Olof Skoog knows the United Nations like the back of his hand. As the European Union ambassador to the world body since 2019, he speaks for the 27-member bloc at the UN headquarters in New York City; most recently, he was Sweden’s envoy to the UN. He is known for his optimism — even in the Trump era — his directness, his ambition and his ease with journalists. As Sweden’s top diplomat at the UN, he steered his country through its elected term on the Security Council, from 2017 to 2018, while trying, with some other elected members, to unify it as much as possible, despite the widening divisions among China, Russia and the United States.
The tensions in the Council since Sweden’s term ended magnify the global strain of rising nationalism, attacks on press freedom, human-rights abuses and authoritarian regimes as well as the rejection of multilateralism — that is, countries working together to solve global crises, the heart of the UN’s work. The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened the infighting in the Council, notably the need of China and the US to one-up each other regardless of the damage they do to the Council’s reputation and to people worldwide.
In an interview with Skoog, held in mid-December in the European Union office near the UN, with a gothic-gray backdrop outside his many-windowed corner spot, he talked about a range of topics as he prepared to fly to Stockholm later in the week to see his wife, Johanna Brismar Skoog, Sweden’s ambassador to Brazil, his three adult children and first grandchild, after months of living in lockdown and semi-lockdown in New York City. The interview took place just as news broke that Covid-19 vaccines were going to be rolled out as a second wave of high infections was hitting the United States, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere and before UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced he was seeking a second term in office.
As a Swede, Skoog is a firm believer in the ability of the UN to alleviate many of the world’s worst problems, and he touched on how diplomats managed living in the epicenter phase of the pandemic in New York City and how the 193-member General Assembly adapted its work to the lockdown constraints. The adjustments included the difficult decision by the Assembly to hold a virtual annual debate, or UNGA, in September, instead of an in-person session with world leaders. Skoog also described how he thinks Guterres has kept the UN functioning in a “no-nonsense” way in an unprecedented year and what the UN can look forward to — optimistically, in 2021. (Hint: The incoming Biden administration.)
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: In talking to numerous diplomats about the Covid-19 lockdown in New York City, which was the epicenter of the virus for several months, the gradual reopening and now the second wave, it struck me that diplomats had been not only isolated in a city that’s not their home and couldn’t go back to their countries generally but that they also couldn’t connect with one another physically, so the situation was very particular for them.
Skoog: Yes, it’s been really tough for a lot of people, and especially tough for those who have arrived [in New York City] during this year because it’s very difficult to meet with people. And that interaction is so vital to our job, the physical getting-around; it’s really a way of working, all the receptions serve a purpose. It’s where you actually do business, so we’ve been a bit deprived of that vital instrument in our work. But having said that, I also want to say that I think we all understand that we are privileged. . . . We have jobs, we have health insurance. And, like you, we lived through this pandemic here in March and April and May and June, when it was really, really tough for everyone, and some of us got sick, and a few got very seriously ill. But there has been an understanding, as you work at the UN, of the tremendous economic and social cost of this pandemic across the world.
Q: Having lived in the epicenter makes you re-evaluate everything about work, about life, about your neighbors. So how did the diplomatic community adapt in their roles at the UN?
