The ‘Robin Hood’ Venture – Who is Stealing from Whom?

The Oscar’s are coming up so it is a good moment to delve into a few areas of celebrity activism. One of the most interesting competitions this year at the Oscar’s is for the Best Documentary category – what a change that is.   Well, anyway, among the strong group of short listed films is the scathing critique directed and by Charles Ferguson of the recent global financial crisis –  Inside Job.

Although narrated by Matt Damon, the ‘stars’ of the documentary come not from the world of Hollywood but from finance – the titans of Wall Street – with supporting roles from policy-makers – the folks in Washington – and a number of under performing economists. Among the big questions this documentary triggers is whether we can depict non-entertainers as celebrities?

In the case of business celebrity status is accorded to those who not only make massive amounts of money but who also give some of that money back the Ted Turner, George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s of the world.

How do the stars of Inside Job such as the leading lights of Goldman Sachs do according to this test? Some ex-Goldman Sachs have certainly tried to make the shift to this status. In the same week I saw Inside Job, The Financial Times accorded the ‘How to give it’ to Larry Linden, a retired (2008) general partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs. Linden maintains that Goldman Sachs ‘has a longstanding charitable tradition, which continues. For example in 2004 Linden acquired 840,000 acres of pristine forest in Tierra del Fuego as collateral on a package of distressed debt. Linden was asked back to the firm to arrange management and funding to conserve this forest permanently’.

I will leave it you to determine whether such action shifts the impression of Inside Job of Goldman Sachs from notoriety to celebrity.

But what this example suggests is that such organizations and their personnel may require a closer assessment about the philanthropic efforts. Before the crisis there ware laudatory stories of Hank Paulson, the former US Treasury Secretary and head of Goldman Sachs, preparing to give the bulk of his fortune (then estimated as $800 million) to environmental charities. Where does this promise stand now?

Even if the extremely negative depiction of Goldman Sachs in Inside Job is unfair, however, other executives of this firm and their counterparts should get better advice about the names of the charitable Foundations they support. The best or worst illustration of this image disconnect is the participation of Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (along with Dick Fuld formerly of Lehman Bros.) in the Robin Hood Foundation, an organization designed to target poverty in New York City.

After watching Inside Job, many viewers may come away feeling that any association of these financiers with a narrative of ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’ should be reversed. At least it looks like that from screening this documentary.

Step by Step – Building Global Governance

So the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bankers met this weekend in Paris to coordinate efforts on the question of global imbalances.  Overcoming the deep skepticism in the global financial press especially, it appears the meeting took the first step in a long and arduous effort to build a system, which would tackle global economic imbalances and avert the next crisis.

The discussion of progress often seems like a witnessing a tug of war.  The folks – reporters and analysts – at the FT, the WSJ and the NYT, especially, but not only, are quick to minimize progress and to forecast failure.  With progress these  same reporters grudgingly admit advance but declare the need to make significantly greater progress to ensure effective policy.  And while it may be true that far greater coordination is required to avert a future economic crisis, still the skepticism is annoying and undermines the effort to – I  suspect – assess the positive effort being made.

All that aside it does appear that material progress was made by the G2o Finance and Central Bankers this last weekend.  It is interesting to note that such progress appears to have been made notwithstanding China’s objections to identify the factors that  all countries could examine to determine if there were countries in trouble.

While China apparently insisted and the communique did not include precisely “real exchange rates” or “current account imbalances” the language of the communique includes language to, “take due consideration of exchange rate, fiscal, monetary and other policies.” Even this less precise language seems to be a victory of sorts since the communique appeared to have removed “exchange rates” altogether at the insistence of the Chinese only to be reinstated at the insistence of the US, Germany and the United Kingdom (See Ralph Atkins and Quentin Peel, “G20 strikes compromise on global imbalances,” FT, (February 19-20, 2011).

So where do the G20 go from here?  Well the Framework Working Group (FWG) – chaired by India and Canada – moves forward to an April deadline.  Ironically the Group will meet in Beijing and at that time hopes to conclude the “indicative guidelines” for each of the selected economic indicators.  In addition the IMF has be tasked to provide a G20-wide assessment of these policies in time for the G20 Leaders Conference in November in Cannes France.

So the policy progress continues notwithstanding that national interests do not converge on global imbalances.  What is apparent however, is that there is no reduction of the this debate to a clash between the West and the Rest – not even the BRICs.  It would appear that China is isolated on  its exchange rate policy.   Brazil and the other large emerging market countries are not in the China camp.  Brazil has spoken out strongly on currency manipulation – read that as the China fixed exchange – and the US quantitative easing.

