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The Next Secretary-General: No Charisma Required

It’s not an election, it’s a Selection. And although all the countries in the United Nations General Assembly have equal rights, some are more equal than others.

Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of this year, and it’s time for the United Nations to choose a new Secretary- General. By the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly, ends in early October, we will know who it is. Which raises two questions: how do they make
the choice, and why should anybody care?

The secretary-general of the United Nations is, in some senses, the highest official on the planet, but the selection process is hardly democratic. In fact, it has traditionally been a process as shrouded in secrecy as a papal conclave.

It is the Security Council’s fifteen members who pick the candidate, although all 192 members of the General Assembly then get to vote on their choice. And even on the Security Council, it’s only the views of the five permanent members (the P5) that really count, because each of the five great powers has a veto and the others don’t.

This is why people with strong opinions and a record of taking decisive action don’t get the job. That sort of person would be bound to annoy one of the P5 great powers – Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States – or even all of them one after the other, so the entire system is designed to prevent a maverick with big ideas from slipping through.

The secretary-general must never come from one of the great powers (that might give him access to enough resources to make a nuisance of himself), and the successful candidate should not be charismatic. The final choice is usually a “safe pair of hands”, some blameless diplomat from a middle or smaller power like the incumbent, a career diplomat from South Korea who ranks 32nd on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People.

Candidates therefore tend to be relative unknowns. If you look through the current list of candidates, for example, the only two names you might recognise, even if you are a political junkie, are former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and later UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But who is Irina Bokova, Natalia Gherman, or Igor Luksic? They are, in that order, a former acting foreign minister of Bulgaria, the current foreign minister of Moldova, and a former foreign minister of Montenegro. Well, all right, Bokova is also the current director-general of UNESCO, but you still didn’t know her name, did you?

Why so many Eastern Europeans (eight of the twelve candidates come from that region)? Because it’s Eastern Europe’s “turn” this time. That region always missed out until the end of the Cold War, because the countries of Eastern Europe were effectively under Soviet control and therefore contravened the unwritten “no sec-gen from a great power” rule.

You might also ask why Eastern Europe is a whole separate region at all, given that its total population from Poland to Bulgaria is less than the population of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia or Pakistan. Same reason: it used to be seen as a separate region because it was occupied by Soviet troops and most of its governments were ultimately controlled from Moscow. History looms very large at the UN.

There is some progress. Half of this year’s candidates are female, and there is a strong feeling around the UN that it is high time for a woman to become secretary-general. There is also an attempt this time to make the process more “transparent”, but it is otherwise unchanged. The Security Council still comes up with a single candidate who doesn’t offend any of the great powers, and the General Assembly then rubber-stamps its choice.

It’s basically a civil service job, suitable for persons of cautious disposition. How could it be otherwise? You only get what you pay for, and no great power is yet ready to pay the price in terms of its own sovereignty of having a powerful independent leader at the United Nations.

What would be the point of choosing such a leader anyway, so long as the UN has no military forces or financial resources of its own? It would only lead to frustration: the secretary-general can’t act independently of the will of the great powers because they designed it that way.

The job is still worth doing, and there is never a shortage of applicants. The secretary-general can speak out as the conscience of the world when there are massive violations of human rights, and once in a while she can actually organise a peace-keeping mission to stop the horrors (if all the great powers agree).

And she becomes, by virtue of her position, the most striking symbol of that more cooperative, less violent world that most politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens actually aspire to. But we are still a very long way from the promised land.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Why…UN”)

Greece and the Euro: What Now?

In theory, it could still work. It only requires three miracles.

Maybe the resounding “no” to the eurozone’s terms for a third bail-out in Sunday’s referendum in Greece (61 percent against) will force the euro currency’s real managers, Germany and France, to reconsider. French President Francois Hollande is already advocating a return to negotiations with Greece.

Maybe the International Monetary Fund will publicly urge the eurozone’s leaders to cancel more of Greece’s crushing load of debt. Last Thursday the IMF released a report saying that Greece needed an extra 50 billion euros over three years to roll over existing debt, and should be allowed a 20-year grace period before making any debt repayments. Even then, it said, Greece’s debt was “unsustainable”.

And maybe Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tripras will accept the terms he asked Greek voters to reject in the referendum if he can also get a commitment to a big chunk of debt relief – say around 100 billion euros, about a third of Greece’s total debt – from the eurozone authorities and the IMF. It’s all theoretically possible. It even makes good sense. But it will require radically different behaviour from all the parties involved.

Tsipras has already made one big gesture: on the morning after the referendum victory, he ditched his flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. The hyper-combative Varoufakis had needlessly alienated every other eurozone finance minister with his scattergun abuse, and it was hard to imagine him sitting down with his opposite numbers again after calling them all “terrorists” during the referendum campaign.