Skoog: We adapted by trying to make the best possible use of the virtual formats, the Zoom technology and the rest of them, which has been our savior. And then we started doing hybrid meetings, where some of us get together physically and others who do not feel safe can join from home or from their offices if they don’t want to come here [at the EU office]. So, we’ve adapted meeting formats with an understanding not to overload the agenda of the UN this year but focus on the most urgent and important matters, postponing some work on recurrent resolutions or updating them only on substance, that have a relevance to the Covid situation. I also want to say, and I think it’s important, that most of us are quite impressed with the UN delivery under very difficult circumstances. The secretary-general has issued one political initiative after the other. The UN has put forward reporting about the effects of the Covid situation. And the UN reporting has legitimacy that most other entities lack in terms of establishing the economic cost for countries, the social effects, gender-based violence, human rights violations. And the very apt and logical call from the secretary-general for a global cease-fire. Many colleagues agree that actually the UN system has come together, under the leadership of the secretary-general, in a pretty good way, because it’s been a sort of no-nonsense kind of climate here, that we need to deliver. We can’t afford right now, when there is a lot of scrutinizing of the UN system and the whole international system is under strain, to fall back into turf fights. So I think overall that has played out fairly nicely. And maybe the final point is that the real heroes are the ones that are in the field, the humanitarian workers, the peacekeepers, the ones that are out there, meeting people and delivering on a daily basis, aid and other services, who have of course suffered from Covid fears and inhibitions.
Q: So there were some necessary reductions in negotiations on General Assembly resolutions, under the presidency of Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, a Nigerian, after the pandemic hit?
Skoog: The point is that we couldn’t meet physically after March, so we agreed to work on the essentials and try to find consensus around some key aspects of a response to the pandemic, avoiding a blame game and just looking to the global response. Working conditions didn’t really allow for voting or debates, so the ambition was to find consensus. This was especially true for the omnibus resolution on the pandemic [calling for a holistic response to Covid-19] facilitated by our colleagues from Afghanistan and Croatia.
Q: What has been the biggest accomplishment for the General Assembly during the pandemic so far?
Skoog: I guess negotiating this whole omnibus resolution on Covid, that’s probably one of the biggest achievements, given how difficult negotiations are right now — that we’re not sitting down together in meeting rooms and negotiating.
Q: It sounds like the 193 UN member states have been a little more efficient in the pandemic, that they rose to the occasion and didn’t submit certain extraneous resolutions.
Skoog: I think that’s true.
Q: What about Russia’s approach to the UN being physically closed and the inability of global leaders, including President Putin, to attend the annual General Assembly session in September. It was reported that he wanted to be there at the debate and that Russia resisted the decision at first for the Security Council to conduct virtual meetings, in the early days of the lockdown?
Skoog: I don’t think they were more difficult than others in terms of respecting this notion that we’ll stick with what we have and roll it [resolutions] over unless there is some urgent reason to update it again. They were a bit difficult on holding virtual meetings in the Security Council at first, but that was about e-voting and whether we could find ways of making sure that the UN can function in cases where we are not able to meet. And in some of the modalities, when we were negotiating how to conduct the UNGA this year, whether to do it, like we did [eventually] with pre-recorded messages. For very long, the Russians [and some others] wanted to keep up the possibility of heads of state and government actually coming here.
Q: Yes, some leaders wanted to show up, including President Trump chiming in that he hoped the General Assembly could hold its annual debate physically. But regulations required 14-day quarantines for anyone entering the city or state from most countries and even closer locations.
Skoog: Most of us understood early on that the UN could suffer severe reputational damage if we were to impose ourselves and hold meetings in a situation where the entire population of New York City was not allowed to meet more than 30 people or 20 or whatever at the time; so if we were to bring thousands of delegates here and contribute to setbacks in the fight against Covid that would be a tremendously damaging thing for the UN. Another argument we understood early on was that some countries would probably be able to fly here on private aircraft and protect themselves. But for many countries of the world that might not be possible, so it would also be not very democratic, as it wouldn’t be open for all. So that’s another reason why we said, let’s make an early decision to run it a different way than we’ve done in the past.
Q: There was major concern among many countries, the UN itself and the media that nobody would pay attention to a virtual UNGA.
Skoog: I was very concerned about that.
Q: There definitely wasn’t as much interest, at least from the mainstream media, who normally descend on New York City every September and vanish after the UN General Assembly debate.
Skoog: There’s that and there’s what leaders say in their interventions; it’s also about everything else that will happen, the bilateral meetings, the negotiations on some peace agreements. There are lots of things happening in the corridors that are unique to the UN, when you get so many presidents, prime ministers and ministers in town. So that was also a missed opportunity, which to my mind is almost as serious as the other one.
