In his World Politics Review column, Richard Gowan argues that the next UN Secretary-General must choose between restoring the UN’s independence in pursuit of a bold internationalist agenda, or adopting a more cautious approach with the associated risks of 'political pulverization' in today's challenging geo-political landscape. He also finds that the 1 for 7 Billion campaign has caused "a frisson of excitement at U.N.headquarters".
A copy of his article has been reproduced below.
Bold or Not, Next U.N. Secretary-General Faces World of Pain
By Richard Gowan, 24 November 2014
Does it matter who runs the United Nations? There was a frisson of excitement at U.N. headquarters at the start of this month when a consortium of advocacy groups launched a campaign to overturn the “outdated and opaque” process for selecting the secretary-general. But at a time when increasing global divisions threaten to reduce the U.N. secretariat’s ability to improve international cooperation, there are questions about how much impact the post can really have.
The current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, steps down at the end of 2016. As I have previously argued, Ban took far too long to find his feet at the U.N. after taking office in 2007, but he has improved over time and especially in recent years . He has been a consistent champion of long-term causes, including the battles against global poverty and climate change, while tackling more-immediate crises such as the Ebola outbreak with growing determination.
After eight years on the job, Ban reportedly still finds the U.N. machine perplexing and frustrating. Many U.N. officials continue to view the former South Korean foreign minister as an outsider to their organization. But he may yet take the credit for some signature multilateral deals scheduled for next year, including pacts on reducing carbon emissions and new international development goals. He is still trying to fix bits of the U.N. system that annoy him. He has always grumbled about the inefficiencies of “blue helmet” peace operations and has just launched a panel of veteran peacemakers to help resolve these.
Ban is still unlikely to go down in history as one of the U.N.’s great leaders, but if he can score at least some of these final successes, he may be counted as a qualified success. Close observers of the U.N., myself included, may dwell on his weaknesses as a leader, but it is not clear that the wider world is too worried. A Pew Research Center survey published last year found that the U.N. enjoys an average approval rating of 58 percent—both worldwide and in the United States.
Could anyone do any better? Even loyal U.N. insiders admit that few of Ban’s predecessors came very close to greatness. Most point to Dag Hammarskjold, the bold Swede who led the organization from 1953 to 1961 and built up its role in Cold War peacekeeping in cases such as the Suez Crisis, as the main exception. But Hammarskjold was ready to defend his political independence and risk political collisions with the big powers, making himself many enemies in the process. By the time he died in a mysterious plane crash in Africa, the Soviet Union was threatening to abolish the post of secretary-general altogether. The other members of the Security Council were happy to appoint a series of far lower-profile leaders for the remainder of the Cold War.
Post-Cold War U.N. chiefs have had rough rides, too. The first, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, alienated Washington so badly over issues ranging from the U.N. budget to Bosnia and the Middle East that Washington denied him a second term. His successor, Kofi Annan, did a fine job rebuilding the U.N.’s credibility in the late 1990s, only to see his personal political standing and his organization’s status undermined in 2003 by the epic battle with the U.S. over the invasion of Iraq.
Ban Ki-moon’s ups and downs look mild by comparison. That, his critics say, may be his problem: A more decisive secretary-general would take more risks, potentially achieving greater victories but inevitably taking worse political hits along the way. But in an age when even the U.S. president admits that his foreign policy largely consists of hitting singles and doubles rather than home runs, it is a bit unfair to expect the U.N. to always swing for the bleachers.
Whoever takes over the top job at the U.N. in 2017 will have to decide whether to hue to the Hammarskjold model of leadership, trying to restore the U.N.’s independence with a bold internationalist agenda, or adopt Ban’s more cautious approach. The advocacy groups that have signed up to the “1 for 7 Billion” campaign for “an open, fair and inclusive process to select the best possible candidate for Secretary-General” would clearly prefer an activist type.
That is unlikely given the current selection process, which is effectively decided by the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, with a passing nod to others states. The 1 for 7 Billion campaigners justifiably argue that “the secret deals and horse-trading” that typify the process “result in a race to the bottom for the lowest-common denominator candidate.” A more open process involving greater public scrutiny of the candidates and their policy platforms, they contend, might deter weaker candidates.
As I noted this summer, there are currently a wide range of candidates more or less openly running to replace Ban, ranging from serving U.N. officials to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Diplomatic observers estimate that there are 15 aspirants in the frame at present, with more to come. A more open process might help one of them break free from the pack, winning over international public opinion with a new vision for human rights, economic fairness or collective security. This would undeniably be a nice breath of fresh air.
But it would almost certainly also be the prelude to that candidate’s ultimate diplomatic humiliation. Even if the main players at the U.N. somehow assent to the rise of an activist secretary general, she or he will face a bleak political landscape. The U.N. is liable to be buffeted by clashes between Russia and the West, as bad or worse as those over Syria, for some time to come. And, as the recent agreement between China and the U.S. over climate change showed, real decisions on the future of the multilateral system are now more likely to be made via big power bargains in Beijing and Washington than negotiations in New York. While the Sino-American pact makes a broader deal on carbon emissions more likely, those steering the process admit that this will “resemble a collection of targets pledged by individual countries” rather than "a traditional top-down United Nations treaty.”
A lowest-common denominator secretary-general would in all likelihood put up with this, accepting that his or her organization is just window dressing for a disorderly world. A bolder figure might try to put the office back in the center of big-power deal-making-and in all probability get chewed up and spat back out. Whoever becomes the next U.N. secretary-general should expect that, whatever their diplomatic style and strategic vision, they face political pulverization.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.