Voice

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. 

Michael Nagle/Getty Images

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