What does President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva do next? After nearly eight years in power, he is viewed across the globe as one of the world most successful presidents. He can andshould aim high when he leaves office on January 1—and rumors have been increasing that he may even be interested in becoming UN Secretary-General, arguably the most prestigious of all international jobs. Few presidents worldwide have accomplished more. During his two terms, Brazil had its best economic performance in a generation, and is now emerging full steam from the global recession. Although the economy remains deficicient on many fronts, the foundations have been set for a robust period of expansion. The poorest segments of Brazil’s population are gaining ground, while the middle class continues to grow. Although hardly perfect, the country’s democracy appears firmly rooted, and Brazil is wielding unprecedented influence in regional and world affairs. To be sure, Lula’s immediate predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso deserves some credit for setting the course, and a favorable global context also contributed to Brazil’s progress. Still, Lula’s performance—as reflected in his 75 percent approval among Brazilian voters—is beyond question.
The political talents and personal skills that have made Lula an effective, commanding leader in Brazil should be welcomed by the UN—or any other international institution. It is hard not to like and trust him. His deep personal warmth inspires confidence and optimism. Last year, Obama affectionately called him the world’s most popular president. This year, he led Time Magazine’s annual list of the world’s most influential leader. His commitment to the poor and oppressed emerged from his own life of grinding poverty. His highly respected negotiating skills came from his years as a labor leader, and his instincts for governing were honed by navigating Brazil’s labrynthine political order.
Still, it will not be easy for Lula to get the job. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is on track to be reelected for five more years in 2012. Although his performance has been considered mediocre, Ban Ki Moon has not generated the controversy or opposition that would keep him from a second term. And, if he were somehow ousted, the vacancy would likely be filled by another Asian, since UN leadership is rotated from region to region. Under the best of circumstances, a Lula candidacy would need Washington’s strong support—which may be hard to come by given recent US-Brazilian disputes over Iran, non-proliferation, Honduras, and other issues. Whether Lula could be a serious candidate for international leadership is not the first question to ask, however. More important is whether leading a multilateral organization would be right for him. Would that best use his prodigious talents? Would it fit his temperament? As President of Brazil, Lula exercises enormous power and authority. True, he has to cope with Brazil’s balky legislature and unwieldy bureaucracy, and deal with rifts in his party, but he is the country’s ultimate decision-maker—the decider, in President Bush’s words. His job has been clear: to advance his agenda for the country. As Secretary-General, he would have to defer to the UN Security Council, dominated by its five permanent members—all major powers pursuing their own interests, and each with a veto over UN decisions. Given Brazil’s rapidly expanding global profile, Lula, more than most heads of state, has been deeply engaged with many of the contentious issues that confront the UN, including non-proliferation, climate change, and humanitarian interventions. He has developed strong convictions about them, and in some cases, has committed himself and Brazil to act on those convictions. At the UN, his task will not be to promote his views or his nation’s agenda, but to find common ground among diverse, often antagonistic governments—and carry out their instructions. Is this what Lula wants to do? Is that what he is best suited for? How comfortable will be in imposing sanctions on Iran? In intervening in Africa’s multiple conflicts? In demanding Brazil accept more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities that, as president, he vehemently resisted? Lula is stepping down at a time when other exceptionally successful democratic presidents are also completing their terms. In the past few months, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica have left office; next month Colombian President Uribe leaves power. They join a growing number of other highly regarded former Latin American leaders, including, for example, Ricardo Lagos, Ernesto Zedillo, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Working together, freed from the need to court voters or satisfy legislatures, they could surely have a profound influence on the future of the region. In the past year, ex-presidents Cardoso, Zedillo, and Cesar Gaviria have formulated a new, more promising approach to addressing the region’s drug problems. A range of other formidable challenges require attention—for example, setting a new path for stalled economic integration and energy cooperation in the region, solving bilateral disputes in South America that have frustrated the OAS and other regional organizations, or shaping a more assertive stance for Latin American nations in global institutions. Lula might find these initiatives more appealing then more constricted, formal leadership role at the UN or other international agencies. O Estado de S. Paulo, July 11, 2010