Brazil is determined to raise the need for a new additional international reserve currency.   Brazil, according to its Finance Minister Guido Mantega wants to expand the use of special drawing rights (SDRs) and to include both the Chinese renminbi and the Brazilian real in the SDR basket along with the US dollar, the euro, the yen and the British pound.

The US remains fixed – if not fixated – on the renminbi and the failure of Chinese authorities to allow the renminbi to appreciate more rapidly.

And Germany is determined that the analysis of global imbalances not be locked into ‘hard’ limits.

National interests remain divergent – but global governance progress is being made – nonetheless.

You Can’t Go Home!

The events in Egypt continue to resonate with celebrity politics.  Reflecting on my last blog post on the state hold on celebrities  it is useful to focus briefly on Mrs. Mubarak.  A number of Wikileaks about her role show her involvement in Egyptian politics.  Far from being content in playing a symbolic role as First Lady, Mrs. Mubarak was interpreted by a number of US diplomats to have played a major political role in trying to assure a dynastic succession to Gamal, the Mubaraks’ son.

But let me shift the focus in this blog post from the old regime to more future oriented scenarios. In particular I view the events in Egypt as opening up the puzzle once again:  can celebrities go home again?

To suggest that an individual such as Mohamed ElBaradei is a celebrity runs into all sort of thorny definitional questions. But he did gain a measure of fame from winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work as director of the UN nuclear agency. These achievements put him in a different category than those who gain celebrity status only by some form of support to a cause.

Yet, in some ways the question of whether or not a notable such as ElBaradei can go home again echoes other circumstances from the world of entertainment and sports. Although the list is likely longer, those I put at the top of the cluster of those celebrities away from their home are: Wyclef Jean, George Weah and Imran Khan.

All of these individuals received some measure of kudos as long as they concentrated their attention on non-political activities. Wyclef Jean used the fame he achieved as a member of the Fugees as a platform to build the Yéle Haiti Foundation. George Weah a star footballer became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and an advocate for youth in his home country of Liberia. Imran Khan moved from being an iconic cricketer to an activist, starting a charitable foundation in Pakistan bearing the name of his mother and serving as a UNICEF special representative for sports.

Moving from social activism to success as an elected national political leader however seems to be a ‘bar too high’. George Weah lost the Liberian presidency in a run-off with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Imran Khan had a disappointing career as a politician. And Wyclef has been barred from running for the presidency in Haiti for not meeting the residency requirements.

These failures can all be put down to problems attached to these individuals – whether opportunism or lack of organizational prowess. Yet their lack of success also reveals how difficult it is for celebrities – whether defined by ascription or achievement – to go back home.

Such a bar, although not the only constraint in the case of ElBaradei, offers an insight into how difficult it will be for him to emerge as a political actor in the new Egypt.

Breaking the Egyptian State’s Grip on Celebrities

The main focus on the events in Egypt has been on the mass gathering of demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo.  These demonstrators became the media heart of the protests against the Mubarak regime. Yet as in other areas I have looked at the role (or non-role) of celebrity activists is salient as a lens focused on the intersection of politics and culture.

One thematic issue that emerges from such an enquiry is the differing levels of activism between older and younger celebrities. A major older celebrity is Omar Sharif the Oscar winning star of Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and other movies. What is striking in his comments is his desire for both change and stability. On the one hand, he says that President Hosni Mubarak should have resigned. ‘Given that the entire Egyptian people don’t want him and he’s been in power for 30 years, that’s enough’. And he added: “The president hasn’t improved the standard of living of Egyptians. There are some people that are very rich — maybe 1 percent — and the rest are all poor trying to find food.”

Yet he expresses concern over moving beyond the Mubarak era. As he told AP: “I personally don’t know what they [anti-Mubarak forces] will do afterwards. Who will they bring, who will take his place, who will be in charge of the country?” This fear was magnified if it turns out that the Muslim Brotherhood gains from the exit of Mubarak leaves. “They [the Muslim Brotherhood] were trapped and now are starting to come out. They have 20 percent of the population, and it’s frightening for me.”

This cautious on the one hand and on the other hand attitude can be contrasted to the enthusiastic anti-Mubarak views of young celebrity protestors, some of whom have gained prominence in other countries. A case in point is Khalid Abdullah described by the BBC who repeatedly interviewed him as a ‘British-Egyptian’ actor (the Kite Runner is his best known film, and he was honored at the 2010 Cairo film festival) who rather than looking down at ‘Liberation Square’ like Sharif is actually in the square. Besides Abdullah’s distinctive characteristics his role also raises the question of whether celebrity activists who have gained some measure of fame abroad can go home again – a theme that I will return to next week.

