What's next for Lebanon?

What's next for Lebanon?

The twin explosions at Beirut's port on Tuesday were so powerful that the aftershocks reverberated as far as the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 150 miles away. The specter of fire and smoke was such that many suggested on social media that Beirut had experienced a nuclear blast.

In the days ahead, more details will come to light about why a deadly cache of materials was haphazardly stashed at a port warehouse, and why Lebanon's government failed to secure the site. So, what comes next for crisis-ridden Lebanon?


The timing could not be worse. In recent weeks, Lebanon, one of the world's most indebted countries, has spiraled into chaos after decades of economic mismanagement.

Crime is spiking as desperate Lebanese seek scarce basics like food and medicine, while others are turning to a swarming online barter economy to survive — clothes for baby formula? The deepening economic crisis recently pushed at least 500,000 children in Beirut into poverty, an aid group warned in July.

International observers, meanwhile, have questioned whether Lebanon has already breached the "failed state" threshold.

International support. So far, countries including Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Norway, Turkey and the Netherlands have offered Beirut urgent humanitarian aid in the form of generators, medical equipment and personnel, and even some cash. The EU, for its part, is sending search and rescue teams to search for survivors, while French President Emmanuel Macron will touch down in Beirut on Thursday to offer support to his country's former colony.

While immediate humanitarian support has been forthcoming — and encouraging — the aid itself is unlikely to pull Lebanon back from the brink. There are several reasons for this.

First, humanitarian aid is one thing, but financial lifelines are another. Even before the pandemic crippled the global economy, the World Bank predicted that 50 percent of Lebanese could be living below the poverty line if current trends continued. Hoping to stave off its worst economic crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Beirut has since appealed to international creditors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a whopping $10 billion in financial assistance, but the IMF has refused to play ball unless the Lebanese government reforms its bloated, inefficient, and corrupt public sector. So far, Beirut's power brokers have resisted.

Reformist will is key. Even if the IMF acquiesces and doles out funds to cash-strapped Lebanon, what happens when the money gets there? Lebanon's patronage-ridden public sector and corrupted politicians, many of them former warlords of sectarian groups, have mismanaged the country's economy for decades, lining their own pockets while the middle class has plunged into poverty. IMF support does not solve long-term problems such as government paralysis, poverty and social instability that, experts warn, can only be mitigated through structural reform.

The Hezbollah equation. The political clout of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group, further complicates Lebanon's efforts to secure external funding. In 2018, the IMF pledged $11 billion to Lebanon on the condition that the government institute significant anti-corruption and economic reforms. Washington, which, along with its Gulf Arab allies, deems the group a terrorist organization, recently accused Hezbollah of obstructing reform efforts, a view tacitly supported by other international donors.

This week's tumult also comes as the country braces for a UN court's verdict on the 2005 slaying of Lebanon's former Sunni Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, set to be handed down on August 18. The outcome in the Hariri case, which inflamed sectarian tensions across Lebanon and the region, will likely implicate Hezbollah officials. This risks further complicating efforts to secure external aid, and threatens to ignite sectarian discord amongst already-despondent Lebanese.

As negotiations with the IMF stalled in recent months, a desperate Beirut turned to Beijing for economic support, but it's walking a fine line, wary of irking Washington, a longtime ally, as US-China tensions surge.

The ball is largely in Beirut's court. The government can start working towards comprehensive reform in the hopes of lifting its floundering population out of poverty. Alternatively, it can fall back on the excuse of international donors not coming through and continue with business as usual. Which will it choose?

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Over the past eight days, the US-China relationship got notably hotter. None of the new developments detailed below is big enough by itself to kill hopes for better relations next year, but collectively they point in a dangerous direction.

US jabs over Hong Kong: On September 14, the US State Department issued a travel warning for the city because of what it calls China's "arbitrary enforcement of local laws" by police. The US is closely monitoring the case of 10 people detained by China while attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat. China's response to US criticism of its new security law in Hong Kong remains muted. That could change if relations deteriorate further.

