Friday, December 23, 2016

Rave New World?

Ian Williams: Letter From America

Written By: Ian Williams
Published:Tribune  December 17, 2016
When he takes office on New Year’s Day, the new United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres will pick up the most poisoned of chalices – Syria. Last week, following successive Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council, by a large majority, the United Nations General Assembly supported a Canadian resolution condemning the “extensive and persistent violations of international humanitarian and international human rights laws” in Syria. It called for prosecutions of those responsible. Showing that distaste for mass murder by tyrannical regimes is not just a “Western Imperialist” concept, 123 countries voted for the resolution with only 13 opposing. But the US seems to cope with being outvoted regularly in the Assembly; Putin probably thinks he can also.
The successive Russian vetoes have included one preventing the International Criminal Court from investigating potential crimes committed by all parties in the conflict, which suggests that Putin knows where the burden of guilt is mostly weighted. It is interesting to see the arguments about the sacred nature of state sovereignty from the government that annexed the Crimea and detached large portions of Georgia, on behalf of the regime that occupied Lebanon for many years and almost certainly arranged the assassination of its Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The situation has many of the features of the Balkan Wars, but has caused even more casualties and suffering than they did. After Srebrenica and Rwanda, the UN said “never again” all over again. But now, just as the ruthlessly amoral Slobodan Milosevic found useful idiots to present him as an anti-imperialist hero, Bashir Al-Assad has a chorus of support among people who should know better. The Baathists in Syria, now hailed as being the front line of defence against imperialism and terrorism, were traditionally supporters of various ruthless terrorist factions, despite joining the US in Desert Storm against Iraq. Syria also had some of the most adept torturers in the world – which is why the US sub-contracted with the regime to abuse prisoners on its behalf.
Evil is globalized. The Russians in Chechnya showed how well they had learnt from the US to destroy towns and villages to save them, and Putin and the Assad regime apply the same tactics in Aleppo. The kind of massive human suffering in Syria is exactly what Kofi Annan envisaged when he persuaded the world summit of 2005 to adopt his new doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”.
But Moscow has no monopoly on inconsistency or hypocrisy. Among those fulminating at the UN against Al-Assad’s crimes was Saudi Arabia, whose assaults on Yemen include targeting civilians and hospitals with the material and moral support of Britain and the USA. Even Trudeau’s Canada, which moved the General Assembly resolution, is now one of the tiny band of countries that votes with the US over Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Kofi Annan tried, but resigned as special representative for Syria when it became clear that none of the major powers were prepared to take whatever measures were necessary. Russia and Iran directly supported the regime while the West was unable or unwilling to keep out the Gulf States who armed and financed the more mediaeval elements of the opposition. Nor could Washington control Erdogan’s Turkey, which offered varying degrees of support to Islamists while pursuing its feud with the Kurds whenever it could.
While Ban had a fair idea of what Washington would or would not deliver in support for the UN, Guterres now has to cope with a US government whose foreign policy is based on random tweets and eccentric appointments. The likely secretary of state is an oil magnate whose company has fought even the concept of global warming – but who might be even warmer to the Saudis and indeed to Putin. Trump’s nominee for number 2 at State is rumoured to be John Bolton, the palaeocon who has made dismantling the UN his life’s work, and the UN Ambassador designate is a Tea Party supporter whose major foreign policy qualification seems to be that she had Indian parents.
While many people understandably have mixed feelings about the US role in the world, a sudden UNexit is a recipe for chaos. If any grownups do get a hand on the foreign policy tiller, they might appreciate that Washington needs the UN as much as, if not more, as the UN needs the USA. Apart from creating a desert and calling it peace, as the current Russian plan seems to be, Guterres has his work cut out and not just in Syria. He is eminently well qualified for the position and could revive an organization about which even many of its best supporters feel the magic is gone! However, while it would be good if he could count on predictable US input, the mental hiatus in Washington might well give him opportunities to make changes in the UN before the Trump administration can even get around to leaning on him.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Who says Trump doesn’t make money for shareholders?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Arriviste Riche vs Arrivée Riche

