In Global Institutions, Mediocrity Is the Way to the Top

  • The Spiegel discovers that turds -naturally- float to the  top…


Many international organizations suffer from the fact that they are run by uninspiring bureaucrats. In most cases, this is the fault of the heads of state and government who prefer to elevate weak figures, who won’t meddle too much, to these positions. Is that the best approach in these times of crisis?

UN-POVERTY/Ban Ki-Moonbat: clueless, hopeless, worthless…  Times of crisis require leaders of a different caliber.

José Manuel Barroso’s smile has become thin and helpless. From time to time, he loses his habitual fixed smile, and a gray veil seems to descend over his tanned face.

These are tough times for the Portuguese president of the European Commission. And walking into the newly elected European Parliament in Strasbourg last Wednesday was a particularly difficult experience.

It was the day Barroso was expected to be re-elected to another five-year term as head of the Brussels headquarters of the European Union. That, at least, was what was called for in the script that had been written at the last meeting of the EU heads of state and government. But parliament played hard-to-get, as Green Party members and Social Democrats decided to delay the vote.

The next opportunity to re-elect Barroso will be on Sept. 15, but perhaps nothing will come of it then, either, now that even fellow Christian Democrats are distancing themselves from their candidate.

The Tragicomic Figure in Brussels

Barroso has turned into a tragicomic figure. Hardly anyone thinks highly of him anymore. In fact, many are now criticizing Barroso and spreading malicious gossip about his desperate attempts to solicit the support of his old backers. One of them, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once helped him secure the appointment, now derides him for calling her so often. Staff members in the office of Swedish Minister for European Affairs Cecilia Malmström have said similarly deprecating things about Barroso.

Barroso no longer has any significant authority — if, indeed, he ever had any. Why then did EU leaders want this man in the first place, and why do they mock him today, allowing him to flounder, as if his position were merely an afterthought and not a prominent office within the EU, a major economic power with aspirations to be a major political power? The reason is obvious, says a regent from southeastern Europe: The EU is holding on to the man, who is known to be weak, for reasons of convenience, and because the search for an alternative could possibly lead to greater conflicts.

In truth, politicians like Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy appreciate the downhill gradient between them and the European Commission president. If he were a peer, a man like Frenchman Jacques Delors, who led the Commission from 1985 to 1995 with a mixture of ambition and panache and was justifiably dubbed “Mr. Europe,” the EU wouldn’t be the kind of organization that large countries can control for their own benefit.

Barroso doesn’t present the French and German leaders with such problems. Sprawling proposals on the limits of expansion or a core Europe that could lead an organization that has grown considerably in recent years are not to be expected of him.

Of course, this glaring lack of initiative at the top is not good for an institution like the EU, as it faces a severe economic crisis and is increasingly being sidelined by a US president who dominates the world stage.

The Principle of Mediocrity

It is no comfort that other large organizations that seek to play a role in global politics are taking the same approach. The imbalance between standards and leadership is currently the most glaring at the United Nations, where Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, is more of an administrator than a leader. NATO and, similarly, the World Bank, also applied the criterion of inconspicuousness in choosing its current secretary general.

These executives are the products of a proportionate way of thinking. Their selection is based on the principal of mediocrity, and they fail to live up to the possibilities their positions would offer. But realizing the potential of their positions seems to be exactly what the countries and national leaders that selected them don’t want them to do.

Five years ago, the European Commission might have had an alternative to Barroso, the Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt, a man with his own mind, experience and the determination not to play a subordinate role. Then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder campaigned for him, but Schröder’s political fortunes were already in decline in 2004, allowing Merkel to seize her opportunity. She mobilized the conservative European leaders and defeated Schröder. Barroso, the former Portuguese prime minister, was not the best candidate, but his ambitions were modest, and that was what counted.

