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Bush, Annan: we blame the men at the top at our peril

Simon Jenkins

The world is losing touch with the art of government. Nothing seems to work.

In New Orleans, in Baghdad, in Brussels, at the United Nations, authority is in disarray. George W Bush, Tony Blair, Kofi Annan are all flailing. And there is worse to come.

This week 170 world leaders, reputedly the largest concentration ever, gather in New York for a festival of hot air. They intend to reform the United Nations, combat global warming and recite the annual mantra about ending world poverty. They face two immediate challenges. One is the Volcker report on the UN’s rampant maladministration and corruption. The other is the presence as new US envoy of John Bolton, the only person who dares to say the UN emperor has no clothes. The assembled leaders seem certain to funk both challenges. They will consume champagne, burp platitudes and go home.

The leaders would, of course, like it to be otherwise. But they have lost any ability to keep these huge cosmic bureaucracies fluid and accountable. Government is an art — never a science — and one that seems to be going the way of great painting and architecture. Nobody does it well any more.

The most sensible remark of the past week came from an unexpected quarter, George W Bush. Looking like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch he announced an inquiry, by himself, into his handling of the Katrina hurricane. It raised a question, he said, “about the relationship between the federal government, the state government and the local government”. Critics saw this as an attempt to avoid blame. It was also the only question worth asking. The answer is the essence of politics in every corner of the globe.

The American constitution protects the rights of states in their internal affairs. In particular the federal administration cannot intervene other than on federal business except when asked by a state. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana did not ask. Like its chief city of New Orleans it thought it could handle what turned out to be an unprecedented calamity.

What hit the Mississippi delta may have been predicted by some, but was clearly beyond sensible precaution. The inadequate levees ranked with the architecturalfailure of the World Trade Center to be proof against progressive collapse. We may say that neither structures should have been built as they were. But that is a crashing case of hindsight and hardly the president’s fault.

I am no admirer of Bush’s “grocery list” speech and his dreadful staffwork. But until the scale of the tragedy was clear, and the scale of local incompetence, the role of the federal government was limited. Nonetheless, blame for “the shaming of America” targeted the president this past fortnight like a heat-seeking missile. It swerved past those directly responsible, the New Orleans mayor and the state governor. It was deflected by chaff from Capitol Hill. It found only the White House and hit it with a bang. The sheer magnitude of the disaster seemed to merit only the grandest culprit. Bush must be to blame.

The public sector now consumes between a third and a half of the gross output of modern states. If we are going to blame the person at the top for each and every failing, two things follow. One is that all subsidiary government atrophies. Everyone sits back, takes no risk and passes the buck upwards. The other is that the burden at the top is unreal, the responsibility ersatz. The leader also acts defensively. He must pretend to intervene everywhere. Usually he will fail.

What applies to national governments applies even more to international ones. Bodies such as the European Union and the UN nowadays assume huge public expectations. They are all but autonomous, their budgets protected and any accountability replaced by hypersensitive public relations. The only constraint on them is from occasional audit, which did for the European commission in 1999 and should have done for Annan last week.

Otherwise there is only the occasional outburst of public rage. In Europe this showed itself in the anti-EU referendums of the early summer. In the UN’s case it has been manifest in Congress’s long-standing refusal to finance its flatulent bureaucracy, and in standing aloof from such indefensible pork barrels as Unesco.

Nobody who visits poor parts of the world and sees the UN in action can doubt its maladministration. With rare exceptions, if you want something done these days you ask the Red Cross, Bill Gates or, in extremis, America. The UN does white jeeps and conferences. When Bolton remarked that its New York headquarters could lose 10 storeys without consequence, I wondered at his attachment to the other 30. The UN should long ago have moved from New York to Baku, if not Botswana. That would separate the serious from the Manhattan hangers-on.

Oil for food in Iraq, the cause of the Volcker report, was always a terrible idea. It gave Saddam and his mafia unprecedented power and tipped some $10 billion into his pocket and that of the UN intermediaries. All this the security council knew. It would have been far better to lift sanctions and leave the market to distribute food to Iraq’s poor. Sanctions were kept in place chiefly because the security council had not the guts to admit they were a cruel failure. Only when Britain and American wanted to invade Iraq did that failure become a useful convenience. The entire saga was corrupt and cynical, with the British government as a paid-up subscriber.

We can agree that the UN at present embodies the “last best hope” for a world that craves a forum of collective debate and action. But saying so does not make it so. The apologists incant that the UN’s faults are those of the member states. But those states are prisoners of the faults. The UN was set up as the creature of the post-war powers. The five permanent security council members, America, Russia, China, Britain and France, in no way represent mankind. Yet they refuse to change their number.

Meanwhile the objectives that the UN still espouses, including its latest millennium development goals, read like a left-wing manifesto from the 1960s. Bolton’s scepticism towards the end-poverty-through-massive-aid orthodoxy is wholly justified. The UN has seen $600 billion blown on mostly counter-productive aid to Africa. The orthodoxy isout of date. The world needs a United Nations but not necessarily the United Nations. The best news for the organisation is America’s sudden interest in its fate. The Bolton reforms may be partly mischievous but they are realpolitik. They expose the millennium goals as so much window dressing. Nor is it any longer sensible to imagine a UN functioning as a military or economic activist without the commitment of its richest member. The UN claque can abuse America all it likes. It will not help. The biggest threat to the UN is not Bolton but that Bolton will fail and Washington will walk away again. Unless a miracle occurs between now and next week, the threat is real.

That would leave all three of the world’s most potent groupings — the United States, the European Union and the United Nations — in constitutional disarray. The authority ascribed to each of them has crumbled. Wherever they purport to act, their bloated infrastructures prove no match for the task. They now seem vulnerable and humiliated.

The reason is that we lay too much on them. We have become lazy participants in subsidiary democracy, local, regional, even national. We look only to some “man at the top” and saddle him with duties beyond his capacity to deliver. Annan could not bring Saddam to heel. Bush could not guard the New Orleans levees. The EU cannot inspect every cucumber and count every bra. (For that matter, Tony Blair cannot stop-watch every surgery and monitor every mosque.) Top-down authority can posture and we can blame it when things go wrong. We can have Hayek’s “plebiscitary dictatorship”. But it is not self-government.

The real danger in demanding ever higher and stronger leadership is that one day we might get it. A truly strong leader might emerge and start calling all the tunes. They are unlikely to be liberal or democratic. Just now the western world is having a Weimar moment. We should know where that led.