Letter From America: Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams Tribune, London
Published: November 19, 2016 Last modified: November 17, 2016

At least the Clintons are consistent. They maintained a serene sense of entitlement almost to the end of the election night count. They had explained that the cancellation of the victory fireworks display in the East River was a consequence of the lateness of the count rather than a lack of confidence in victory.
That complacency had been unperturbed by Obama’s victory over Hillary and hardly dented by the Sanders’ upsurge. They really did not see how much they had alienated their traditional constituency with the huge gap between what she was forced to support by the Sanders’ campaign and her actual delivery on these issues.
The emails were not the major treasonable activity that Fox News would have, but the whole episode and her treatment of it, betrayed an arrogance that epitomised her whole campaign. To take huge fees for speaking to the bankers in private while denigrating them to the electorate was insulting the intelligence of the latter, not least when she refused to disclose what she had actually said.
It was historic irony that two such well-heeled candidates, both ethically challenged, should have been appealing for the votes of the victims of the system that had enriched them both. In the end, however, as always in American politics, it was race that won the race. The ‘Centrist’ politics of New Labour and Clinton’s Democrats is a mixture of liberalism on social issues of gender and identity thinly veiling unabashed neoliberalism on economic issues. It has a superficial charm: bankers and billionaires can indeed be gay and broadminded racially and continue raking in the benefits of a government and fiscal system loaded in their favour.
But the New Democrats depend on minority votes, so the Clintons specialized in vociferously and publically courting them as a vote bank – while screwing them with neoliberal policies, just as New Labour took working people in Britain for granted, paving the way for Farage and his ilk.
During the Sanders campaign many leftists bemoaned his lack of traction in the black community. Whether designedly or serendipitously, the Freedom Road rider and struggler for civil and economic rights eschewed Clintonian verbal pandering to the black community. His approach might have cost him the primary –  but it very likely would have won him the election.
The polling data suggests that too many of the minorities saw through Clinton’s feigned affection, while many white working class voters were alienated by her ostentatious courting of black and Latin voters as she happily gadded with Goldman Sachs and the rich elite. Sean McElwee of Demos published some interesting data on the prejudices of white working class voters showing how they feared minority competition along with elite domination, and it is a convincing explanation of where Trump’s support emerged from on election day.
In the dewy-eyed New Deal nostalgia of the left, we often overlook FDR’s very cynical deal, which was to ensure support for its policies by excluding most American blacks from its direct benefit. Those attitudes are alive and well, even, one might say even more so, in a country with a black president in the White House, not least a technocrat President who integrated rather too seamlessly into the neoliberal Washington consensus.
With all that, however, the incestuous political punditocracy’s assessment of electability has proven completely wrong and polls suggest that if it were not for the machinations of the Democratic leaders we would now be cheering a President Sanders. They completely missed the louche charms of Donald Trump, who, despite his inherited wealth came over as an outsider, a brash self-made man not scared to confront the metropolitan elite and their consensual ranks.
Of course, he now has to meet the expectations his insurgent candidacy have raised, and, sadly, highly visible executive action like beating up on immigrants is far easier than actually creating the jobs and wealth he has promised his supporters. One of the iconic moments of the election day was Trump turning up to vote in New York and being booed by a typical Manhattanite crowd. But not all TV clips showed that, up on the scaffolding across the street, the hard-hatted construction workers were cheering a man whose first major project employed undocumented Polish workers, who had to spend years in court to get their minimum wages out of him.
They probably could not afford to live in Manhattan, let alone in the apartments they were building, but the unions that secured them a living wage will be under threat from Trump policies now backed by Republican majorities in Congress. Trump is no ideologue, but he has surrounded himself with as slimy a bunch of ethically challenged conservatives as ever slithered out of the undergrowth. One hopes his arrogance will cow Giuliani, Christie, Gingrich, Bolton and the like, who even the hard right Republicans had shunned. If he wants a second term, he has to meet the expectations he aroused in the Rust Belt.

