Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The origins of moral authority
Ushio - May 2005

One of the most famous sayings of Josef Stalin was the answer he gave when asked his reaction to criticism of him by the Roman Catholic church. "How many divisions does the Pope have?", he replied. In other words, since he has no army, why should I pay any attention to him?

            It is therefore wonderful that in one of history´s greatest pieces of revenge Pope John Paul the Second, previously known as Karel Wojtyla, the Catholic archbishop of Krakow in Soviet-occupied Poland, played an important role in the peaceful defeat of the Soviet Union. He did so through the moral authority he gained when he was appointed Pope in 1978, and his use of that authority to encourage Poles and others in lands occupied by Russia to speak out, to think more freely, and ultimately to oppose the communist authorities.

            Pope John Paul´s death in Rome, on April 2nd, came in the same week as I was forced to think about the moral authority of another person of global importance: the secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. Mr Annan was subjected to rather damning criticisms in a report by Paul Volcker, a former chairman of America´s central bank, the Federal Reserve, concerning malpractice in the UN-administered, $64 billion oil-for-food programme for Iraq during the 1990s.

            Mr Annan said following the report that he had been "exonerated" and thus had no intention of resigning. It was indeed true that Mr Volcker´s report found no direct evidence of corruption or conflict of interest by Mr Annan himself. But it revealed damning evidence about the connection between Mr Annan´s son, Kojo, and a company that gained a lot of business from the programme; about the failure of Mr Annan´s staff to investigate whether Kojo represented a conflict of interest; and about the shredding of documents concerning the programme by Mr Annan´s chief of staff.

            You may be wondering what is the connection between Mr Annan and Pope John Paul. Mr Annan is of no religious significance, even if his demeanour and personal reputation is quite saintly. The connection is that, as Stalin pointed out, neither exercises any direct power by such conventional means as armed forces, or even economic strength. The influence wielded by both men depends on their moral status, as men independent of national and political partisanship and with reputations for integrity and purity.

            The secretary-generalship of the United Nations is, to my mind, not an enviable job. It carries vast responsibilities, with a huge bureaucracy to lead as well as members from 190 countries all around the world. Its sole strength is that the occupant of the role can hope to persuade, or even embarrass, people to act in a better way (in conflicts, for example) precisely because of the role´s independence, the fact that it stands above the fray in any given dispute. It can´t do so, however, in every single dispute around the world; more probably, the secretary-general needs to choose just a few situations on which to concentrate in the hope of having a moral effect.

            The question now surrounding Kofi Annan is whether he still possesses sufficient moral authority to be able to do that, and thus to be an effective secretary-general of the United Nations. He has been damaged by the Volcker report, and may be damaged even further when Mr Volcker produces his final report on the oil-for-food programme later this summer. Suspicions surrounding his conduct will weaken him, and so will criticism in these reports of his effectiveness as a manager of his own staff at the UN.

              In one sense, Mr Annan might be able to draw some comfort from the life and role of Pope John Paul the Second. For Pope John Paul was not only the brave man who spoke out against repression. He was also a controversial man in his leadership of the Catholic church. He was a very traditional, conservative figure in church teachings, even though he was a radical on the question of communism.

            This was particularly important on the issue of birth control, in other words the use of contraceptives. Pope John Paul was adamantly against birth control, and refused to relax the Catholic church´s ban on contraception even when the deadly disease of AIDS began to spread.

 That refusal was, in the view of many Catholics, both unrealistic and immoral. It was unrealistic because it was ignored by hundreds of millions of otherwise faithful Catholic believers, who chose to use contraceptives. And it was immoral because by banning the use of condoms he may have condemned millions to an early death through AIDS, especially in Africa where standards of education are low and so Catholic believers may have been less willing to make up their own minds on this issue.

Such a controversial and arguably immoral attitude could easily have damaged Pope John Paul´s moral authority on other matters. But it did not, as was shown by the reaction of millions of Catholics to news of his final illness and death on April 2nd. The reason, I suppose, is that his brave, high-profile efforts against communism in the 1970s and 1980s gave him such a huge reservoir of moral authority that his errors, or inflexibility, elsewhere could be forgiven. And his view on birth control was considered to be sincere and held for the best of reasons, even if many thought it wrong.

So the question for Kofi Annan must be whether his reservoir of moral authority is deep enough for him to overcome the damage brought by the Volcker report and all the associated criticism of him. I suspect it is not. He could draw comfort from the fact that even his critics do not appear to doubt his sincerity. But they do doubt his strength of leadership, as shown by his poor management of his own staff. And he has no real episode in his record either as secretary-general (since 1997) or in his previous career to provide a truly deep reservoir of moral standing or authority.

It is a pity, as I feel sure that he is a good man. But it would be better for him and for the United Nations if he were to resign. Someone else needs to take over, and to re-establish the moral authority that the role requires.


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