Midfield General

Welcome to Midfield General!

There's more to the World Cup than a bunch of soccer games and funky hairstyles.

How many lives would be saved if the world's great powers settled their disputes on the soccer field? How much more quickly would trade negotiations end if they depended only on the outcome of penalty kicks? How much better would the United Nations work if Sepp Blatter ruled member states with an iron fist?

A kid can dream, right?

These are fantasies, of course, but the World Cup isn't just about soccer, Neymar's faux hawk, or Nike's slick ads. Sometimes, there's much more on the line for the teams and countries involved, and that's where we come in.

We all love the beautiful game, of course, and we'll be glued to the television until July 13 -- but we can't help thinking about the political, economic, social, and cultural issues intertwined with the world's biggest sporting event. For one wonderful month, billions of people will focus on Brazil, a country proud of its soccer heritage but also fraught with the kinds of governance problems that might make even FIFA, the corruption-plagued organizers of the World Cup, blush. Will this once-proud BRIC ride its soccer team back to glory, or will the tournament just paper over the cracks in its haphazard development as Latin America's first superpower? We'll be watching.

We'll also be looking at how the World Cup reflects the dangers and benefits of globalization, and the systemic risks that have lately dogged economies great and small. And when a match has geopolitical implications, like when East Germany and West Germany faced off in 1974, we'll be there to read deeper meaning into every sliding tackle. If this sounds like it could end up being a little bit tongue-in-cheek, well, sometimes it will be. But that's part of the fun.

Every soccer team needs a midfield general to sit back, see the larger field of play, and make sense of it for his or her teammates. That's exactly what we'll be hoping to do for you as we look beyond the action on the field.

So, you're probably wondering, who is this "we"? It's a great team of our own, from one of the sport's most exciting poets to one of the region's leading pundits. So without further ado, here's Midfield General's starting XI:

Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) is a soccer writer for Sky Sports and a regular contributor to various other magazines and websites around the world.

Kevin Bleyer (@kevinbleyer) is a four-time Emmy-winning television writer, occasional New York Times bestselling book writer, and once-in-a-while speechwriter. But what really matters is that his brother does play-by-play for the Portland Timbers.

Andrea Canales (@soccercanales) writes on soccer in the United States and Mexico. She is based in Los Angeles, which combines both worlds.

Pedro Cifuentes (@pedrocifuentes) is a Spanish journalist and editor who lives, works and travels between Latin America and Spain. He is now covering the World Cup (and its malaise) for El País after having tried a few more boring things in his professional career.

Michael Goodman (@TheM_L_G) is a freelance soccer writer who's work can frequently be found on Grantland.com. He also believes that counting things is a good idea.

Hernán Iglesias Illa (@HernaniiBA) is a freelance writer in Buenos Aires and the author of books about Wall Street, Miami, and Domingo Sarmiento's 1847 trip around the United States. He's a River Plate and Arsenal fan who accepts only the label "bielsista."

Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) is a poet, journalist and public relations consultant. He has written two books about football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Shannon O'Neil (@shannonkoneil) is Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead.

Benjamin Pauker (@benpauker) is Foreign Policy's executive editor and the author of a chapter on Ukraine's modest Germany 2006 ambitions in The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup. He was born in New York but grew up in Brazil, Australia, and Thailand, so he can -- without shame -- bandwagon-jump on at least three World Cup teams this year.

Rana Sarkar (@RanaSarkar_) Rana Sarkar is National Director of High Growth Markets for KPMG Canada and Senior Fellow and Board Co-Chairman at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Daniel Altman, captain (@altmandaniel), is Foreign Policy's global economics columnist and owner of North Yard Analytics, a sports data analysis firm. His last soccer team retired his jersey -- if "retired" means they told him he could keep the shirt if he'd just leave and go home.

Join us as we explore the games behind the game!

Getty Images - Ezra Shaw / Getty Images - Stu Forster / Getty Images - Stu Forster / Getty Images


How High Is the New High Commissioner?

The U.N.'s new human rights chief has a pretty tall task ahead of him. Is Prince Zeid up to the job?

Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, the U.N.'s newly appointed incoming High Commissioner for Human Rights has his work cut out for him. With a little panache and a low profile, Zeid's predecessor, outgoing High Commissioner Navi Pillay has, partly by process of elimination, emerged as the most powerful single individual voice for human rights worldwide. Pillay has made headlines of late pronouncing that President Bashar al-Assad's culpability for atrocities far exceeds that of the Syrian rebels, fingering Putin for rights abuses in Crimea, labeling South Sudan's leader a possible war criminal, and calling out the Chinese government for denying the grim history of Tiananmen.

Pillay's six-year stint as high commissioner ends in September. The combination of political shifts during her term of office and Pillay's own belated embrace of the toughest -- but most crucial -- parts of her job have underlined the need for her successor to embody a troika of traits not often found in a single skin: unassailable credibility in dealing with diverse governments; fearless outspokenness; and a dogged commitment to strengthen an institution with untapped potential.

Though human rights, alongside peace and security and international development, stands as one of the U.N.'s three pillars, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights wasn't even established until 1993; it still claims less than 3 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget. Yet the office has been led by some stars over the years, including formidable former Irish President Mary Robinson and the dashing late Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The low-key Pillay, a former South African and international judge, got off to a slow start when appointed in 2008. She stood mum when the Iranian government squashed the Green Movement protests in the fall of 2009, and bent to pressure from Beijing in sitting out the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Pillay's early tenure also laid bare a series of dire shortcomings in the office's operational capabilities. Understaffed, lacking in expertise, and ill-equipped to deploy emergency missions, she was caught flat-footed when a newly activated U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N.'s political body in charge of human rights, began creating fact-finding commissions that had to be dispatched in real time to document abuses in places like Ivory Coast, Libya, and Syria.

As one senior OHCHR staffer quipped to me, the commission was trying to race the Indy 500 driving a 1950s automobile. Hold-ups on personnel, funding, and contract extensions meant that, for example, the Human Rights Council's Commission of Inquiry on Libya had run out of money and staff just as that conflict reached its crescendo in the late summer of 2011.

Gradually, though, Pillay became more vociferously critical of the world's most egregious human rights abusers, especially Assad. She has helped amass a formidable dossier that will provide essential evidence if the Syrian dictator and his men ever go to trial, and -- until access made further accurate tallies impossible -- meticulously tracked body counts that have forced the world to face the scale of the slaughter. She was also unsparing in her criticism after a visit to Sri Lanka, helping spur momentum that led to the establishment of a formal commission of inquiry into abuses over the ferocious objections of the Colombo government.

Of late, Pillay has spoken out more often against abuses by the most impervious governments in the U.N. Security Council chamber, Russia and China. She's repeatedly briefed the council, notching a larger place for human rights on its agenda than ever before so that when security crises erupt in places like South Sudan or Ukraine, human rights information and imperatives directly inform council debates. Defying staunch opposition from many African governments, Pillay has pushed the U.N. to recognize and protect gay rights for the first time. Pillay has also expanded her office's little-known but vitally important technical assistance work in places including Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Tunisia. After witnessing first-hand the pyrotechnics that surrounded the treatment of Israel within the U.N.'s human rights system at the time the 2009 Goldstone Report was released, Pillay has mostly walked a careful line, calling out Israel for seizures of Palestinian lands and settler violence, but not making it a centerpiece of her tenure.

The rising importance of the high commissioner's role is in part a reflection of the loss of other key voices. Human rights heroes have become more elusive: Nelson Mandela is dead. Aung San Suu Kyi is angling hard for Myanmar's presidency and is mostly silent on egregious interethnic violence in her country. They haven't been replaced by a new generation of  icons with comparable moral stature. Western governments and heads of states who call out abuses -- President Barack Obama included -- are fast accused of hypocrisy, selectivity, or first-world bias. That backlash has spilled over to color the work of leading Western-based human rights groups: U.S.-linked technical assistance providers like Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute are being pushed out of unfriendly countries and forced to shut down longstanding programs from Egypt to Russia to the United Arab Emirates.

But with the imprimatur of the U.N.'s 193 member states, the high commissioner cannot be dismissed as a Western shill. With many governments growing more impervious to traditional human rights critics, that credibility is a unique and essential asset. Whereas the U.N.'s secretary general is obliged to work with every member state, the high commissioner can afford to make enemies -- and indeed must do so -- when the truth demands.

