How to Pick a Secular Pope

Could the U.N. benefit from a little white smoke?

Last week, I was invited to discuss the United Nations with a group of students at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs. I began by saying, "Let's talk about the new pope."

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had just ascended to the Throne of St. Peter, becoming Francis, and I pointed out that while the pope and the U.N. secretary general are more or less the sacred and secular versions of one another, the processes by which they are selected are pretty much the opposite. The consequence is that Catholics get Pope Francis I, while the world gets Ban Ki-moon. Of course, Francis may ultimately disappoint, but right now he feels like exactly what the Church needs. Ban is disappointing-by-design.

Since then, I have begun to ponder something: Is this, perhaps, one of the rare problems in the world that the United States could do a good deal to mitigate, if not solve?

Let's start with my premise that the jobs are mirror images of one another. The U.N. secretary general is often called "the secular pope," because his position permits him, indeed compels him, to speak on behalf of all men and women. The world is his flock. Like the pope, he has none of the usual instruments of power, but he does have great moral authority -- if he possesses the gift of exercising it. And like the pope, the secretary general must also be a shrewd diplomat as well as the chief executive of an extremely refractory bureaucracy. Of course, scarcely anyone possess all these skills in equal measure, and those making the choice have to decide which attributes matter the most.

The jobs are similar, but the institutions, of course, couldn't be more different. The Vatican is a sovereign state, a non-hereditary monarchy in which the princes choose their king. The cardinals, of course, differ radically over what makes a good pope, but a good pope is what they all want. The U.N. is an organization of sovereign states which choose someone not to rule over them but to transact some of their collective business. The secretary general is formally appointed by the U.N. General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. In practice, the choice is made by the five permanent members of the council, any one of whom can use their veto to block a candidate. The most powerful states want a secretary general who fully understands that he serves their interests, first and foremost. They want, not the best man or woman for the job, but the one least likely to get in their way.

Of course, conservative popes choose conservative cardinals who in turn choose conservative popes (think of it like Supreme Court justices electing U.S. presidents). And the cardinals do choose some lemons, like Benedict XVI. But if you look at the lineup since World War II, you come up with two majestic figures in John XXIII and John Paul II, and one seriously compromised one, in Pius XII, who has been accused of failing to stand up to pressure from the Nazis. During that period, the ranks of secretaries-general included an actual Nazi -- Kurt Waldheim, and quite a few lemons.

Meanwhile, Francis -- though his papacy is barely one week old -- looks like another winner. He has already thrilled Catholics and non-believers alike by virtue of his humility, his gentle humor -- who knew there were cardinal jokes? -- and by his gift for speaking directly to, and from, the heart. Evidence has even emerged that some combination of compassion and pragmatism once led him to relax doctrinal strictures on the burning issue of civil unions for gays. No one save the cardinals themselves can say why they chose Bergoglio (though he was on deck last time around) but they seem to have recognized in him personal qualities that would afford him the moral authority that Benedict never managed to establish.

It is safe to say that no secretary general has been chosen for this reason. The first, Trygve Lie, was simply ineffectual. Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish lawyer who succeeded him, was an unknown figure who was mistakenly thought to be a cautious bureaucrat. Hammarskjold turned out to be a giant who commanded the world's attention and thus drew the ire of every member of the Security Council. He was replaced by a series of quiet gentlemen, some admirable and some not. Then, in 1992, came Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was considered anti-American, fairly or not; Washington replaced him four years later with the reliably pro-American Kofi Annan, a career U.N. bureaucrat. But Annan, too, surprised everyone, in his case by preaching a passionate gospel of human rights that unnerved Third World dictators and provoked the anti-Western left. Annan did more than anyone to gain acceptance for the linked ideas of humanitarian intervention and "the responsibility to protect."

In 2006, Annan's successor was effectively selected by China and the United States during the tenure of President George W. Bush, no friend of the U.N.; they found they could agree on Ban as a sort of human incarnation of the lowest common denominator. I actually fell asleep once listening to Ban deliver a sort of campaign speech, and when I woke up I thought, "Yes, he'll do." The secretary general must, above all, speak, and Ban was uncomfortable in English as well as every bit as cautious as you would expect a Korean bureaucrat to be. He would never move public opinion, as Annan had. Of course, he cares very much about some issues, for example global warming, but it doesn't matter, because nobody knows.