Selfish Success and Succession!

Investor Relations magazine, Fall 2016

Gold-plated CEOs have little incentive to appoint successors

Ian Williams ponders the best way to hire a figurehead
There has been a recent spate of complaints that boards and CEOs are not planning for CEO succession. Why is anyone surprised? Imperial CEOs assume the company will go to Hell in a handbasket as soon as they leave, and if CEOs need their maws stuffed with gold just to deliver good results, why would they care what happens once they have landed with their golden parachute? 
Just how essential are a CEO’s talents for a corporation? Like the divine right of kings, the indispensability of the CEO seems deeply rooted – but rarely investigated – in IR lore. CEOs are surrounded with awe and pomp while in office but, with a few rare exceptions, in reality they are ephemeral shooting stars who are almost instantly forgotten when they go. Carly Fiorina’s inglorious executive career, for example, had been buried in the public subconscious until she chose to resurrect herself as a US presidential candidate, only to see her reputation reburied even more deeply. 
By contrast, we are likely to remember the Fords and the Bacardis and members of the House of Windsor: these bosses’ names evoke historically successful businesses. Dynastic succession does not always work, however. Many years ago I interviewed the bright and optimistic IRO of Seagram – just before perky young heir Edgar Bronfman, Jr took over and destroyed the company. Normally, family members care enough about their operation to keep upstarts on a rein, but young Bronfman was unconstrained. A good CEO might not make much difference to the upside, but a bad one can signpost the road to Hell.
In fact, one reason for lack of succession planning might be that CEOs are taking the Ottoman approach. The first thing a new Sultan would do is murder all the siblings who might threaten his position, and one cannot help but wonder whether CEOs paranoid enough to need golden parachutes and other protective paraphernalia to guarantee safe succession really want to identify potential rivals – other than to exclude them from the equation.
A CEO is indeed a figurehead for a company: the first person investors see. But if we examine the metaphor, the figurehead only appears to be leading the ship. In reality the engine room is below decks, while the vessel is actually steered from much farther back. But figureheads were often decked with gold, so there is indeed a resemblance to the modern CEO.
How necessary is all that gold, though? Ostentatious emoluments – the corporate jets, the golden parachutes, and the rest – are there like Queen Elizabeth II’s privy purse, crown and state coach: so the incumbent can live up to the expectations that employees and shareholders hold of the company. 
The purpose of pretending to try outside recruitment is to boost the myth that there is a market for CEOs, so that the compensation committee the CEO appoints will be trapped in the whirring treadmill, always paying more than the average, and the few who are appointed from outside contribute admirably to the expanding universe of executive pay by doubling their remuneration. 
Above all, however, it is clear that a CEO’s main tasks are to perform for the shareholders and public, and to boost morale in the company. It is not that high pay is necessary to incentivize these executives, for surely they would give their all for the company anyway, out of loyalty? No. 
Preferably, then, the CEO succession should be from within the company so the candidates know its idiosyncrasies. For the pool of CEO candidates, therefore, the line of succession should clearly come from the IR department. IR people need some coaching in the simulation of leadership – acting, voice coaching, deportment and similar skills – but no one can match their knowledge of corporate workings. At last, a figurehead that thinks!
Then again, CEOs should epitomize, not exclude themselves from efficient market theory, which suggests that CEO contracts, like all others should go to the best qualified – and lowest – bidder, which in turn reinforces using the IR department as the recruitment pool – because everyone knows that IROs come cheaper than all others. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Other 2016 Election