In his search for the bionic high commissioner, Ban Ki-moon was confined by the U.N.'s fair-but-fraught system of regional rotations for high-level posts. The system dictated that the next high commissioner must be Asian. In selecting the Hashemite Zeid (the U.N.'s definition of Asia includes the Middle East, save Israel), Ban passed over the civil society advocates like Pakistan's sister act of renowned women's rights champions Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir, as well as former Human Rights Council President and Thai Amb. Sihasak Phuangketkeow.

Some critics worry that, as an Arab Muslim, Zeid will bring anti-Israel animus to his role. But the Obama administration, acutely sensitive to preventing Israel-bashing at the U.N., would have been consulted on the appointment, suggesting that administration officials think Zeid can be trusted not to plunge OHCHR into the Israel-Palestine conflict. Zeid has earned that trust through many years of close interaction with U.S. interlocutors from both parties, and the Congress. He is a firm fixture on the global diplomatic scene, having spent the last 14 years serving alternately as his country's ambassador to the U.N., to the United States, and to the U.N. once again. Zeid has chaired the convention of States Parties to the International Criminal Court, and led a hard-hitting commission that addressed sexual abuses committed by U.N. peacekeepers serving in numerous conflict zones. Still young at 50, charismatic and a royal to boot, there's no question Zeid will be received at the highest levels by governments worldwide.

Though he was educated -- and has by now resided for the vast majority of his adult life -- in the West, Zeid will still enjoy a level of clout in the Middle East that far exceeds that of any predecessor in his role, making his appointment timely in the face of deteriorating human rights conditions in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region. Still, there's always some risk that an ambitious younger leader will pull punches when it came to criticizing powerful governments -- angling for a bigger job down the road. But here the U.N.'s rotation system may come to the rescue: while Zeid was a candidate for secretary general back in 2006, now that a Korean is serving, the next time an Asian U.N. secretary general will be sworn in may not be until 2056, when Zeid will be 92 years old.

While his credibility and knowledge of the U.N. system and international relations are unassailable, there are two dimensions against which Zeid will need to prove himself. The first is in relinquishing the cool detachment of an ambassador in favor of the impassioned human rights advocacy that the new role demands. The job of the high commissioner is to be the uncompromising proponent of human rights concerns, leaving it mostly up to others to decide how these ought to be balanced against economic, political, and prudential considerations. A posture that is too nuanced, sophisticated, or balanced can detract from the stark passion and moral conviction necessary to force human rights to the foreground. That said, Zeid's warmth and finesse have the potential to make the strongest human rights prescriptions go down more smoothly.

The second set of skills that are not obvious from Zeid's resume are those required to build an OHCHR organization fit for the 21st century; no longer a 1950s car but a modern hybrid vehicle capable of keeping up with high-speed global deployments, but also of downshifting to nurture human rights capacity in some of the poorest and most dysfunctional countries in the world.

Much of OHCHR's work is unglamorous. It doesn't stand between warring parties or hammer out treaties that make new norms into international law. It sends in teams, sets up offices, and carries out human rights training, documentation, and institution-building in places like Cambodia, Guinea, Nepal, and Uganda. These are not luxury appointments, but the work holds the possibility to catalyze widespread and sustained improvement in human rights conditions all over the world. OHCHR can make a difference where others cannot. Many countries who shun NGO and foreign government interference will let in the U.N. Yet OHCHR has not been staffed or resourced to realize even a fraction of this potential. Zeid needs to surround himself with an A-team of senior staffers, develop a compelling plan that explains how OHCHR can help address the world's most vexing and costly conflicts and crises, and go around the world -- ideally beginning in the palaces of the Middle East -- to raise the funds necessary to fulfill such an ambitious vision.

With a skyrocketing death toll in Syria, Egypt back in the thrall of a military dictator, and whack-a-mole crises from Thailand to South Sudan to Ukraine, Zeid will have his work cut out for him. Let's hope he can bring his princely touch from the hallowed halls of U.N. meeting rooms to the dusty huts where victims of human rights abuses sit and wait for justice.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Kairos Society