The Germans, for their part, have been restrained in putting forth candidates for important positions in international organizations. Despite Germany’s role as the dominant economic power in Europe, it has been 40 years since a German was president of the European Economic Community (Walter Hallstein) and 25 years since the NATO secretary general was from Germany (Manfred Wörner). Only once in the recent past has Berlin enthusiastically tried to push its own candidate. In the spring of 2000, Schröder nominated Caio Koch-Weser for the position of head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the United States rejected the nomination. At the last minute, he conjured up Horst Köhler, who Merkel in turn elevated to the office of German president.

A German Tradition of Abstinence

Since the establishment of the postwar republic, Germany’s reason of state has included integration into the European Community, loyalty to the NATO and the support of major international organizations like the United Nations. It would thus seem logical for Germany to repeatedly put forward its most talented candidates for international positions. But domestic politics continue to prevail in Berlin.

Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is greatly respected abroad and is touted as a possible foreign minister for the EU when Javier Solana leaves the post in the autumn, but Fischer is a member of the Green Party. Former Defense Minister Volker Rühe, with chancellor’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had a falling out with Merkel early on, ruining his prospects. Former CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz is also seen as a possible candidate, but he fell from favor when he became a competitor and critic of Merkel.

This German tradition of abstinence is presumably baffling to many abroad. The British government promptly named former Prime Minister Tony Blair as a possible candidate for the post of EU Council president this autumn, assuming the Lisbon Treaty is ratified — and this despite the fractured relationship between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor. But personal rivalries are apparently less important in London than in Berlin when it comes to such international posts.

Other governments set different priorities. For instance, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Javier Solana, both socialists, were strongly supported by their conservative governments in Paris and Madrid, so that they could be named head of the IMF (Strauss-Kahn) and European foreign minister (Solana). In those cases, national pride trumped political differences.

The leap from domestic politics to the international level is often enormous, and in many cases the newly elected or appointed chief executives are suddenly confronted with the task of leading giant bureaucracies with an independent streak. Usually, it quickly becomes apparent whether they will live up to the challenge, and will either develop the ambition to take control or submit to the wishes of the larger countries.

A UN Leader Who Is More Secretary than General

Ban Ki-moon, the former South Korean foreign minister, has been UN secretary general for the past two-and-a-half years. At the organization’s New York headquarters, and elsewhere, he is seen as a disappointment, and as the wrong man to assume a prominent role and lead the global community at a time when the world’s political axis is shifting from America to Asia. It has always been said that Ban is more interested in being secretary than general, which is precisely what he is today.

The discussion over waste and inertia at the UN is as old as the organization, which was founded in 1945, and it has long been part of this utopian experiment to unite the 192 current member states. But it is worth the effort, and Kofi Annan — Ban’s predecessor and a true global politician — became involved and made his voice heard. Annan, too, was a candidate of proportional representation at first, but he expanded his scope, plainly refused to toe the US line and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Under Ban, it seems like the UN first fell silent and then disappeared. It is as bureaucratic, slow and formalistic as ever. And it is silent, far too silent. Of course, a few things have changed since Ban Ki-moon succeeded Kofi Annan. US President Barack Obama is now the one giving the speeches on reconciliation, solidarity and a new beginning in world politics, and the fate of the planet.

A UN secretary general plays three key roles: to be a conciliatory diplomat, a speaker and a manager. Ban’s English is difficult to understand, and he speaks softly and carefully in a constant singsong of consternation. This was known about him before, but the fact that he is a poor leader also diminishes the UN’s worth and aura.

“We never know what he wants,” says a European ambassador. “All he does is nod, and he never explains his position,” says a confidante. It is said that his UN is weak and unimaginative, and that it is far too close to the Americans, as it has been in the past.

Ban travels a lot, spending more than a third of his time on the road. One-on-one conversations are his specialty, and at some point at every summit meeting, there is a moment when he asks all staff to leave the room, allowing him to spend half an hour with the world’s presidents and dictators. “Personal relationships are always helpful,” says Ban.

Granted, he has achieved a few things. As a result of his efforts, African Union peacekeepers were allowed into the Sudanese war zone, former US President Bill Clinton was named special envoy for Haiti, and the generals who control Burma allowed foreign aid workers into the country after Typhoon Nargis.

