The hot gossip in Athens this summer is that Prime Minister George Papandreou’s long term goal is to parachute out of that job and become the next secretary general of the United Nations. Although born into one of the great political dynasties of Greece (his grandfather and father both served as prime minister) he has always seemed more comfortable on the international stage than dealing with the hand-to-hand combat of domestic Greek politics.
Multi-lingual, good speaker, long experience on the diplomatic circuit, skilled in the spongy language of international organizations, he would be a natural for the job. On top of it he comes with an elegant wife who would shine in New York.
People close to the scene say Papandreou would leave the morass of Greek politics for the rarefied atmosphere of UN Plaza in New York with a huge sigh of relief. Elected last year, his Socialist party soon discovered that the country was bankrupt. After decades of living on borrowed time and borrowed money the music stopped. Greece now faced the real possibility of defaulting on its sovereign debt. Bailed out at the last minute with a multi-billion Euro life-line from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund the government now must implement a massive program of tax increases and budget cuts to stem the tide of red ink. In his spare time Papandreou is supposed to reform the cronyism and featherbedding that has plagued Greek political life since the republic was founded. Needless to say the outraged cries of anguish from his own party, forget the opposition, aren’t making his job any easier. This is how big, bad conservatives are supposed to act, not the people-friendly Socialists.
Faced with an unpopular, almost impossible job at home it is no wonder that the poor man is looking fondly across the ocean and doing a bit of light lobbying. After years of strident anti-Israel, pro-Arab sentiments Greece suddenly invited the Israeli prime minister to Athens. Having a friendly Israeli onside might also possibly help with the US vote.
Another thing in his favour is that it would be a European’s turn to serve as Secretary General. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, is Korean. The previous Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is from Africa. He followed an Egyptian, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who in turn came after a Peruvian, Javier Perez de Cuellar. The last European was the Austrian Kurt Waldheim, later disgraced when his World War II record came to light.
Assuming candidates from large countries like the United States and Russia are automatically ruled out there are not that many available prospects. The prime minister of Luxembourg Jean Claude Junker is skilled in self-promotion and has demonstrated his love for the endless summits, conferences, symposia that go with any high level international job. If you ran a country the size of Rochester, New York you, too, would take every opportunity to prance about on a larger stage just to reaffirm your self-importance. Moreover he has never demonstrated any desire actually to accomplish anything. No threat there. But, he is deeply unloved in Britain, and that would effectively block his candidacy.
A German? Perhaps. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder comes to mind, but he is making so much money on the board of the giant Russian energy company Gazprom that he may think of the job as a demotion. Besides, too many people now regard him merely as a mouthpiece for all things Russian. Very difficult for him to say anything negative about what’s going on in Chechnya.
An Italian? Former head of the European Union Romano Prodi? If he truly believes his days as a major player in Italian politics are over, he might consider the UN job a nice pre-retirement position.
A Scandinavian? The only problem there is that they take their views on things like human rights a little too far for many in the United States, Russia, and China. They might start asking awkward questions about things like Guantanamo , Uighurs in Western China, or dissidents in Russia. Besides, they’re serious people who do things like set goals and strive to attain them. Serious danger of upsetting the gravy train. Very nice people, but best leave them aside for the moment.
One possible drawback for Papandreou is that Greece is a member of NATO, and that could blemish his claim to neutrality. But now that the Cold War is over and NATO is busy looking for reason to continue in existence that may not be such a problem.
The only real question is whether he can last until Ban Ki-Moon’s term is up in a few years. Greece’s economic problems are not getting any better, and it remains to be seen how successful Papandreou’s reforms will be. How long will the Greek people put up with a degradation of the life-style that they had come to take as their sovereign right?
Pure fantasy? Perhaps. But on paper he really looks like a prime candidate from every point