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Dreaming of the Next UN Secretary General

6 May

 

 

“I solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organisation.”

United Nations Secretary General’s Oath of Office

 

In 2006 Ramesh Thakur, one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable commentators on global issues, wrote a trustworthy account of what it takes to be selected as UN Secretary General, and then to be effective in the job. [Thakur, “In Selecting the New UN Secretary General,” Feb. 3, 2006, Daily Yomiuri] In many ways his assessment, although realistic, confirms the impression that the leadership potential of this titular position as head of the UN is structurally limited and inconsistent with the spirit of the oath of office. The reason for these low expectations, as Thakur points out, is that the “most important” requirement of the job is to be regarded when selected as acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called P-5), and especially to the United States.

 

It is a tribute to the potential of the position of SG that the P-5 governments are exceedingly careful in vetting potential candidates, and have not yet ever been deeply disappointed by selecting a rogue SG, although once in office an individual may in some instances become somewhat more responsive to the oath of office than to the secondary wishes of his or her geopolitical masters. Such unresponsiveness, especially as it involved the United States, helps explain why Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed to obtain support for a customary second term in office back in 1996.

 

In practice, the selection process is ultra sensitive to this overriding need for a Secretary General to be someone that will be respectful of the geopolitical winds that blow at a given time in world politics regardless of the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. Appreciating this pattern makes it misleading to read the Charter as if it is intended to provide an authoritative framing designed to regulate the behavior of its 193 member states. It should be accepted for better and worse what it is, a constitutional framework of the UN that privileged the winners of World War II, and at the time of its founding opted for a state-centric international body that subordinated international law and the equality of sovereign states to the inequalities associated with international hierarchies of hard and soft power. In effect, the Charter itself embodies this tension between its geopolitical operating logic, as reinforced by the lack of independent funding, and the idealistic mandate of its Preamble, Purposes, and Principles. In effect, the tension can be understood as between the affirmation of juridical equality and the constitutional loophole ensuring geopolitical inequality. The UN was intended from the outset to be an Organization that enforced standards of accountability on the multiplicity of states to the best of its ability while deferring to the discretion of those deemed in 1945 to be most powerful, a status formalized by the vesting of this unrestricted right of veto in the P-5 bolstered by permanent membership in the Security Council.

 

The Charter is astonishingly silent about the qualifications that should guide the selection of a secretary general, but it is clear on the procedure: a recommendation must be made by the Security Council to the General Assembly for its approval. This means that the any one of the P-5 can use their veto to block a candidate. In this context, the veto has not been necessary as the P-5 have managed, even throughout the entire Cold War, to reach agreement on an acceptable candidate for SG by reliance on this method of secret backroom negotiations, which undoubtedly included much wrangling. The first eight secretaries general emerged from these dark shadows of great power bargaining, but this process gave rise to an increasing cascade of complaints from non-P-5 governments and from interested civil society organizations. These players objected to the secrecy and non-transparency of the way in which the SG was chosen.

 

In an accommodating response, the next secretary general is to be selected by a more seemingly democratic procedure: government nominations of multiple candidates, vision statements by the candidates, and give and take dialogues with civil society representatives. [For a helpful overview of the reformed selection process see Arabella Lang, “Selecting a New Secretary General,” UK House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper No. 7544, 3 March 2015] But we should not be misled. The decisive influence in the selection process remains the Security Council, and there the preferred candidate must still win the unanimous approval of the P-5. In the past, this has produced a race to the bottom, essentially a candidate that is not objectionable to any of these governments. As a result past SGs, with a few notable exceptions, have been ‘company men’ who have been careful not to use leverage of the position to shift the balance of world opinion on a geopolitically sensitive issues. What emerges over the year is that the SG is not expected to manifest a globalist orientation or engage in strong advocacy insisting on the universality of international law.

 

At the same time, the nature of the office requires that the occupant be held in reasonably high regard throughout the world and have a background of credible leadership such as to ensure confidence that the administrative and ceremonial demands of the position will be competently discharged. In other words, for the sake of the UN bureaucracy and for the morale of civil society, it has been accepted that a SG should be able to run the organization and grace ceremonial occasions with uplifting rhetoric. These secondary, but still crucial concerns, may explain why several secretaries generals have proved to be more than geopolitical placeholders, most notably Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961), U Thant (1961-1971), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), and Kofi Annan (1997-2006). Surely, some SGs have been better than others at upholding the dignity and appearance of political independence attached to the position. Kurt Waldheim and Ban Ki-moon have been embarrassments to the Organization because of their failures to project the kind of public leadership that lifts spirits without damaging structures.

 

Against this background, even with the welcome reforms of greater public vetting, transparency, and multiple candidacies, the end result is still likely to be the selection of someone who, above all else, can be expected not to rock the geopolitical boat. Symbolically these reforms seem a step in the right direction, especially if a woman is finally chosen, although the seeming adherence to the principle of regional rotation, which means that the chosen one seems destined to be an East European. This does not augur well for the Organization given the available pool of candidates from that region. If indeed it is to be a woman, then let it be Helen Clark of New Zealand (who has been nominated by her government) or Angela Merkel of Germany or Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile (these latter two seem qualified but are unlikely to be nominated, much less selected), each a proven and principled political leader, as well as being highly experienced in managing organizations. Yet even, as seems unlikely, Clark, Merkel, or Bachelet were to be selected, the best we can hope for is a performance that is graceful and competent but that would be less than what the world needs and what the peoples of the planet deserve. The geopolitical obstacles remain firmly in place and too strong, and even if somehow circumvented, a SG who transcended the demands of geopolitics would likely run the UN into the ground in short order.

 

Such a pronouncement is sad. There is a severe leadership deficit at the global level, and it centers on the absence of mechanisms to uphold the human interest, as distinct from national and geopolitical interests. This is why I must comfort myself by dreaming of rather than hoping that the selection of the next secretary general is a person, ideally a woman, that would think and act globally as representative of the species, and not to uphold the ways and means of the established order. We have witnessed for decades the sorry spectacle of the failure of the UN to tackle the challenges posed by the development of nuclear weaponry or by the dangers associated with global warming. Instead of serving the human interest by achieving nuclear disarmament, the world has ended up with the protection of hierarchical arrangements as embodied in the regime of nuclear nonproliferation, which allows for the development, possession, and possible use of these weapons by the most dangerous countries in the world while enforcing double standards by precluding the acquisition of these weapons by weaker states even when threatened with an overwhelming attack by stronger neighbors.

 

With climate change, the search for a solution involved broadening the diplomatic format to include all 193 member states, but with an end result that what was agreed upon was essentially an aggregation of national interests as well as voluntary, with what was agreed upon falling far below what the scientific consensus has determined to be necessary for the health and wellbeing of future generations.

 

In more flagrant disregard of the Charter itself, and signifying Western as well as P-5 hegemony, has been the reluctance of the Organization or its principal officer ever to challenge the United States and its friends when in the face of flagrant disregard of the UN Charter provisions limiting the use of force to instances of self-defense against a prior armed attack (e.g. Vietnam, after 1965, Iraq, after 2003).

 

What the world urgently needs at the UN is an unshackled guardian of the global public good who articulates human interests as these arose in international life, and had the institutional capabilities to take effective action. At present, we depend on a religious leader such as Pope Francis to fill this normative vacuum, and occasionally political figures such as Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King rise above their national identities to represent the human interest, but such figures lack any institutional capacity to carry their words into deeds. At present, we can only dream that such a figure would be selected as the next secretary general, but we should be aware that dreams often disclose deep aspirations and can offer necessary guidance, and thus should not be ignored.