Leadership Deficiencies

But is this enough?

Times of crisis require leaders of a different caliber. Times of crisis are unforgiving for bureaucrats at the helm of large institutions. They reveal deficiencies all too clearly, such as lack of charisma and the will to shape policy. This dearth of leadership is all the more evident today at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where treaty negotiations have reached a stalemate. And even the proud World Bank is satisfied to play a secondary role — during nothing less than a global economic crisis.

For two years, the World Bank suffered under then President Paul Wolfowitz, a friend of former President George W. Bush who had holes in his socks. The bank’s new president, Robert Zoellick, 55, is a skilled negotiator who learned his trade in the administration of former President George H.W. Bush and as an advisor to Goldman Sachs. But Zoellick is a technocrat with a fondness for documents, not a motivator, strategist or gifted speaker. According to other World Bank executives, when criticism of bank practices is voiced in internal reports, the president, instead of trying to improve things, prefers to neutralize the critics.

The United States always appoints one of its own to the top job at the World Bank. Washington has a tendency to install someone like Wolfowitz in what is seen as a comfortable position, in this case as the White House’s way of thanking him for his neoconservative justification for the Iraq war. Zoellick is also expected to submit to the wishes of the Obama administration — the institutional prerequisite for the job.

NATO’s Lowest Common Denominator Pick

In other organizations, the hierarchy is not as clearly arranged, and the appointment of personnel is more cumbersome. For instance, anyone who hopes to rise to the top of NATO must be prepared for a complicated arithmetic of power. One does not apply for the position of secretary general or, at any rate, one should not assert claims in public. Instead, one is appointed — at least that’s what the multi-talented Solomon Passy, 52, experienced.

The former Bulgarian foreign minister “drinks freshly squeezed hot peppers, speaks English to the penguins in Antarctica and can calculate in his mind the squared area of a circle.” This, at any rate, is what he claims on his homepage, and as far as he was concerned, this seemed to be the ideal profile for the office of NATO secretary general. Passy was long the only official applicant, a fact that already guaranteed his failure.

Washington traditionally appoints the alliance’s supreme military commander, while the diplomatic leadership is left up to the Europeans. This led to a certain amount of jostling when the term of Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who leaves the post on July 31, began drawing to a close.

Joschka Fischer was touted as a possible new secretary general. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Störe expressed an interest in the job, as did Canadian Defense Minister Peter Gordon MacKay. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorsky and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, as well as former Slovenian President Janez Jansa, also felt that they stood a chance of securing the top NATO post. Each of these three men would have been the first secretary general from a former Soviet bloc country.

The man who will be applauded next Friday as the new secretary general of the alliance, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, 56, is a conservative politician who promoted an anti-immigration policy in an otherwise liberal country. He was the lowest common denominator that everyone could agree on. No one seems to be troubled by the fact that Rasmussen, an economist, is not a military expert.

And Bulgarian candidate Passy? A marginal curiosity.

The Tried and True Approach

Mohamed ElBaradei, 67, on the other hand, is an example of how a compromise candidate can become a highly respected figure. The Egyptian president of the International Atomic Energy Agency, headquartered in Vienna, criticized the US invasion of Iraq, prompting the Bush administration to attempt to obstruct his reappointment, but to no avail. ElBaradei also hasn’t readily joined the ranks of Iran’s detractors. Nevertheless, he and his institution were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

ElBaradei, who has turned a nuclear watchdog agency into a politically oriented forum, is retiring in November. His successor, 63-year-old Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, received the necessary two-thirds majority in the sixth round of voting.

Then Amano, an expert on international law and nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, gave a speech. For six long minutes, he read his prepared remarks, speaking in a monotone. He is considered the candidate of the West and the United States, but he is said to lack the gift of communication — which is quickly apparent to anyone who listens to him speak.

Perhaps the IAEA, too, has taken the tried-and-true approach: choosing a man of mediocrity.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan