UN Assembly Puts World Leadership to the Test

Santiago Iñiguez. Dean. Instituto de Empresa

27 October 2005

The UN General Assembly in September highlighted the flaws in the leadership qualities of two of the world’s most important men: US President George W. Bush and UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. Now the UN has the opportunity to redefine the profile of the world’s future leaders.

Last September, New York was the venue for the 60th General Assembly of the UN. This is the international event that brings together the highest number of heads of state and prime ministers. It is also an event that allows for analysts to assess the leadership abilities of the participants and the scope of their vision and projects. As a result, recent articles have revealed a wide-spread leadership crisis that affects both national and international representatives,including the General Secretary of the UN, Kofi Annan. Among the prime ministers, perhaps the one with the strongest leadership qualities is Japan's Koizumi, who emerged reinforced from his victory at the recent national elections. However, the two hosts of the meeting, Secretary Annan and President Bush—men with leadership styles that are far more similar than first meets the eye--attended the meeting at a moment when opinion polls showed their popularity had sunk to an all-time low. Applying business leadership models within this context enables us to predict the long-term implications of the summit.

The popularity of the US president is at its lowest point since he took office, in large part because of his slow response to hurricane Katrina. Concerned by the growing crisis, Bush scheduled one of the most intense weeks of his term in office. He has combined a flurry of diplomatic meetings with frequent visits to the affected areas. Bush explained this hyperactivity, saying that he is "capable of doing more than one thing at a time". According to CNN, his explicit acceptance of responsibility and his constant presence in the media have led 58% of the US population to take a more positive view, in recent days, of the president's response to the crisis. Bush has a characteristically passive style of leadership, which implies both advantages and disadvantages. Because he needs to enhance his image at home, he is likely to block any initiative that might be interpreted as a concession. He is likely to ban any international program involving heavy investment, while seeking to reinforce the US's position on the international stage. This strategy, coupled with President Bush's apparent frankness, will gradually re-establish his domestic popularity.

Kofi Annan, the new Monnet?

For his part, Kofi Annan is standing at a crossroads that could possibly lead him towards a more active style of leadership. The generic model of leadership that inspired the creation of the European Union might serve the executives of multilateral institutions such as the General Secretary's Office of the UN. In his recent book titled Why Europe will Run the 21st Century, Mark Leonard explains how Jean Monnet, the key figure in the pan-European movement, was a civil servant with little charisma and a profile that marked a distinct contrast from those of the European heroes of the Second World War, such as Churchill and De Gaulle.

But with his particular active style of leadership, Monnet played a decisive role in the construction of Europe. He understood that a community of nations sharing similar interests and diverging opinions could not be built according to a single, general plan, but rather through specific steps aimed at creating de facto cohesion among its members. Paradoxically, his aim was to create a shared vision among the member states. Pragmatism and the idea of gradual and progressive change were decisive for the success of the project, which consisted of moving step-by-step, from one sphere of integration and cooperation to another, until the unique process of creating today's European Union was completed.

Possibly, the leadership required at the head of the UN is similar to that exercised by Monnet. A test for an active leadership, the UN post requires an invisible hand to lead multicultural projects among countries that both cooperate and compete. The "Alliance of Civilisations" proposed by President Rodríguez Zapatero offers Annan an important opportunity, particularly after the permanent members of the Security Council unexpectedly blocked the institutional reform of the UN.

Firstly, the proposal emphasises the need to respect international law. It also identifies specific areas of development--e.g. cultural cooperation and education--that are reminiscent of the gradual movements that characterised the construction of a united Europe.

However, the project casts doubts on at least two aspects of this process, both of which need closer examination. On the one hand, the discourse on the 'alliance of civilisations' presupposes a confrontation between civilisations, which is in keeping with Samuel Huntington's thesis. On the other hand, the key lies in determining how the civilisations participating in this project will be defined. Nothing replaces the legitimate representation of democratic institutions. The only entity that deserves to be bestowed with rights, in the true sense, is the individual--not civilisations, ethnic groups or other collectives.

No doubt the anniversary of the UN will represent an excellent opportunity for identifying, reconsidering and reforming the future leadership profile of our political representatives.

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