United Nations Report

The Other 2016 Election: for Next U.N. Secretary-General

By Ian Williams

EVEN WITH ALL the media attention swallowed by the Trump/Clinton battle, there is amazingly little attention given to the selection of a new secretary-general to replace the retiring Ban Ki-moon. Making it even more remarkable is that, albeit by the opaque standards of previous elections, this is the most transparent in the 70-year history of the U.N., where the selection of the world’s “secular pope” has traditionally been carried out in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.
It is perhaps a blessing that both Trump and Clinton are too preoccupied to pay much attention to the secretary-generalship issue, as their influence on that election is unlikely to be constructive. It was, after all, Clinton’s close comrade-in-arms Madeleine Albright who used American veto power to ensure that Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the only Arab ever to hold the position, was not allowed a second term, and whose imperious attitude to the organization led to perennial tensions with even close U.S. allies.
Surprisingly, Trump has been too busy with populist xenophobia about Mexicans to bother about the U.N. It has not been one of his targets so far. It would seem that his supporters were a natural constituency for those who used to believe that UNESCO World Heritage sites in the U.S. were a U.N. land grab and potential bases for black helicopters to take over the country. Maybe looking for Mexicans and Muslims under the bed has diverted their attention—but, in any case, Trump’s nose for business would remind him that much of his shaky real estate empire in Manhattan would be adversely affected if the United Nations and its high rent diplomats were to quit. He built the ugly Trump Tower directly opposite the U.N. to cater to them, after all—and even offered his services as developer to Kofi Annan to refurbish the old U.N. HQ.
In any case, another president has intervened in a significant way. Danish Social Democrat leader Mogens Lykketoft was elected last year as president of the General Assembly, and as a few of his predecessors occasionally did, he decided to make his mark since his term coincided with the selection of the secretary-general. Although in practice it is overlooked, under strict diplomatic protocol the U.N. president counts as a head of state, with 21-gun salutes and all that, while the secretary-general officially is merely ranked as the equivalent of a foreign minister!
The actual power to nominate is still firmly in the hands of the Security Council.
In the real world, however, the secretary-general is there for at least one, and—except in the case of Boutros-Ghali—for two terms, while the presidency rotates annually. Lykketoft has made his mark on posterity by getting the Security Council to agree to a more transparent secretary-general selection process. With most of the membership backing him, he secured the Security Council’s agreement to make public the names and qualifications of the candidates and to present them to the whole membership of the United Nations.
That work was backed up by the various foundations and NGOs around the U.N., and meetings were held in New York and around the world for candidates to strut their stuff in front of diplomats, academics and human rights supporters, while governments and PR firms touted their candidacies.
Transparency has its limits, however. The actual power to nominate is still firmly in the hands of the Security Council, and thus subject to the veto power of any or all of the five permanent members. There have been three straw polls, with the last taking place at the end of the August, in which the Council’s 15 members record whether they would “encourage,” “discourage” or have no opinion about the various candidates. Under the official procedure, the president of the Security Council merely informs the General Assembly president that the poll has taken place—without sharing the results. Absurdly, most or all of the Council members immediately rush and tell the press what the voting results are. It is a secret ballot, leaving participants in the dark about whether the “discourage” votes imply a veto coming down the line.
Complicating the already arcane process are underlying presumptions, none of which are actual rules. Firstly, the East European group has never had a secretary-general and claims it is their turn. Against that is the reality that the group is a Cold War hangover, most of whose members have either joined or applied to join the European Union. However, Moscow, not traditionally favorable to the rotation principle—or indeed to the often anti-Russian governments of its former clients—has become more sympathetic to the idea, not least since several of the candidates were brought up and groomed in the Communist era and tend to pay attention to what Vladimir Putin would tell them. These are, of course, unlikely to attract enthusiastic support from the Western veto holders.
The second principle being invoked is that it is long overdue for a woman to take the position—which is, in abstract, entirely true. However, observation of the records of Margaret Thatcher, Albright, Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi in high office leads to questions about whether it follows that having a woman in office is good for women in general or the world—which leads to the final, and often overlooked, principle of the candidates’ competence and integrity.
Theoretically, the various hustings have allowed the candidates to demonstrate this to a watching world. The earnest assumption is that the Security Council members will have to take this into account when they make their final choice. But they have their ready-made excuses. A consistently clear front runner was the Portuguese former head of the U.N. refugee program, António Guterres, who has now managed to accrete several “discourages”—and one can be sure that the excuse is that Portugal is on the wrong end of Europe, and that he is male. On the other hand, one of the stars of the hustings was Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, a star of the Climate Change program, whom the audience clearly rated highly. But she has amassed a surprising number of “discourage” votes—the real reason being that she seems principled and outspoken, not least on issues like Climate Change, on which many member states are still shuffling their feet. And, of course, the excuse will be that while she is a woman, she is not Eastern European.
Other candidates have been amassing more and more negatives, and the field seems very volatile. If the Russians nixed Guterres, currently in second place is Slovakian diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, who has just surged from 10th place, implying some lobbying behind the scenes. A former communist party member now with EU credentials, he might bridge the gap. The runners up are Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian head of UNESCO, who seems to have Moscow’s tacit support based on close connections, and Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, whose vociferous opposition to Kosovar independence makes him unlikely to get Western support.
Bokova is close to the Russians, by family and upbringing, and has devoted her time at UNESCO to canvassing for the job, but the British and others are very suspicious of her sharp elbows and feel that her ambition led her to neglect her actual duties at UNESCO. But she is a woman, and she is Eastern European, so the question is how disgruntled they will be about her. She is certainly adroit, getting credit from the Non-Aligned Movement for allowing Palestinian membership in UNESCO on the agenda, while reassuring the Israelis (and their friends) that it had nothing to do with her!
As the process moves on, the polls will reveal whether the opposition to the various candidates goes as far as actual vetoes. Perhaps it is a blessing that so far the election is below the horizon for the various lobbies in Washington, since there are too many factors already complicating this process.


