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Can António Guterres Save the UN?

António Guterres

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

A quick end to an election campaign marked by baffling twists and turns: António Guterres, former Portuguese prime minister, will be the new UN Secretary-General. With Ban Ki-Moon’s tenure due to finish by year’s end, a plethora of candidates had positioned themselves for one of the top jobs in international politics. Once the flush of victory subsides, Guterres will see himself confronted with a mountain of challenges.

While the U.S. presidential election has produced an unlikely surprise candidate in Donald Trump, the campaign to head up the world’s eminent international organization has been somewhat of a rollercoaster itself. For the longest time, two things seemed inevitable: the incoming Secretary-General was going to be a woman, and she had to be from Eastern Europe. Not so much, as it turns out.

Several straw polls held in the Security Council saw strong female candidates such as Helen Clark, Christiana Figueres, and Irina Bokova turn from favorites to afterthoughts. To add insult to injury, the Bulgarian Bokova was then dropped by her own government at the eleventh hour. Due to Bokova’s poor support among Security Council members, current EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva then came forward to cobble together a long-rumored last minute candidacy.

By contrast António Guterres, starting out as an assumed also-ran, was able to curry the most amount of favor with the members of the Council. Having headed the UN refugee agency for ten years, he reportedly impressed with his eloquence and affable nature. In the end, he did not receive a single vote of discouragement. On paper, Guterres can make a strong case for himself. A former prime minister, he knows how to maneuver among political heavyweights. As a long-serving administrator at the organization, he probably also knows a thing or two about the behemoth that is the UN bureaucracy. Yet, the challenges are enormous.

The incoming Secretary-General will find a UN in turmoil. The organization has come under increasing pressure over its failure to take serious allegations of sexual abuse levied at peacekeepers. After years of denial, the UN has also had to acknowledge its involvement in spreading cholera in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Frustrations have grown over what many perceive to be a culture of impunity at the organization. Now, new reports have surfaced indicating that UN peacekeeping forces failed to protect civilians in South Sudan, abandoning their posts and allowing South Sudanese government troops to rape and kill scores of people.

The problems, however, go deeper. The standoff over Syria appears to be just another reminder that when push comes to shove, the great powers often leave the United Nations with little room to maneuver. Marginalization is a state of affairs the UN finds itself in all too often. With an international system that seems ready to abandon the idea of multilateralism, Guterres will have to show exceptional qualities to re-establish his organization as one of the central players in international politics. Add to that the perennial issue of a shortfall in funds, and the Portuguese has a full plate already.

As far as climate change and the UN’s mandate to further global development are concerned, the table is pretty much set. With the United States, China, India, and now the European Union having ratified last year’s Paris agreement, the next few years will likely see the United Nations return to more of a management role on climate change. A more decisive role of the private sector is to be expected.

Likewise, Guterres will have to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, launched at last September’s General Assembly. These are the areas in which the quiescent Ban made his mark, having been put in his place early by the great powers. It will therefore be interesting to see how Guterres aims to make a name for himself.

The Secretary-General post requires three things at once: Guterres needs to be a diplomat, a bureaucrat, and a politician. By all accounts, Ban struggled in all three roles. A natural communicator, Guterres should at least be able to make a more convincing case that we do need a strong UN. Can he return the organization to past glory? Maybe.

One thing is clear, however. The chance to hand the reigns over to a female Secretary-General was missed. Ban himself had indicated that he wanted his successor to be a woman. Another thing we also know: the UN will only be as strong as its most powerful members allow it to be. Whether male or female, the Secretary-General is too often at the mercy of the great powers. And that is the great challenge, making the UN fit for purpose in a 21st century world. Here comes António Guterres.



Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle writes about the politics of climate change, the United Nations, as well as US and African politics. Originally from Germany, Tim has studied in the UK and in the US, and has also worked in Uganda and Brazil. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of London, and is a recent graduate of the MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy program at the University of Oxford. He's currently a consultant working on climate change. When he is not thinking or writing about foreign policy, Tim enjoys the lighter sides of life, like pop culture.