Ban is more secretary than general, as they say in Turtle Bay. He has made a determined effort to reform his obstinate Curia; but during his tenure the U.N. itself has slipped into the shadows. There are some structural reasons for that: the conventional model for many of the things the U.N. does -- including peacekeeping and development assistance -- may have run its course, and need to be reinvented; other actors, including NGOs, regional organizations, and emerging nations, have absorbed some of the U.N.'s role in peace-making and diplomacy. A new secretary general will have to think anew about the organization's place in the 21st century. But nobody will listen unless the secretary general has something of Hammarskjold's flair for commanding public attention.

I am not, of course, suggesting that when Ban's term concludes at the end of 2016 all 194 U.N. ambassadors gather in the General Assembly until they can produce a puff of white smoke. The great powers, including the United States, would abandon the U.N. if they could be outvoted on important questions, including the choice of the organization's chief executive. But the United States, which drives the process more than any of the orther veto-wielding states, could for once seek someone whose chief qualification for the job is that they'd be good at it.

This would be one of the last decisions of Barack Obama, a president who prominently enshrined in his national security strategy a commitment to "focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests...." In his first few years in office, Obama placed the U.N. at the center of both his nuclear nonproliferation agenda and his approach to Iran. Since then, though, he seems to have lost interest, or perhaps hope of change. That may have more to do with Russian intransigence than with Ban's ineffectiveness. No new secretary general can solve that problem.

Sometime this year, Obama's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, is expected to become his national security advisor; Samantha Power, who is probably at least in part responsible for Obama's faith in the U.N.(and in the responsibility to protect), is expected to take her place. If Obama really wants to strengthen international institutions, the stars will be aligned for him to do so. Power, Rice, Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry can find someone with the voice and the vision to renew the institution and restore its relevance -- if they want to.

As it happens, Europe's "turn" comes up after Ban. Since the last European was Waldheim, the region has a lot to atone for. And of course nobody believes in the U.N. like the post-sovereign Europeans. As Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the Center for International Cooperation observes, "Rice, Kerry, and Power should tell the EU that they are head-hunting for a really good candidate to run the U.N., and send this signal soon. Otherwise a dozen over-the-hill European politicians will try to get in the running, and more impressive European figures will focus on EU jobs. It's a big question: Is secretary general of the U.N. a better job that EU Fisheries Commissioner?"

The U.N. already has a fisheries commissioner for a secretary general. The next one should be a secular pope. 

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Terms of Engagement

Lost in the Desert

What does the Obama administration make of Egypt's Mohamed Morsy? Not much. But they've still got to figure out how to work with him.

In recent days, I've been talking to officials in the Obama administration about what they think they're doing in Egypt. Even as Obama hesitates to thrust the United States into the rolling cauldron that is Syria, critics accuse him of coddling a dictator in Cairo. Congressional Republicans like Marco Rubio accuse the administration of cutting a $250 million blank check to Mohammed Morsy's authoritarian, Islamist regime. Analysts with no axe to grind, like Michael Walid Hanna of the Century Foundation or Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress, make the more nuanced argument that the administration has rewarded Morsy for his compliance on American national security goals, just as his predecessors did with Hosni Mubarak.

Is that fair? Obama does, after all, deserve credit for openly accepting the Egyptian people's choice of an Islamist government after long years when Washington viewed any partnership with Islamists as beyond the pale. But it is also true that the administration has under-reacted as Morsy made himself immune from judicial oversight, rammed through an illiberal constitution, and showed contempt for his opponents. And while it's impossible to prove, Morsy may well have felt that this strategic silence gave him carte blanche to continue down his path of majoritarian autocracy. Obama has not wanted to rock Morsy's very fragile boat. One figure who left the administration after the first term conceded that "We are not raising our voice," and added, that "there hasn't been enough attention to supporting those who are on the other side."

Let's stipulate that Obama has erred on the side of caution with Egypt. That is his nature, after all, and it's a lot better than the alternative, which we tried with that Bush guy. Obama's overall pattern in the Arab Spring has been doing the right thing, but a little late. So what now? What do administration officials think about Morsy, and how do they believe that they can influence his behavior? The short answer is that they think that Morsy and his circle are in way over his heads, and worry much more about their incompetence than their intolerance. "This is a bunch of guys who have been in jail for 40 years," said one figure. "They don't know what they're doing, they're paranoid, and they're making a huge number of mistakes. But there's no alternative to pushing them forward on the democratic path." Morsy, in short, is the wrong man for the moment, but also the only man. He must be nudged; and he can be nudged.