 

The carnage around the world, as well as the massive migrations of desperate persons, underscores the growing need for a strong United Nations led by a person who above all is dedicated to the promotion of global and human interests, and has the will and mandate to disregard geopolitical pressures. Of course, this now a private pipedream that is politically irrelevant unless it becomes embodied in a global movement for peace, justice, ecological stewardship, and the survival of the species. We have experienced the integrative wonders of neoliberal globalization, with their attendant ravaging of human wellbeing and our natural surroundings. We have also seen the dawn of moral globalization in the rise of international human rights and the call for a global rule of law, but as yet there is not visible on the horizon an organized political undertaking capable of bringing into history these faint gropings toward humane governance of planetary proportions. We still sit around expecting the next SG to continue arranging the deck chairs on a sinking vessel. I feel we are entitled to hope that the ninth UN SG will have the awareness and courage to upset these settled expectations of business as usual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Citizenship in the 21st Century

20 May

[This post was previously published online at the website of the Global Transition Initiative, which is dedicated to promoting “Transformative Vision and Praxis.” It responds to an essay on global citizenship written by Professor Robert Paehlke (“Global Citizenship: Plausible Fears and Necessary Dreams”), who cogently advocates the formation of a Global Citizens Movement, including indicating how it might become effective. What seems important about such dialogue is the recognition that given the realities of this historical period, it is increasingly necessary for political thought and action to proceed by reference to human interests as well as being responsive to national, local, ethnic, and religious interests and values. A feature of modernity that is being rightly questioned from many angles is the presumed radical autonomy of human interests, especially the modernist illusion that the co-evolutionary dependence on nature and the environment was being superseded by the marvels of technological innovation. One way back to the future is to rethink political community—its boundaries and essential features—from the perspectives of participants, with citizenship being the secular signature of belonging and engagement, and ultimately, the sustainability not just of the community, but of the species.]

 

 

            Reading Robert Paehlke’s carefully crafted essay on global citizenship provides the occasion both for an appreciation of his approach and some doubts about its degree of responsiveness to the urgencies of the present or more specifically its adequacy in relation to the call for ‘transformative vision and praxis’ that lies at the heart of the ‘Great Transition Initiative.’ Paehlke is on strong ground when he ventures the opinion that the planetization of citizenship is an indispensable precondition for the establishment of global governance in forms that are both effective and fair. His insistence that global governance to be legitimate must address ethical issues as well as functional ones associated with sustainability is certainly welcome. He is also persuasive in advocating the formation of a global citizens movement (GCM) that takes advantage of the networking and mobilizing potential of the Internet, combining an initial focus on local challenges while nurturing a global perspective. His deepest sympathies clearly lie with a pluralistic and decentralized GCM that operates, at least for the foreseeable future, without leaders or a common program of action, and as such is likely in his words to be “less threatening” to the established order (p.3). But here is where my analysis and prescriptive horizons departs from his—if a transformative global movement is to emerge from current ferment, then it seems strategic to become more threatening, not less. Flying below the radar is not the kind of praxis that will awaken the human species from its long and increasingly dangerous world order slumber.

 

            I would say that the defining feature of Paehlke’s approach is an implicit belief that with enough patience and persistence we can get to the ‘there’ of effective and equitable global governance from the ‘here’ of neoliberal globalization and state-centricism that is accentuating inequality and human insecurity within and between states. He envisions a transformative movement as possible if prudent efforts are made to induce enough global reform to facilitate the kinds of economic development that manages to deliver equity and environmental protection across borders. There is present in Paehlke’s worldview a sophisticated linear interpretation of world history that is particularly exhibited through changes in the organizational scale of political communities and in the application of technology to the fundamentals of economic, social, and political life. In his well chosen words, the spread of GCM will likely occur “as crises mature and more people appreciate that global governance is where the long arc of human history is taking us—and has been for centuries.” In effect, just as the small kingdoms of feudal Europe became too small to handle the expansion of productive capacities and the enlargement of the market, so in the 21st Century the state is no longer able to be responsive to the magnitudes of the challenges facing humanity, a reality that he hopes the formation and activity of GCM will highlight and circumvent. Paehlke makes clear that his advocacy of global citizenship does not imply either a prediction or prescription that the only appropriate form of global governance is world government. He leaves open to the dynamics of interaction, how transformative governmental adjustments will be made, implying that there are alternative paths to optimal forms of future global governance and that history encourages the confidence that needed adjustments will be forthcoming.

