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Leonid Bershidsky
The election of South Korean Kim Jong-yang as president of Interpol put an end to fears that the global police cooperation organisation would fall under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the controversy surrounding the election lays bare a more important issue: How does one keep international organisations inclusive without leaving them open to abuse?
Last week, The Times of London named Russian police general Alexander Prokopchuk the front-runner in the Interpol election, made necessary by the arrest of previous President Meng Hongwei on corruption charges in his native China. The claim that the Russian was the leading candidate was repeated widely, though without evidence to support it. The vote in the Interpol general assembly, which includes representatives of 194 countries, was heavily weighted in favour of Kim, according to results published on Twitter by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Whether or not last-minute Western pressure played a role, almost two-thirds of the delegates present backed the South Korean.
I’m glad Prokopchuk lost. In Russia, it’s prudent to cross the street when you see a cop. Appointing Prokopchuk, part of a service known for monstrous corruption and torture, as the titular leader of global police would be a mockery of any law-abiding citizen’s idea of law and order. Having a Chinese cop in that job was one, too, even before China secretly pulled him home. Both China and Russia — and other authoritarian regimes — have been accused, with good reason, of abusing Interpol “red notices” that open up individuals to the danger of being arrested when they travel.
But here’s the dilemma. Like in all major international organisations, iffy regimes — dictatorships and hybrid democracies — make up the majority of Interpol members, and there’s no democratic way to curtail their voting power. In a more even contest than the one between Kim and Prokopchuk, one could easily imagine the US and its allies being outvoted, and not just at Interpol. Should the Western nations threaten to pull out every time they’re in danger of losing a vote?
Such behaviour risks the criticism that the US and its allies are only happy to participate in multilateral organisations as long as they can control them. That’s not a good message to send to the world in which alliances are splintering, multiple poles of influence are emerging and the US itself, under Donald Trump’s leadership, is visibly mistrustful of any multilateral cooperation mechanisms.
Western nations, of course, are still the biggest funders of the world’s multilateral organisations. Earlier this year, John McArthur and Krista Rasmussen of the Brookings Instititution published a paper looking at the funding of 53 international groups, including 34 under the auspices of the United Nations, and concludes that between 2014 and 2016, half of their funding came from the US, the UK, Japan and Germany.
Western nations are also the most experienced in building credible institutions; if international organisations were run like Russia or China (or, perish the thought, Venezuela), they wouldn’t work for most of their members, even the non-democratic ones.
And yet funding and rule-making experience aren’t the only criteria that matter when it comes to managing processes with a lot of diverse, often unruly members. The rules are supposed to give everyone a vote; if it doesn’t quite work like that and Western votes are more important, the rules aren’t worth much.
One way to ensure democracy without offending anyone is to curtail the powers of elected offices. The Interpol presidency, for example, is largely a figurehead job. According to the organisation’s constitution, the president has no role in the day-to-day running of Interpol “that is, in coordinating the mutual assistance of member states’ police forces, directing the staff, administering the budget and running the databases. That’s the job of the general secretariat and its head, the general secretary, chosen by Interpol’s 13-member executive committee from among top professionals and only then approved by the general assembly.
Since 2014, the all-important job has been held by Juergen Stock, former vice- president of the German Federal Criminal Police, a top cop and criminologist with a spotless record — and a Westerner, too. Winning the presidency probably would not have given Prokopchuk any more power than he already enjoys as one of Interpol’s three vice-presidents, though it would have sent a terrible message about respect for the rule of law Interpol is supposed to uphold.
Another way to handle the built-in tension among member states with different systems and geopolitical allegiances would be with an unwritten rule that multilateral organisations should be run by people from countries not closely allied with any of the great military and economic powers. Coordination is a skill that requires neutrality. And besides, smaller, more neutral countries appear to have a greater interest in multilateral mechanisms than the geopolitical giants. Per capita funding data for the multilateral organisations look curiously different from the absolute numbers:
By this measure, the US and China aren’t in the top 20, but Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Ireland, Austria and tiny Liechtenstein all are, with the Vatican topping the list.
Of course, leaders from these countries are by no means perfect. Joseph Blatter, the disgraced former chief of global football and the epitome of all the head of a multilateral organisation shouldn’t be — an empire-building authoritarian clinging to power to the last — is Swiss. But generally, someone from a small, neutral nation who rises to global prominence can be expected to have the right combination of humility and impartiality that’s necessary to run a global body fairly.
The informal rule could be a matter of agreement among the major powers: Instead of pushing their own candidates, as Russia did with Prokopchuk at Interpol, they could choose to pick from a pool of neutral ones. There’d still be clashes, of course, and conflicts of interests, but at least there’d be a workable general approach — that is, if global leaders still want an effective multilateral framework.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. Courtesy: Bloomberg