The administration's view of the opposition is like almost everyone's view of the opposition -- it's feckless, lazy, and disorganized, happier sulking in Cairo than campaigning in the countryside. When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo last week, he spoke to leading figures, including Mohammed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, and urged them not to boycott the upcoming parliamentary election, as they are currently planning to do. Morsy's plummeting popularity should allow his opponents to make serious gains -- though many of those gains may go to Salafists rather than secularists. The only good news here is that the elections now seem likely to be postponed for three to four months, which would give the opposition time to reconsider a very bad decision.

Finally, the Obama administration seems to feel more comfortable with the Egyptian army than with any other current institution. After all, the reasoning goes, the army deposed Mubarak and delivered power to an elected leader, whom it has since helped sustain. "They have been resolute in working with the Israelis, they work well on the border," says the official mentioned above. The administration has no interest in seeking to either cut or seriously reprogram military assistance, as many critics have suggested -- and Kerry said nothing about it in Cairo.

Obama, in short, is less worried about authoritarian regression than he is about Egypt falling apart. Egypt's treasury has only three months of foreign exchange left, with no more money coming from Qatar or elsewhere. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is offering a $4.8 billion loan, which is Cairo's only chance to stave off bankruptcy. And other institutions which might supply additional financing, including the World Bank and the Africa Development Bank, will not act until Egypt signs an accord with the IMF. The IMF, however, is demanding that Egypt make some reforms which are politically excruciating -- above all, cutting subsidies which keep down the price of energy and food. Morsy's answer is that Washington should tell the IMF to just give Egypt money.

The fear in Washington is thus that Egypt's hapless leadership is sending the country over a cliff. The nightmare scenario is of an Egypt unable to pay its bills, which would send half of Cairo flooding into Tahrir Square. The military might even feel it had to take control once again. That's today's problem. In Cairo, Kerry publicly harped on the need to reach agreement on the loan, and in private admonished (or perhaps the word is browbeat) Morsy to make the tough political choices, and to begin working with the opposition. And Kerry offered incentives: a $250 million down payment on the $1 billion which Obama has promised to make available, as well as an additional $300 million once Morsy signed a deal with the IMF.

So the overall toolbox is this: modest financial incentives, private exhortations with public encouragement, and no punitive measures. Is that really a sufficient response to a crisis of this magnitude afflicting the historic heartland of the Arab world? The first and most obvious thing that needs to be said is that it's way better than what Republican foreign policy geniuses like Marco Rubio have in mind, since withholding economic assistance until Egypt makes the political changes he wants will virtually ensure the kind of calamity which will make political compromise the least of Egypt's worries. And given Morsy's haplessness -- but also the likely backlash against public criticism from the United States -- private admonitions may be more effective right now than public opprobrium.

The big problem is money. In his recent book, Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr points out that the United States offered large-scale assistance when democratic waves washed over Latin America and Eastern Europe, but has offered only trifling aid in the Arab world, and above all in Egypt. That's true; even Obama's promised $1 billion consists heavily of loan guarantees. And while Libya and even Tunisia will not need massive financial help, Egypt will. The administration has begun working on a multinational plan to leverage private investment in the democratizing Arab states -- another incentive for Morsy to sign a deal with the IMF. But there are no more Marshall Plans in the offing. The cupboard is bare.

On balance, I'm mostly with my colleague Marc Lynch, who argues that Obama has pretty much done what he can in Egypt. But that very fact brings home the limits of the possible. The fragile Arab democracies and would-be democracies need help more desperately than Poland or Hungary did; but they are also harder to help. There is not a lot the administration can do to make Egypt's political opposition engage in democratic politics, and there is not a lot it can do to make Morsy realize that winning a parliamentary majority does not authorize you to run roughshod over your opponents. Those are insights only gained through painful experience. And yes, the United States simply doesn't have the scratch any more. Financing is not something Washington leverages; it furnishes. In that regard, those who say the United States is weaker than it used to be are right.

Nasr argues that Washington has given up on the Arab world -- in fact, pretty much on the whole world. I think it's fairer to say that Obama can't do a good deal that he might like to do, and that he's quite prepared to rationalize that with the proposition that the Arab world must be allowed to work out its destiny on its own. Is that cynicism? Maybe a little. Mostly, I'd say, it's just reality.   

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