By David Bosco
Friday, March 11, 2011; 8:00 PM
Diplomatic historian on the pros and cons of Egypt's would-be president
This past week, Mohamed ElBaradei finally announced what people who have been watching Egypt's political transformation had long assumed: "When the door for presidential nominations opens, I intend to nominate myself," he said in a television interview.
ElBaradei, who in January joined the popular movement that eventually unseated longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has a sparkling resume and plenty of international support. He ran the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for more than a decade, starred in several international crises and even picked up a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
But is working in a big multilateral organization good training to run a country?
Many seem to think so. ElBaradei is just one of several prominent figures who have tried to move from international secretariats to presidential palaces. Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of recent elections, served for years as an International Monetary Fund economist. Olara Otunnu, a former top U.N. official, ran for Uganda's presidency this year. The current head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, may soon enter presidential politics in France, where most opinion polls rate him higher than President Nicolas Sarkozy. Kurt Waldheim, the U.N. secretary general in the 1970s, became Austria's largely ceremonial president. And Waldheim's successor at the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, ran (unsuccessfully) for Peru's presidency in the mid-1990s.
Experience in international agencies does offer some advantages. Performing on the world stage usually gives an individual name recognition as well as prestige and credibility at home. Particularly in repressive societies, international organizations allow talented individuals to bypass dysfunctional national political systems and distinguish themselves abroad. ElBaradei began working for the IAEA in the 1980s and rose steadily through the ranks, acquiring a global reputation and plenty of diplomatic experience and contacts - all without being tainted by the Mubarak regime back home. When the right political moment materializes, figures such as ElBaradei can enter domestic politics with credentials and, perhaps most important, relatively clean hands.
Management skills are also undeniably important in both worlds. Organizations such as the IAEA may be small fry compared with most national governments, but they have multimillion-dollar budgets and hundreds or thousands of employees from all over the world. At senior levels, international officials regularly interact with ministers and heads of state, brief the global news media and attempt to shape world public opinion. They often serve as mediators in crisis situations. For instance, the United Nations' most famous secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, boosted his global profile by negotiating the release of a U.S. air crew being held in China.
These management and mediation skills can translate into effectiveness on the national stage. But in another sense, running an international organization is a peculiar form of executive experience. Such organizations cannot make meaningful decisions without the approval of key member states, and they rarely have the power to enforce them. Member states hold the purse strings, and there's often an implicit threat that support will be withdrawn if the organization strays too far from what the major powers want. International civil servants who tussle with big powers don't last long. The Clinton administration denied Egypt's own Boutros Boutros-Ghali a second term at the helm of the United Nations after he publicly clashed with then-U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright.
ElBaradei was more adroit at managing political pressures, and the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 offers an example of his skills. The United States wanted the IAEA to clearly state that Iraq was not complying with U.N. resolutions requiring the government to disarm, while opponents of military action hoped that ElBaradei would deflate the American case on weapons of mass destruction. The organization and its chief were under tremendous pressure.
ElBaradei's statements on Iraq were models of ambiguity: They gave all the key players a bit of what they wanted, but not everything. After Iraq, and particularly after netting the Nobel Prize, ElBaradei became somewhat bolder in his pronouncements and more willing to cross swords with Washington, but his training and experience clearly tilt him toward compromise.
That tendency could easily come across as passivity, and ElBaradei did receive criticism from some of the Tahrir Square demonstrators for arriving in Egypt too late and protesting too little. But in recent weeks, he has criticized the army and urged Egyptians to oppose a proposed package of constitutional amendments drafted by a committee of legal scholars. These aren't the positions of a man constantly hedging his bets.
Capturing the spirit of the moment - and swaying a restive population to his side - may be a tougher challenge for the longtime international bureaucrat. ElBaradei's formative years were spent in an environment that often disdains the emotion and nationalist sentiment running so high in Egypt now. He has been breathing rarefied diplomatic air for decades, and he's shown little aptitude for retail politics. He may have the judgment and diplomatic skill the country needs, but can he convince Egyptians that he's feeling what they're feeling?
David Bosco is an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service and the author of "Five to Rule Them All: The U.N. Security Council and the Making of the Modern World." He writes the Multilateralist blog for ForeignPolicy.com.