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Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, joins Ian Bremmer on this week's World in 60 seconds to discuss multilateralism, optimism, and the return to normal in the post-pandemic world.

Could this pandemic actually present an opportunity to bolster global support for multilateralism and what should that look like moving forward, Brad?

Brad Smith:

Well, I think it's an imperative and it has to bolster support for multilateralism for a very simple reason. We cannot afford to assume that it will be another century before we see a pandemic like this again. We have to take from this experience, all of the learning we can muster and put in place what we will need to be better prepared. And the only way we can do that is to start with an obvious fact. Viruses don't respect borders. So people have to work together across them as governments and with the kinds of support from companies and civil society that it'll take to ensure that we don't find ourselves as ill prepared a decade from now or five years from now, as we were when this year began.

Ian Bremmer:

On the one hand, there's been a lot of lack of leadership, at least internationally, the G20 doing nearly as much coming out of this crisis that we saw coming out of the 2008 financial crisis when it was founded. On the other hand, you've got supra-nationalism in Europe with the Germans and the French, and indeed unanimous votes to actually create stronger redistribution, stronger capacity and resilience of that institution. You've got the World Health Organization, the UN here working with a bunch of leaders and the private sector.

What gives you cause so far for most optimism that we actually are going to respond more effectively?

Brad Smith:

Well, I think one of the fascinating aspects of this pandemic in its own way has been the critical importance of data. We're all relying on data, literally, to manage government decisions that determine whether we get to leave our homes, where we get to go, what we get to do. But the truth is what we've also learned is that the data that is needed to address something like this needs to be measured in a consistent way across borders. At Microsoft we're doing a lot of work with the World Health Organization. Just learning from that how each individual government can be more effective if it's collaborating with others in a more unified way, putting digital technology and data to work. I think there's a lot of insight from that narrow slice that in fact impacts every part of the economy in the world today.

Ian Bremmer:

One of the things that people have been most concerned about is that the pandemic is driving borders up. It's driving people farther apart. But the fact that technology is working as well as it is right now is also unlocking human capital in terms of distance learning, in terms of telemedicine for large numbers of people that otherwise would have been left further behind in a crisis like this.

Brad Smith:

We're all learning a lot. I think tele health services are one of the great examples of where we're going to find in the future that it doesn't mean that people will no longer go to a doctor, but they'll only go to a doctor when they need to see a doctor in person.

And we'll probably live in a world where people have more consultation with health professionals because tele-health will fill-in a void, but we're also finding all the cracks in our societies. What it means when some people have broadband and others don't. Some people have access to digital skills and others don't. So it's a world of new opportunity, but if the opportunity isn't distributed more broadly, then it's going to exacerbate all the divides we already worry about in our societies.

Ian Bremmer:

What's the piece of life after coronavirus when truly people feel safe, again, that we're not socially distancing and the rest, that you think is going to be most different from life before coronavirus?

Brad Smith:

Well, I think it's going to be a more of a mixture of hybrid life. I'm not one who believes that people will want to stay in their houses forever. I think there's a lot that can be accomplished when people get together that they can't do when they're by themselves. But there's also a lot that we can do that will add convenience and efficiency and effectiveness to our lives by combining this in-person interaction with remote sort of everything, shopping, ordering food, connecting with people around the world, we have the opportunity to build sort of a richer experience. But again, only if the technology that's essential for this is within everyone's reach.

Ian Bremmer:

I also think we could get used to being six feet apart from each other for a longer period of time.

Brad Smith:

Yeah. But I still think you'll go to a sporting event, people are still going to want to be in a crowd. Go to a theater, people are going to want to be in the crowd. It will be fascinating to see how long some of these other habits persist once we're finally out of the other end of this tunnel and can look at it in the rear view mirror.

As global leaders turn their attention to the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and the 2020 General Assembly, GZERO Media offers a look back at one of the greatest diplomatic mysteries of the 20th century. The UN's second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld's mysterious death in 1961, while on a mission to Congo, is the subject of a new book by investigative correspondent and New York Times correspondent Ravi Somaiya. It has the twists and turns of a Tom Clancy novel.

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