 

            Understandably preoccupied with the inequalities stemming from current patterns of economic globalization, Paelhke believes that a robust GCM will tend to shift political consciousness from the competitive logic of a world of states to the communal logic of a world of people. Such a shift, should it occur in relation to the agenda of global policy bearing on human security would indeed go a long distance toward satisfying the ideational prerequisites of the Great Transition Initiative. But I find it hard to believe that this shift in outlook could come about unless it is actualized by a prior radical and worldwide social movement that shakes the foundations of the established political and economic order. These differing logics also reflect the multiple unevenness of various national circumstances that bear on the wages and safety of workers, and others, as well as fixing the appropriate level of environmental protection. At stake, also, is whether there exists enough common global ground to overcome geographic locus of global policy that has up to this point in modern times given us a world of competing national and transnational interests. How these kinds of tensions can be overcome by approaching policy making from the perspective of shared challenges and opportunities seems daunting, and suggests that the GCM, despite being oriented by Paehlke toward the local, will fail exert much transformative leverage. To exert transformative influence it would have to reorient political consciousness toward the North Star of human interests, which presupposes a qualitative departure from the bounded space of territorial sovereign states whose leadership regards itself pledged to maximize national interests while at the same time, without acknowledgement, promoting transnational financial flows and capital efficiency. The ‘without acknowledgement’ is important as national political leaders must hide the extent to which they are captives of entrenched economic elites and thus need to deceive the citizenry as to why certain policy adjustments cannot even be proposed.

 

            As Andreas Brummel aptly observes, a robust GCM would benefit greatly from the establishment of some form of global parliament, which has been long advocated by those who do not accept the conventional strictures of citizenship as linked to nationalism. Such a parliamentary institution, depending on how it emerged, could begin to articulate global policy from contrarian perspectives to those associated with the outlook of leading states. Especially important would be articulations of the human and global interest, as well as bringing to bear a variety of views not represented by governments acting on behalf of national interests and dedicated to the promotion of transnational capital in all its forms. To develop a transformative consciousness we must first understand the wide gaps between a nationally oriented political consciousness and one that is humanly oriented.

 

            Such a positive outcome cannot be assumed to follow from the mere establishment of a global parliament. As soon as such an institution achieves gains in stature it would almost inevitably become a site of struggle for competing worldviews, including class conflict and a variety of culture wars. I mention such concerns in light of the recent experience of the European Parliament, which has had the roller coaster ride of being long discounted as an irrelevant talk shop before being taken gradually more seriously, and now becoming significant enough to alert reactionary forces in Europe to its political potentialities. These regressive forces are now poised to take over the institution with the evident intention of pushing the European Union further in Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and socially harsh directions. These risks of cooption and neutralization cast a thickening cloud over the near future of the European Parliament, and in various ways clarify why over the decades the United Nations has so disappointed expectations of those seeking a peaceful and just world order, and seems often to have been the scene of an institutional race to the bottom.

 

            In effect, I am arguing that a reformist outlook, while useful, is not mobilizing in relation to the deeper concerns about the human future. Such a more relaxed outlook as to the global setting implicitly believes that there is ample time and political space for the transformative forces of humanism to work their magic. I find the evidence and tendencies to be quite the opposite. We are living in a time of emergency as far as the human species is concerned. I know this political consciousness has existed previously. Some respected observers, insist that apocalyptic fears are nothing other than a symptom of all civilizational transitions, and that ours reflects the ending of modernity. In opposition, I would argue that the apocalyptic realities of the current challenges make the claim of emergency the only responsible reaction due to the evidence surrounding growing risks of species collapses. I realize that Paehlke is arguing against such world order ‘alarmism,’ which he and many other believe to be politically debilitating. I contend, in opposition, that we must orient praxis toward the real if we wish to act with sanity and in a aroused spirit of dedication.