The IMF’s gesture was even bigger, if much belated. It knew the eurozone’s strategy was wrong from the time of the first bail-out in 2010, and it is finally getting ready to admit it.

Normally, when the IMF bails out a country that is over its head in debt, it insists on four things. There is always fiscal consolidation (cutting spending, collecting all the taxes, balancing the budget) and “structural reform” (making labour markets more flexible, ending subsidies, etc.). All the current Greece-eurozone negotiations have been about these issues. But the usual IMF package also includes devaluation and debt relief.

There was no debt relief at all in the 2010 bail-out, and only private-sector creditors were forced to take a “haircut” (around 30 percent) in the second bail-out in 2012. Most of Greece’s debt was owed to German and French banks, and that wasn’t touched. Indeed, 90 percent of the eurozone loans Greece has received go straight into repaying European banks.

Greece’s debt is not decreased by these transactions: it is just switched to European official bodies including the European Central Bank So the Greeks are getting no real help worth talking about, and European taxpayers are getting screwed to save European banks.

Why didn’t the IMF blow the whistle on this long ago? Because it was not taking the lead in these negotiations, and after it took part in the 2010 bail-out anyway it was deeply embarrassed. It had broken its own rules, and found it hard to admit it. It was also aware that devaluation, usually a key part of IMF bail-outs, is impossible for Greece unless it actually leaves the euro (which Greeks desperately don’t want to do).

So the usual post-bailout economic recovery didn’t happen. Over five years Greece’s debt has increased by half, its economy has shrunk by a quarter, and unemployment has risen to 25 percent (50 percent for young people). The referendum question was deliberately obscure and misleading, but most Greeks know that the current approach simply isn’t working. That’s why they voted “no” in the referendum. It was a valid choice.

If the eurozone authorities know that much of Greece’s debt can never be repaid (which they do), why don’t they just give Greece the debt relief it needs? Partly because Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that her own German voters will be angry at more “charity” funded by their taxes, whereas they stay fairly quiet so long as the debt is still on the books. And partly because other eurozone countries would see it as special treatment for Greece.

Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have also been through harrowing bail-out programmes, and are still making proportionally bigger interest payments on their debts than Greece. Some other countries using the euro – Estonia, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia – have about the same GDP per capita as Greece, and Latvia is even poorer. They don’t see why they should pay for Greece’s folly in running up such huge debts.

“I really hope that the Greek government – if it wants to enter negotiations again – will accept that the other 18 member states of the euro can’t just go along with an unconditional haircut (debt write-off),” said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor. “How could we then refuse it to other member states? And what would it mean for the eurozone if we did it? It would blow the eurozone apart, for sure.”

So it really isn’t possible to predict whether Tsipras and Greece will be offered a better deal or not. It’s equally impossible to say what will happen to the euro “single currency” if there is no deal and Greece crashes out of the euro in the next couple of weeks, although the eurozone authorities insist that they could weather the storm.

We do live in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 14. (“Normally…relief”; “Greece’s…banks”); and “I really…sure”)

Spain: A Handsome Apology

By Gwynne Dyer

“In Spain, a clear majority realize we have committed a historical error and have an opportunity to repair it,” said Spain’s justice minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, “so I am sure the (new citizenship) law will pass with an immense majority in parliament.”. And the law doesn’t just say that Spain is sorry for expelling its Jews 522 years ago. It lets their descendants get their citizenship back.

Spain’s Jews were given only four months in 1492 to choose between becoming Christian or leaving their homes forever. Most left, settling in Muslim-ruled North Africa and the Ottoman Empire or in other parts of Christian Europe. They kept their Spanish language in the form of Ladino, and became know as Sephardic (i.e. Spanish) Jews.

The Sephardim have retained their distinctive identity, and are estimated to number up to a third of the world’s 13 million Jews today. Spain’s planned new law potentially covers almost all of them.

Applicants for Spanish citizenship need not speak Ladino or even be religious. They need only be able to show a link to Sephardic culture (it could be as little as a Sephardic family name). In most cases, the simplest route to Spanish citizenship would be to have a local rabbi certify their Sephardic ancestry, or to get certification of their Sephardic heritage from a recognized Spanish-Jewish community.

Spain’s justice minister reckons that only about 150,000 Sephardic Jews will take him up on the offer (which will remain open for two years), and he doesn’t think that many of them will actually want to move to Spain. But he promises that the government will not be strict in deciding who qualifies as Sephardic – “We are opening the door,” he said – and he may be surprised by how many actually apply.

What Gallardón has not taken into account is the fact that Spanish citizenship is, for practical purposes, citizenship in all 28 member countries of the European Union. A Spanish passport-holder can enter Britain, France, Germany, Sweden or any other EU country without a visa, take up residence there, get a job or start a business there.

Almost half of Israel’s Jews are Sephardim, and Israel is a country where second passports are in great demand. The big Sephardic communities in the United States and Mexico will probably not be tempted, but the remaining Sephardic Jews in Muslim countries, including Turkey, certainly will be. Symbolism is important, but Gallardón’s offer will also have a real impact on many people’s lives.

