government, whose institutions are well-defined. What seems to be sure is that the triangle formed by leadership, legitimacy and expertise exists, but that the entities which form these three poles, as well as the relationships between these poles are, to differing degrees, evolving. For example, the leadership of the G20 has been established for the present, but Seoul demonstrated the difficulty of taking decisions, even within this restricted framework. So, it is possible that the final form of the G20 will not be the one we know today. With regard to legitimacy, in my view it undoubtedly exists in the UNO, but there too, reform is underway, particularly in the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, as well as in the revitalization of the General Assembly mentioned earlier. In this ‘gaseous’ system as it operates today, above all, I note a democratic flaw in the limited representativity of certain entities, which do not reflect the new world balance. At the level of traditional multilateral organizations, reforms are in progress - take the Security Council, the IMF or the World Bank, for example. With regard to the legitimacy of the G20, as I said, we must establish an adequate mechanism of information and consultation with the UNO. For an inclusive and representative system of global governance, we have to ensure interaction with the other actors involved - non-governmental, representatives from civil society and from the private sector.

What are your priorities for the second half of the mandate?

The thematic priorities remain those I announced at the start of the term: reduction of poverty, sustainable development and global governance. We are planning a series of informal debates on specific themes in the second part of the mandate, which will allow us to address certain subjects in greater depth. For example, one debate is going to explore the relationship between migration and development. In the field of sustainable development, two debates will be set up, one on disaster risk reduction, and another on green economy, with a view to contributing to the preparation of the Rio+10 Summit taking place in 2012. On the subject of global governance, as I have already mentioned, there will be another focused debate. The internal reforms will include ensuring that the review of work carried out by the Human Rights Council develops cooperatively between New York and Geneva, so that it can be concluded by July 2011 and allow the Council to devote itself fully to its core mandate. It would also be desirable to begin genuine negotiations on the reform of the Security Council. So, that is a subject we must follow attentively. We are also going to commit ourselves to the preparation of high-level events in the field of health, in particular the high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS in June.

What’s the next subject you would you like to tackle after that?

It is too soon to say.    

Article by Jean-Christophe Nothias