Sepp Blatter should make a bid to be the next secretary-general of the United Nations: The Swiss septuagenarian has proved he is a master of multilateral diplomacy. Last week, he won a fifth term as president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), despite the corruption scandal engulfing the organization. Blatter has exploited political divisions among the West, Russia and the developing world to protect his position. The FIFA affair is a microcosm of wider tensions plaguing international institutions, and it offers some especially hard lessons about the limits of Western appeals to morality and the rule of law in shaping global public opinion.
Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan once joked that the World Cup, FIFA’s flagship event, “makes us in the U.N. green with envy.” The competition is, he noted, “one of the few phenomena as universal as the United Nations.” But the 209 national soccer associations that make up the FIFA Congress seem to be just as sensitive to geopolitics as the diplomats who sit in the Security Council and the General Assembly.
In 2010, FIFA’s executive committee awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. Other bidders had included England, Spain and Portugal. FIFA’s choice was widely interpreted as evidence that non-Western powers were gaining leverage over the world of soccer. Since U.S. prosecutors indicted 14 FIFA officials for corruption last week, Blatter has suggested that Washington and its European allies are out for revenge. He now often sounds like a conspiracy theorist. But he has an advantage: Many non-Western observers agree with his version of events.