In the meantime, Ban Ki-moon is clearly in lame duck mode as far as the Moroccans are concerned. The Moroccans ritually abuse him in every speech, which is one thing. But the French and other Security Council members let them get away with it. Many of the MINURSO staff in Western Sahara have still not been allowed back into the country. The Moroccans and their French allies, with U.S. complicity, continue to fight off any attempts to include a human rights monitoring component in the mission, making it unique among U.N. missions.
As we go to press, there are signs that Morocco, emboldened by Franco-American acquiescence, is encroaching beyond the cease-fire line in the south, risking provocation with both Polisario and Mauritania. In an oblique way it shows the potential power of a secretary-general—if he (or she) is backed by significant powers. As Boutros-Ghali, exasperated with U.S.-backed mandates from the Security Council unaccompanied by any resources, complained, “I can do nothing. I have no army. I have no money. I have no experts. I am borrowing everything. If the member states don’t want it, what can I do?”
In his day, the only power in a position to provide support was the U.S., which would lead to palpitations in any secretary-general, whether it were Trump or Clinton in Washington. But the world has changed. Europe, even in its current disheveled state, China, even Russia, might be in a position to back an enterprising incumbent. Certainly Washington’s (and Congress’ and the Lobby’s) effective financial veto is not what it was.
But the new secretary-general will immediately cope with the impasse in Syria, where all the talk of a Brave New World of responsibilities to protect, collective concern for humanitarian law, and international action are going up in a firestorm stirred by cynical bystanders who are managing to give Levantine politics a bad time. Everyone’s enemy is someone’s friend, but the U.N. is supposed to be the enemy of inhumanity. And humanity has few friends in this fight. 

U.N. correspondent Ian Williams’ book Untold: the Real Story of the United Nations will be published by Just World Books in Spring 2017.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Best Person for the Job. UN SG Guterres.

