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Opinion How To Pick A ‘secular Pope’ For The UN

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
How to pick a ‘secular pope’ for the UN

By James Traub - Mar 25, 2013

— Last week, while discussing 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 thrilled Catholics and non-believers alike by virtue of his humility, his gentle humor 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 established.

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 peacemaking 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.

James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. He writes “Terms of Engagement” for Foreign Policy.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics

© 2013 iPolitics Inc.

source: http://www.ipolitics.ca/2013/03/25/how-to-pick-a-secular-pope-for-the-un/


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
:winkingkaur: Interesting because I find myself less engaged in the doings of the UN than in years past, just as a private individual. Hardly ever read news articles about it these days; whereas once I clung to every note. The article might just contain the seeds to a solution: What about reviewing the oratory, moral vision and organizational acumen of the first runner-up for Pope? The papacy could be culled for its possibilities. The title even suggests an affinity between pope and Secretary-general. Said candidate would not even have to land the job. Such a move would focus the world's attention on the UN. Get the gears of the great minds moving. Provoke relevant discussions. A thread change for international news media who feel forum topics have become stale in their patch of the Internet. :winkingkaur: The more I think about it, the less it seems a joking matter.
Feb 23, 2012
United Kingdom
I think that the UN suffers from similar problems to the EU, except that the EU has far more legislative clout due to it having not just soft law but hard law through treaties and its various directives.

Van Rompuy, an administrative figure lacking in charisma, was made the first permanent President of the European Union - and he was unelected by the people of Europe I should add.

There was debate at the time, back in 2009, as to whether Europe's first full-time President should be presidential and have a presence or merely be a generally out of sight executive.

The Europe elites chose the later. If they'd chose the former, the EU would have moved towards closer integration. By choosing Van Rompuy they practically ensured that it would irrelevant to most ordinary people. The problem is that people are frightened of infringing on national sovereignty by having an imposing figure on the world stage. Imagine if a woman like Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, was made Secretary-General of the UN or EU President.

People would relate to her as our Secretary-General, our President. This would make globalization and integration between countries more of a reality but national leaders don't want this.

The great weakness of the UN is the fact that despite having all the trappings of a World Federation it lacks any real enabling power. It badly needs reformed. The Allies of World War Two - The Soviet Union, China, Great Britain, the United States of America and France - are still the permanent members, even though the British Empire is no longer, France has waned in international authority outside of its African sphere of influence and its junior role to Germany in Europe, the Soviet Empire is long caput and so on...Everyone says that the UN needs to engage people more, to democratize but it never happens because of nascent nationalisms.

People are fearful of internationalism. Now don't get me wrong, national sovereignty is extremely important. However the whole reason the UN was founded was because three countries - Germany, Italy and Japan - took nationalism to idolatrous levels.

I think that the UN has wandered from its original ideals in many respects. Its becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Syria has exposed the meekness of the UN, much like how the Abyssinian crisis in the thirties and the Spanish Civil War exposed the façade of the League of Nations, the UN's predecessor. Ban Ki-Moon's peace efforts were utterly fruitless. Russia and China simply deadlocked any proposals from the US and Britain and Ban simply looked on agog, impotent,

One of the really great UN Secretary-Generals was indeed Dag Hammarskjold. He was a mystic and a great visionary who had the flare of Pope Francis - that charismatic, Presidential air about him.

If I may quote him:

“The 'mystical experience'. Always here and now - in that freedom which is one with distance in that stillness which is born of silence. But - this is a freedom in the midst of action, a stillness in the midst of other human beings. The mystery is a constant reality to him who, in this world, is free from self-concern, a reality that grows peaceful and mature before the receptive attention of assent. ”

Dag is speaking about seva selfless action on behalf of humanity. That is what we need today for the UN but national leaders simply do not want such an imposing figure on the world stage.

I think he'd have been great for EU President. Man, if only! Instead we have "Van Rompuy" - anyone else think it sounds like "Rumpelstiltskin" the fairy-tale gnome?
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