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Reflections from Doha Forum

Tom Cargill
Tom Cargill, Chief Executive

The 2022 Doha Forum was one of the first opportunities since international travel became possible again for representatives from governments, thinktanks, universities and other centres of foreign policy research to meet and reflect on the state of the world.

With diplomacy very much a contact sport, it was an important opportunity to take a barometer of international concerns and priorities as the world begins to open up after 2 years of little or no in-person engagement.

The theme ‘transforming for a new era’ was itself significant. Formal and sidebar discussions conveyed a strong sense that a combination of accelerating climate change, the impacts of Covid, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine, are fundamentally changing global dynamics.

doha forum

The Doha Forum represents simultaneously a global, a Qatari and a Middle Eastern perspective on international affairs. It has grown since 2001 to become a significant annual gathering of foreign policy elites. As in previous years, strategic and content partners for the forum in 2022, including Wilton Park, were dominated by UK & US international policy organisations. Participation was wider, with delegations and speakers from across Africa and Europe, and to a certain extent Asia, as well as the US. The result, curated by Qataris, was a line up of issues and speakers which reflected this mix.

Doha forum

Understandably, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine featured prominently, and indeed perhaps the highpoint of the forum was an emotional plea to the international community from both the President of Ukraine by video link, and from the Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Emine Dzhaparova in person. Now the first wave of global shock and outrage has somewhat receded, several interventions reflected on how the world beyond Europe and North America sees the conflict in Ukraine. There was a tension between a sense that this is a conflict many countries want to remain detached from, alongside a real concern what its outcome may mean for international order in the future. Alongside the ongoing shock of the impact of Covid, and in combination with accelerating concern over the pace and severity of climate change, a number of other key themes were apparent:

  • Russian aggression against Ukraine is accelerating a sense of systemic instability on the global order, and fueling debate on global governance reform. The return of an obvious and existential global threat from nuclear weapons is very much back as an issue and contributing to this wider global governance agenda.
  • Energy producers are feeling more influential, and energy politics is combining with climate change, sustainability and the search for more effective green infrastructure and energy financing models in new ways, and with renewed urgency.
  • Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and the interaction it has with other sources of information, intelligence, news and propaganda, has emerged as a defining feature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It feels a new technology has found its moment.
  • The international politics of businesses and trade is rapidly shifting, with ongoing focus on supply chain resilience, and a renewed relevance for companies of their country of principle domicile, reversing the globalising shift to multinationals operating distinct from a national identity. The pressure to divest from Russia, and the challenges many companies face in China, along with growing state interest in supply chains and trade flows, has caught many companies and governments underprepared.

As interesting as themes that featured, were themes, issues and constituencies which did not feature, or which seemed to be addressed only in passing. These included:

  • A lack of presence from tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter or Google. There was much criticism, and little defence, of the role in global stability these companies play, and a sense that they have ‘gone to ground’ as far as the wider debate of their role is concerned.
  • An absence of discussion of, or representation from China. There was a real sense of China becoming shut off and increasingly detached from global debate as a result of its zero-covid policy and, perhaps, its increasingly directional approach to international engagement.
  • An absence of interest in Brexit. The newly apparent threat to Europe from Russia appears to have finally eclipsed any lingering wider international interest in Brexit as a feature in European politics. There was however a noticeable revival of the concept of ‘Europe’, at the expense of ‘the EU’, as a shorthand for references to regional activity.
  • Limited focus on Covid. The wider political impacts of Covid framed much debate but covid itself as a global public health issue was strangely absent from much discussion. This may be because of fatigue, or pent up desire to address other issues, but was noticeable nonetheless.

At a time when, as Lenin said, decades of history seem to be happening in weeks, opportunities to take the temperature of trends in international thinking are becoming more important. This also provides convenors, such as the Doha Forum, a growing opportunity to shape these trends. The opportunities and limits of virtual dialogue have become clear to all of us in recent years, and there is probably room for more, and more considered informal and semi-formal international dialogues, such as the Doha Forum, particularly outside the three main global blocks of the US, EU & China. As the fundamentals of the international order appear to be shifting in a way they have not done for 75 years, Wilton Park was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the Doha Forum in 2022, and very much hope to deepen the links we enjoy over coming years.