Letter from America

Written By: Ian Williams
Tribune  Published: October 25, 2016 L
It was not good week for the bean counters. António Guterres is neither East European, nor female, but the newly designated ninth UN Secretary General is indisputably the best person for the job. In the end, it is almost reassuring to note that the permanent five and the other members of the Council care enough about the organization to choose the best candidate!
Guterres walked to an easy finish as soon as the first “real” straw ballot – in which the veto-holding permanent members showed their true colours by voting with red ballot papers. If those who wanted a woman had united behind one suitably qualified candidate, they might have won the day, but seven women running against each other made it easier for the best candidate to win. In fact, from the permanent five only Britain said it would prefer a female candidate, but presumably drew the line at an Argentinean foreign minister who wants the Malvinas back, or a Bulgarian apparatchik with Putin’s hearty support. The key issue was whether veto-wielding Moscow could take a West European democratic socialist. It was helped when Bulgaria supported a second Bulgarian candidate weakening the expedient Russian stand for an East European and a woman, by which they meant Irina Bukova the head of UNESCO.
The newly “transparent” procedure, under which candidates addressed the General Assembly with its 193 members, did expose the selection to the light of day. Even if the Security Council made the final decision, it did so knowing it had to choose from candidates who had been under the scrutiny of the Assembly and the public. One wonders whether Kurt Waldheim or Perez de Cuellar would have passed such scrutiny.
Guterres’ candidacy was also helped by support from African countries who maintain good relations with Portugal, whose socialist Rose revolution ended the colonial power’s wars of repression, and also by his record as head of the UN refugee agency, the most overworked, active and least hidebound section of the UN apparatus.
Not least, as a former Prime Minister of an important, but non-threatening power, with his relationships with world leaders going back years, not to mention contacts across the whole spider’s web of UN organizations, Guterres is not going to be a mere secretary, taking dictation from the great powers. He has an independent stature and presence that will help him tell the not-so-good great powers when they are failing in their responsibilities. Sadly, as we see in Syria, and indeed Yemen, that is all too often.
Intriguingly but understandably, the elephant in the room is that none of the candidates mentioned the Israel-Palestine issue, even though it occupies so much time and effort at the UN. This was an issue that Ban Ki-Moon had taken some time to acquaint himself with, and after visiting Gaza he quickly learnt that Washington’s views were not shared by the rest of the world. Within a short time, Ban was condemning settlements and assaults on Gaza with a brio that would have risked his suspension from the Labour Party as an anti-Semite.
In contrast, Guterres hits the ground running. As Portuguese Prime Minister, as President of the Socialist International, and above all as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he has been deeply involved in the Middle East in all its manifestations, not least in its tragic role as one of the globe’s leading producers of refugees.
He lamented in 2014, that the world’s various refugee crises “pale in comparison to the desperate situation of the Palestinians, the largest protracted refugee situation in the world”. He pointed out that Palestinians in Syria were “being forced to flee for the second time,” but it was “shocking” that Gazans “could not even flee to seek safety” from the latest Israeli onslaught. “No one wants to be a refugee. But for the people of Gaza, not even that was an option.”
The rational conclusion is that Israel once again faces a UN Secretary General who is quite prepared to talk to its leaders, some of whom he knew from the Socialist International, but who will firmly remind them that they are not exempt from the UN Charter and International Law.
A Secretary General has many other problems to face. Climate Change, world poverty, the teetering international financial situation and great power conflicts more threatening than anything since the fall of the Berlin Wall. On all of these, he can do little or nothing without the backing of the world’s major powers, but the evidence of his career is that he is in position to do better than any other candidate would have been. His election is good news for the UN and the world.
While in internationalist mode, Guterres is a former President of the Socialist International, from which the Labour Party withdrew with no debate or membership consultation a few years ago. It is now only an observer party,  though it actually refounded it in 1951, Neil Kinnock is still listed as an honorary President and its headquarters is still in London. The new Labour leadership may have other things to think about,but it would be good to rejoin the SI and align with the New Secretary General.