“I hope to win, through ideas,” Mr Ghani told the Financial Times. “In the public debate so far, I have yet to see a clear articulation of vision, an analysis of the central issues and a programme for change.”
The problem goes futher than Ghani’s diagnosis: the absence of concrete and strategic visions for the UN is also a sign that the general ability to generate ideas and initiatives later on is probably low. If you cannot get an idea when you need one, you need a different job.
The coming UNSG is faced with a number of challenges, some immediate — operational and organizational — and some more abstract. Ghani’s record in Afghanistan e.g. speaks clearly about his ability for running a multilateral, multi-stakeholder process with both heavy security and development repercussions. Most of the present candidates are of course likely to be solid administrators who can deal with immediate and running operational challenges. But Ghani is furthermore both brave and original: take e.g. this BBC piece about his intervention at last year’s TED global, including a critique of the redundancies of the development and aid industry.
The capacity to deal with the immediate and longer term organizational challenges — the reform agenda — however, is tied up with the more abstract challenges facing the UN. The short version of this is that security and development are converging. In strategic terms, political solutions are needed first to complement globalization’s integrative pull, not least in terms of creating effective states that can allow their citizens to prosper — a long term challenge that, once lifted, will at the same time alleviate the security problems associated with weak and failed states. Second, they are needed to orchestrate globalization as an integration of relations between the ‘old world’ and the ‘emerging’ powers and markets — in order to avoid a return to pre-WWI big power politics. In operational terms, enabling effective states is also the emerging necessary goal of any military conflict or post-conflict situation. The new military lessons learned of Phase IV and Peace Operations emphasize the parallel effort of stabilization and reconstruction. At both levels, security and development are increasingly tied to together.
The upshot of this convergence is that the next UNSG must have both practical operational experience with either agenda, and also a calibrated capacity for horizontal thinking. Horizontal thinking is Thomas Barnett’s term for pragmatic agility in terms of eschewing the stove-piped specialization of academics. All bureaucrats tend to think of themselves as productive generalists. But academic ability is crucial: the ability to not only grasp the largest global trends but also to pose productive solution-frameworks is rare among non-academics (as it is among academics in general who falter on the second element, but that is another story).
Ghani’s track-record is well-established here: take e.g. this new piece co-written with Claire Lockhart for the Washington Quarterly. Go read it, and then ask yourself whether you would rather have a person who can think like that at the helm of the UN — or someone who might be bothered to read it?
Ashraf Ghani seems to be the right man for the job. He appears organizationally and intellectually astute enough to deal with the member states’ cross-pressures regarding the reform agenda at both the UN and in development policy. Furthermore, he understands the necessitas of security: that security issues and logics sometimes intrude on ‘regular’ politics and policies, and that this should be if not always heeded then at least willingly mediated. A UNSG without this insight would leave the organization crippled.
This post is cross-posted at UNSG.org. Thanks to Tony Fleming for the invitation to become guest editor at UNSG.org.