 

            The world has had several decades to react and adapt, but has not done so. I would point to the normalization of nuclear weaponry in the security mentality of powerful states and the inability of these same states to act responsibly in relation to the strong scientific consensus as to the menace of climate change, particularly global warming. What these failures of response to such fundamentally threatening developments disclose, above all, is a biopolitical uncertainty as to whether the human species as a species has a sufficient will to survive. We know that individuals have such a will, which is generally extended to embrace family, loved ones, and even friends and neighbors. Also, nationalism has demonstrated the intensity of a national will to survive even at great potential cost to the partial self of nationhood and the larger self of humanity as a whole. The shared security commitment of lead governments to nuclear deterrence during the Cold War expressed an omnicidal readiness to risk the fate of the species, and thereby give an absolute value to the survival of the state and nation. Our hopes for the future depend on determining whether this apparent weak will to survive at the level of the human species is hard-wired into our collective mental processes or is a contingent byproduct of modernity encased in a state-centric and neoliberal world order that can be reconfigured for survival and justice, but not without a difficult struggle.

 

            Despite my appreciation of Paehlke’s hopes for the GCM and the fact that many of his formulations are congenial, I find the overall framework of thought and action too constrained by the assumptions that global citizenship can be understood and enacted as a spatial phenomenon. This includes the bias toward promoting local solutions to the extent possible to avoid dangerous and unpopular concentrations of political power. I would argue that time is as important as space in the reconfiguration of citizenship, especially as the challenges become more severe with the passage of time. For instance, compare the relative simplicity of achieving total nuclear disarmament in 1945 when only one country possessed a few atomic bombs with the complexities associated with trying to negotiate a disarmament treaty with nine nuclear weapons states that have vastly different security priorities and perceptions. Or consider the difficulties of addressing climate change after the planet heats up by 4 degrees Celsius or more by mid-century as compared to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions effectively in the 1990s when the nature of the threat was first convincingly established by the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion. Even those with some sensitivity to gravity of the challenge, such as Barack Obama, are so constrained by the practicalities of politics, that they continue to limit recommended solutions to those that are market-based, and have already been demonstrated to be ineffective. The larger point here is that citizenship must become as oriented toward time and the future at least as much as toward the geographies and peoples now living within territorial boundaries. To capture this sense of space/time I have previously championed the ideal of ‘citizen pilgrims,’ those engaged in a journey toward a sustainable and emancipated future that acknowledges and acts upon mounting threats to human survival as well as tries hard to make the planet more morally, aesthetically, and spiritually responsible.

 

            Paehlke ends his essay by distancing himself from ideological markers of left/right, and by saying that GCM “need not primie facie oppose ‘globalization’ or ‘capitalism’” in its commitment to finding “quick, small, visible victories that enhance the efficacy felt by citizens” in relation to problems requiring global solutions. In his essay there is missing any critique of the links between militarism and neoliberal globalization or between global inequalities and the post-colonial interventionism and force projection of the West, especially the United States. There is a certain originality in Paehlke’s stress on the lack of confidence by citizens in relation to activity in the public sphere given the way state and market function in our world. Yet in the end I find restoring confidence in citizen efficacy and the encouragement of working within the system to be the wrong way to go given what we know, fear, and hope. So conceived GCM is likely to divert our attention while we as a species move ever closer to the Great Transition of our nightmares. In essence, to approach the Great Transition of happier dreams we must begin by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This may seem divisive, but in a world so hierarchical and divided by class, race, gender, to do otherwise is to retreat disastrously from the realities of political life. It is fine to crave unity, but in the meantime we are entrapped in a series of structures that reward conflict, exploitation, and take disunity and enduring division as endemic to the human condition. At best, we can affirm dialogic modes of being in the world, an engagement with ‘otherness’ in all its forms, but also with the humbling recognition that there are radically different appreciations of what needs to be done.