Q: So some negotiations could have happened, say, on Azerbaijan and Armenia, who broke into war just days after the UNGA session, if the two leaders had been here?
Skoog: You never know what conflicts could have been prevented, but the fact is that the UN is not just suffering from Covid; the UN and the whole multilateral work are suffering from some pretty major global tensions right now, with the US and China and Russia’s posture on some issues. I don’t think any of that would have been overcome by leaders coming together here. But the fact that countries meet and talk to each other is one of the major assets of the UN.
Q: What major global tensions do you see on the horizon, in the pandemic and beyond, and what has the crisis surfaced more prominently in international relations; what other lessons has it presented?
Skoog: I think another lesson, unfortunately, that we’ve seen over the last year or so, or half-year, is how international conflicts are coming back to the fore. You have tensions between countries in the eastern Mediterranean that are about borders and maritime borders; you have the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, which is also between basically two countries; tensions between India and China. So we’ve seen this year that we have some pretty dangerously unresolved crises or situations between countries that are coming back to the fore, and the UN is usually the best vehicle we have for resolving some of those conflicts, but Covid has put additional strain on the system. But I would much rather look ahead. It’s been such a terrible year, it cannot get any worse, but I actually think there are some pretty promising things for next year already.
Q: What are the promising global events for 2021?
Skoog: Obviously the vaccine. And that at least some of us are standing up for that vaccine to be globally accessible. Second, the climate commitments that are now a race to the top and not to the bottom. And there’s an EU aspect to that because I think the EU has led on this, the ambition that we have expressed now is confirmed among all the EU member states of at least 55 percent reduction [in carbon emissions] by 2030. That is ambitious, and the fact that China has also been hinting at more positive and more ambitious goals. The US administration coming in, saying they will join the Paris Agreement. And the third, let’s face it, is the [incoming] US administration, which clearly speaks of coming back to international cooperation, which doesn’t seem to see this contradiction between — which I always thought was false contradiction — putting your country first and strong international cooperation. And it’s an administration that is looking to reconnect to its traditional allies and working together, hopefully, on the Iran deal. That’s very substantive stuff for next year.
Q: What geopolitical issues did you, representing the European Union at the UN, agree on with US diplomats at the UN mission under the Trump administration?
Skoog: Countering some of the Russian efforts, especially on Syria, but also vis-à-vis Ukraine, Belarus, where the US has been a strong ally with us in pointing to human rights abuse or violations of international law or international humanitarian law.
Q: As long as we’re talking about the US and the likely possibility that Linda Thomas-Greenfield will be the next US ambassador, what is your advice to her? She has a strong African background and diplomatic experience that the previous two ambassadors, under the Trump administration, Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft, have lacked.
Skoog: I wouldn’t pretend to advise her. But I think [her] reaching out early is certainly in our interest to re-establish, or establish from day one, a very close relationship with them. I think the areas where we will agree and be able to work together is longer than it has been for the last four years. I think with this new administration, the way we understand and read and hear what they say [is more aligned with EU] than it has been with the previous one. I’m really obsessed with this because you don’t get anywhere unless you have friends. And in the General Assembly, it’s all about voting numbers, and the EU is 27 members, and we have another 10 or so countries that usually align and join our views, and we just want to have the US back in that camp, so that we can work together with our African, Latin American and Asian colleagues to stand up for the effective multilateral UN that we want it to be, and we’ve been missing the US on some areas. So it’s a lot of outreach. And it’s also about style, how do you operate in order to gain that trust with all the other countries here. And that can be one of imposing or building walls, or it can be serious partnership where you listen to each other, where you try to find common ground. We Europeans are gradually becoming a bit better on doing that. We usually have a unified position and then we can go out and build trust and confidence with all the other UN members. Well, not all members, as there are some where we always have issues, or they with us.
Q: That seems natural, but what are some instances when UN members have not been taking a “unified position” and other serious discord among them?
Skoog: Look at what’s happened in Belarus, for instance, a country that has shown its authoritarian instincts in a way which is completely unacceptable as a European country, and who are usually voting against us on basically everything here. Russia has been a difficult partner. Just look at the last few months. We used to work with Russia on the Security Council in my previous role [as Sweden’s ambassador to the UN]. And that was not always easy, but we could also find areas where we could find common ground. And I just see that there’s a little bit less of that over the last year or so, including in the Security Council on some of the humanitarian efforts in Syria, on the women, peace and security agenda. If you see the voting patterns and the policies of Russia, they are trying to push back the achievements that relates to gender equality and women’s empowerment, equal rights, violence against women and girls. It’s just a constant pushback by Russia, even abstaining from resolutions that have been agreed by consensus in the past on these issues. Russia is actually turning the clock backwards, not just protecting what’s there but turning the clock backwards. And that is of concern.
Q: Why do you think Russia is trying to turn the clock back on many issues that it once agreed on, such as women’s rights?
Skoog: I don’t know. I think you should talk to the Russian ambassador about that. We’ve also found it in other areas, such as the process of giving instructions to the UN development system to move forward with reform. On issues of political guidance on priorities is another area where Russia has been trying to push back. Ambitious climate policies on gender, language and that kind of thing. That is worrisome when there is a group going against the tide in some areas; unfortunately, Russia is almost always in it.
Q: Where does China fit into the UN politically?
Skoog: China, for us, is a competitor, a potential partner, but also a systemic rival. And we see all of those three here [at the UN], the one systemic rival in the sense that we have completely different views on human rights and democracy. We have potentially areas where we could cooperate closely, I mentioned the positive climate issue. China is very engaged in the developing world, as we are. So hopefully there is room for increased cooperation. But in a way, they’re also a competitor when it comes to influence. For instance, that relates a little to the human rights issue, to the whole future of digital technology and artificial intelligence and all of that business. We have a very human-centered approach in the EU, striking a balance between maybe the US system, which is very much or has been very much based on the big companies setting the agenda, on the one hand; and the Chinese system on the other, which is one of great state control. Whereas we’re trying to strike a balance between the two. We may be a competitor with the Chinese in finding a system that would be globally acceptable, so that’s just an example.
Q: China has one way of dealing with geopolitics. Russia has another way.
Skoog: If you look at the three major global players, it’s the EU, the US and China. The strength of those three is a combination of economic power, soft power, military power; it’s a combination of the three in which Russia does not qualify. So Russia has other attributes that make it an important player and that’s being a nuclear power, a veto-yielding power in the Security Council and all that. But the question is how do you want to use that, how do you want to serve as a model, to have other countries follow you — through argumentation or persuasion? Do you represent a model of society and economy that is attractive to others, or do you want to yield power through other means? That’s the question that many countries are asking themselves, and I think that’s why China, US and EU stand a bit in a division for themselves, the premiere league.
Q: Let’s skip over to the Middle East. Is the two-state solution failing for the Israeli-Palestine conflict because of Israel’s continuous illegal settlements in the West Bank? Is the solution one state with equal rights? And what about the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has been held together with glue by Britain, France and Germany?
Skoog: Our position has not changed on the two-state solution. The new US administration seems to have a distinct priority of building alliances, working collectively, rather than going it alone. We’ll be open to a fresh look at some peace processes. On Iran, it is closer to developing a nuclear weapon, not because of the JCPOA, but because the US left it. That’s not an excuse for Iran to mess around. We are really concerned about that, but had the US stayed in the agreement, we would have been in a much better spot right now. And I think that is something that many people in the new administration’s stand is, if we work together with the Europeans — and China and Russia — our pressure will work in this case on Iran.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.