The multilateralist spirit of the secret ‘summit of spies’

The meeting of heads of intelligence agencies held in Singapore symbolizes the attempt to keep the multilateral framework alive in an increasingly conflict-ridden world

Andrea Rizzi
Avril Haines
Avril Haines, U.S. National Intelligence Director, in November 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.JOSHUA ROBERTS (Reuters)

The world is on a path of fragmentation, fierce competition and confrontation in which multilateralism based on shared rules appears badly compromised. The relationship between the two great powers — the United States and China — key to any global progress, is conflictive. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing was a source of some hope but public statements appear to have darkened the immediate horizon after President Joe Biden compared his counterpart, Xi Jinping, to a dictator on Tuesday. Despite belligerent discourse, credible prospects for multilateral dialogue persist.

Among these was a secret meeting held in early June in Singapore among senior members of the intelligence services of two dozen of the world’s most important countries on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, as revealed in an exclusive report by Reuters. Among others, the meeting was attended by representatives of the U.S. intelligence services (Avril Haines, National Intelligence Director), India (Samant Goel, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service) and China (the name of whose official has not been disclosed), with Russia a notable absentee.

According to the sources quoted by Reuters, the meeting addressed issues such as the war in Ukraine and matters related to international organized crime, and was held in a cooperative, non-confrontational tone. Reuters noted that it was not the first time that this conclave had taken place at the same time as the Shangri-La forum, which is organized every year by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, but until now there had been no official confirmation of it. While the intelligence services gathered around a table, at the official forum Beijing’s defense official refused to meet his U.S. counterpart due to the sanctions imposed on him by Washington.

This is an example of multilateral dialogue, in an area of the utmost sensitivity, surviving in these times of growing competition and mistrust between powerful states and with a host of genuinely global challenges piling up, from climate change to health risks, financial stability to the challenges of artificial intelligence, migratory flows and organized crime.

On Tuesday another signal emerged from Berlin, where a bilateral meeting between Germany and China was held. Significantly, at a time when there is talk of reducing the risks associated with excessive dependence on the Asian giant, the German communiqué after the summit was entitled: “Facing global challenges together.”

Another opportunity for multilateralism comes on Thursday and Friday in Paris, where a major conference convened by the French government is scheduled to take place with the intention of forging a new pact between the global north and south. The idea is to move forward on a path that will make it easier for developing countries to access international financing — to combat climate change and its consequences, as well as for other purposes — or to obtain debt relief. The conference also aims to drive the reorganization of global economic and financial institutions, the subject of major complaints from developing nations for having structures that reflect the post-1945 world, which are now obsolete.

There are more events on the calendar that can provide multilateralism with a boost. In early September, the G20 Summit is scheduled to take place. The annual event is of particular interest this year as India, a country of significant weight in its own right and also as a reference point for the global south and non-aligned nations, holds the rotating presidency.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that Britain will organize a summit this year in an attempt to coordinate regulation of the artificial intelligence sector.

Mistrust in the world is high and mini-lateral initiatives, the closing of ranks among small groupings, are flourishing. The recent G7 in Hiroshima produced an extensive final communiqué that is a true worldview, something unparalleled in a long time. NATO is cohesive and expanding. The Aukus alliance (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) has come into being and the Quad (the United States, India, Japan, and Australia) is developing. On the other hand, the BRICS nations [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), while still far from possessing the degree of cohesion of the G7, seems to be gaining momentum, with requests for membership and new projects in the pipeline.

This is the central dynamic. Unlike the Cold War, everything points to the fact that with it, a bipolar scheme will not be configured around the U.S. and China today as it was between the U.S. and the USSR then. This gives rise to greater fluidity.

The non-aligned group also has more economic and political weight today than then. There is no reason to believe that they will abandon their aspiration of not choosing between sides, of navigating on their own, if only with specific but not systemic alignments. They want their voice to be heard and they have more working in their favor for that to happen, to the extent that are beginning to carry enough clout to promote global agreements. At the G20 Summit in Bali last November, China did not contest against a final communiqué containing language unfavorable to Russia, in order not to remain outside the sphere of consensus that had been forged.

In the Western sector, too, the situation is different from the Iron Curtain era. The EU, although it has many limitations, is beginning to become a geopolitical actor with its own capabilities. It has a natural vocation to be a protagonist in diplomatic frameworks.

Even over the past year, amid tensions not witnessed in decades, multilateralism achieved some objectives, such as The High Seas Treaty for the protection of the world’s oceans, which had been under negotiation for years, or an agreement within the WTO which, although limited, was a step forward after years of paralysis.

Conflicts and competition complicate the path towards a multilateral world, one of international institutions within whose frameworks common rules and solutions can be found. But there are elements that suggest that we are not heading towards rigid bipolarity, but towards a liquid multipolarity, and in this difference lie possibilities for global advancements. The Singapore intelligence conclave showed a path toward that goal.

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