Settling for Second Best In Global Institutions, Mediocrity Is the Way 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?


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.


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