If the shifting agency of celebrity activism needs to be looked at further however so must the embedded context in which celebrities have had to operate in Egypt. What jumps out is the tight grip of the state. As I have pointed out in earlier blog posts a wide number of Egyptian celebrities dating back to Umm Kulthum in the 1960s have been mobilized for the interests of the state.

What is different about Egypt under Mubarak is the personal nature of this grip. Rather than just promoting celebrities because they adhere to the interests of the state, Mubarak’s family members have taken on the role of celebrity activists. The best – or worst – illustration of this phenomenon is the endorsement of Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egyptian president as a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Egyptian first lady may be committed to good causes, as other individuals in this role are. Indeed, she has won a number of awards for he work. Yet, in witnessing the pent up demand for change I can’t escape the conclusion that having her as a goodwill ambassador is just one more indicator about how pervasive the hold of the Mubarak regime on Egypt has been.

As in other parts of the world, a healthier format would be to have prominent celebrities – with no state links – exclusively appointed to this role, especially from the younger generation of activists.

Gazing Starward – The Second Annual Princeton Winter Conference

It is hard not to be distracted by the momentous events unfolding in the Middle East  – especially in Egypt.  But I wanted to turn my attention back to last month and specifically January 14-15th at Princeton University.   On that weekend a number of partners held the second annual Princeton global governance conference.  These Conferences are the partnership of: the Project on the Future of Multilateralism at the Woodrow Wilson School led by John Ikenberry, the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) led by Stewart Patrick, the Stanley Foundation led by David Shorr and the Munk School  of Global Affairs led by myself but accompanied by John Kirton.

This Second Princeton Conference was titled “Rivalry and Partnership – The Struggle for a New Global Governance Leadership”.  This Conference was a carry forward from our first Conference, “New Foundations for Global Governance”.  This year’s conference drew together about 30 scholars – principally from the academy in the United States but participants included, as well, experts and officials from Brazil, Canada, Korea, France and Russia.  Our Korean colleagues were invited, especially, to bring to the group a close-in analysis of the Seoul G20 meeting and then our French colleague advanced the debate by describing how the new French host at its President Nicholas Sarkozy would address certain issues in both the G8 and G20 meetings in France.

The Conference reflected a healthy combination of the more theoretic and the close policy discussions on the vital policy issues in the G20.  The organizers put together five panels:

  • Panel One – Tensions in the Structure of Global Governance Leadership – US, the BRICs and Europe;
  • Panel Two – The Consequences of the Seoul G20 Summit – Uncertain Transition?
  • Panel Three – Competing Paradigms – Universality versus Clubs – the Legitimacy Challenge – UN Climate Change, the MEF, IMF and the Bretton Woods System;
  • Panel How Big a Tent? – Like-Mindedness and Diversity and the High Table – NATO, IAEA, G8 and G20; and
  • From Commitment to Compliance – The Challenge of Effectiveness – UN Security Council, IFIs and Gx – Global vs Regional Organizations

The organizers identified for each panel two experts to prepare short memos (5-7 pages and) and also identified 3 to 4 discussants who led off with comments about the substance of the memos.

The discussions were wide-ranging and a times exhilarating – not to mention exhausting.  I shall dwell a bit more on the memos in another blog but let me raise the big themes that seemed to be generated through the discussion and debate.  As the sub-theme suggests the great debate is over two matters:

  • the leadership place and the substance of United States global governance; and
  • the leadership – if any – of the newly emerging large market states, particularly China, but also Brazil, India and Indonesia and even some of the so-called middle powers – Korea, Mexico and even some of the European states.

There was much debate over both themes but no resolution.  In part the continuing and yet unresolved debate arises from different perspectives on:

  • Whether the states are reasonably content with the global governance architecture or it requires a wholesale makeover.  There were views expressed that the leading states were, and are, driven by deep cleavages and norm divisions.  Others focus on the complex web of interdependence that ties traditional states and the rising powers;
  • The matter of hegemony.  Is US ‘decline’ and the fading of hegemony driving the creation of a new architecture or does the US leading role continue to insure the leadership of the United States and the basic architectural structure.  Must the United States forge a new diplomatic behavior in order to reshape the global governance architecture.  If so what is that new behavior;
  • If the leadership structure is to continue – which entails the rising powers taking on leadership in a variety of settings – who are the stakeholders in the newly emerging states that will underpin this new leadership responsibility; and
  • and is the architecture being remade with the entrance of rising powers to positions of global governance leadership, or is there a drawing apart with regions and regional authorities becoming the new architecture of international relations.

The future remains clouded and contentious.  I’ll return to the Princeton debate soon.