Portugal, which expelled its Jews shortly after Spain did, is also trying to make amends: it now grants citizenship to Sephardim who can demonstrate a connection to the Portuguese Jewish community. How much further might this example spread? Not very far, alas.

Most of the great expulsions of history have occurred in the context of war, like the compulsory “population exchange” of the Greek minority in Turkey and the Turkish minority in Greece after the First World War, or the expulsion of ten million Germans from their ancestral homes in eastern Europe at the end of the Second.

It’s because the Jews of Spain and Portugal were entirely blameless and ruthlessly victimised that there is broad popular support in both these countries for this act of apology and belated recompense. All credit to Spain and Portugal for doing it – but it probably wouldn’t be happening even there if it seriously inconvenienced the majority.

Opportunity Costs

If Russia spent as much on intelligence agencies as the United States does—$52.6 billion in 2013, according to the “black budget” published by the Washington Post last August—would it have been able to stop the suicide bombers who killed 31 people in two attacks in Volgograd early this week? Can you solve the problem just by throwing money at it? And how big a problem is it, anyway?

 Russia doesn’t really have that kind of money to spend on “intelligence”, so let’s narrow it down to the $10.6 billion that the US National Security Agency spends each year. Of the sixteen intelligence agencies working for the US government, the NSA is the one that places the most emphasis on its alleged ability to stop terrorist attacks through monitoring everybody’s communications.

Would the NSA’s $10.6 billion, spent in the same way by the Russians, have stopped the Volgograd bombers? We cannot know for sure, any more than we can know if another billion dollars spent in the United States would have stopped the Boston marathon bombers last June. So maybe we should reformulate the question.

A total of 785 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Russia in the past ten years, and Moscow does not pay for an operation remotely comparable to the NSA. In the US, a total of 26 people were killed by terrorists in the same period. So does this mean that the NSA has saved 759 American lives in the past decade?

Probably not. Russia has a far worse terrorism problem than the United States, because some 6 million citizens, living in the Muslim-majority republics of the northern Caucasus, belong to various ethnic groups who see themselves as living under Russian occupation. The United States has no comparable domestic groups, and its ferocious border controls make it very hard for foreign-based terrorists to slip into the country.

There was one exception, twelve years ago, when foreign terrorists did manage to get into the United States and carry out an attack. However, the 9/11 attackers were using a brand new technique. Such innovations are very rare, and are only a surprise the first time. No subsequent terrorist attack, in the US or anywhere else, has been remotely as ambitious.

The NSA has certainly not prevented ten 9/11s in the past decade; it’s very unlikely to have prevented even one. But let us accept, for the sake of the argument, that the NSA’s activities have really saved 759 American lives in the past decade. In fact, let’s round it up to 1,000 lives, to make the calculations easier.

That would mean that over the past decade the NSA has spent around $100 billion to save 1,000 American lives. That works out at $10 million per life saved (on the heroic assumption that without the NSA the American terrorism problem would have been even worse than the Russian).

Economists talk about “opportunity cost”: when you spend the money on one thing, you are foregoing whatever benefits you might have got from spending it on something else. Are there other ways of spending that $100 billion that would save more than a thousand American lives?

Consider spending some of it on better pre- and post-natal care for poor Americans. Just a billion dollars a year—an extra $250 per baby—would enable the US to get its infant mortality rate down below Cuba’s, maybe even as low as Portugal or South Korea. Over ten years, that would be 60,000 more American kids who lived to grow up.

Or take highways. Highway engineers can estimate how many people will die each year on a given stretch of highway fairly accurately. It depends on the width and surface of the road, how many sharp curves and blind hills there are, whether there are guard rails, etc. All those things depend on how much money you have to spend on that stretch of highway.

Around 34,000 Americans died on the roads in 2012. Another $5 billion a year, spent on making highways safer, would probably reduce that toll by an extra thousand people each year. Over ten years, it would save around another 60,000 lives.

That’s 120,000 lives saved, and there’s still $4 billion a year left to spend on other life-saving improvements. You almost certainly end up saving at least 150,000 American lives with your $100 billion investment. That’s at least 150 times better than your return on investing the money in the NSA—and we haven’t yet even considered the cost in alienated allies and violated civil rights of giving the NSA all that money.

Unfortunately, Americans dying in infancy or on the highways don’t make headlines, whereas victims of terrorism do. Politically, their lives are much more important, and so that’s where the money goes. Indeed, even making calculations of this sort about the relative value we assign to human lives is thought to be in poor taste.

Never mind. As Herman Kahn, the dean of American nuclear strategists, said when people criticised him for making cold-blooded estimates of how many millions of Americans would be killed as a result of various different US strategies for fighting a nuclear war: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?”