Commentary / World

Next U.N. secretary general

by Ramesh Thakur

Ban Ki-moon’s second term as U.N. secretary general ends Dec. 31, 2016. To many, his choice in 2006 validated the soft bigotry of low expectations with respect to the world organization.

Considering the structural constraints within which he must function, Ban’s record is not all that bad. He has led from the front on issues like promoting more women to senior positions, climate change, the responsibility to protect, and a development agenda to follow the Millennium Development Goals that expire this year.

The office of secretary general combines the role of politician, diplomat and public sector CEO. The secretary general must have integrity and independence to be able to set the collective interest of the United Nations above the partisan interests of member states; provide managerial ability and negotiating skill while establishing rapport with a global audience; know when to take the initiative to force an issue, when reticence is welcome, when courage is required, when discretion is advised, and when commitment to the U.N. vision must be balanced by a sense of proportion and humor; and a strong sense of balancing the demands and expectations of the organization against the limits of the possible.

The status, authority and powers of the secretary general are derived chiefly from the clauses of the U.N. Charter, but depend also on the skills and personality of the incumbent and the state of major-power relations.

As the voice of world conscience and the personification of the international interest, with the capacity to influence events but not control them, the secretary general must have the support of all governments but owe allegiance to none, retaining U.S. confidence while being demonstrably independent of Washington.

To describe what is needed is to explain why Norway’s Trygve Lie, the first secretary general, famously said his was “the most impossible job in the world.”

The single most important challenge for the secretary general is to provide leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest.

Leadership consists of articulating a bold and noble vision for the international community, establishing standards of achievement and conduct for states and individuals, explaining why they matter, and inspiring or coaxing everyone to adopt the agreed benchmarks as their own goals.

The vote on Ban’s successor will likely take place late next year, although informal initial rounds of balloting could commence in mid-2016. Preliminary jockeying and early announcements of some candidates is already under way.

This year will thus be taken up with discreetly reading the tea leaves and gauging the global temperature by announced, expected and behind-the-scenes candidates.

A more critical agenda item should be to reform the method of choosing the secretary general and the term of office, as this is almost impossible to do in the actual year of election.

The present process puts a premium on the most amiable and least offensive, not the most forceful and effective. Process shapes performance: Choosing a weak leader allows the five permanent members (P5) of the U.N. Security Council to scapegoat the secretary general (Kofi Annan used to joke that “SG” (for secretary general) meant “scapegoat”) for the organization’s lackluster performance.

The U.N. Charter contains just one brief sentence on the secretary general’s selection: “The secretary general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” One would never guess from the actual practice so far that the appointing authority is the General Assembly, not the Security Council.

In a resolution adopted on Jan. 24, 1946, the General Assembly stipulated that the secretary general would be appointed for five-year terms, renewable once. The Security Council forwards only one nomination to the General Assembly based on the affirmative votes of 9 of the 15 members, including the concurring votes of the P5.

Thus the choice of secretary general is subject to a P5 veto. A simple majority of those present and voting, by secret ballot and without debate, is required in the General Assembly.

The General Assembly has never rejected the Security Council-recommended candidate. In requiring only one candidate instead of a slate, the General Assembly gave up an appointing power whose importance grew considerably in the following decades.

The General Assembly can and should reclaim a co-equal role by rescinding the 1946 resolution and ask for a minimum of three and a maximum of five candidates. Else the secretary general will remain deferential to the Security Council, and in particular to the P5, over the collective interests and preferences of the broader membership.

Another long-standing reform initiative has called for a single seven-year term to provide stability and to reduce the temptation of the secretary general’s decisions/actions being influenced by calculations of a second term. These two key changes (a slate of several candidates and a single but longer term of office) could be effected by the General Assembly without Charter amendment.

In 2006 the General Assembly added “gender equality” to regional rotation as a consideration in choosing the secretary general. Based on a combination of these two criteria, the strongest candidates in 2016 should be Central and Eastern European women, as no woman and no Eastern European has been chosen to date. An early declared candidate is UNESCO director general Irina Bokova, the former foreign minister of Bulgaria. Another candidate is Danilo Turk, a former U.N. assistant secretary general and president of Slovenia.

The challenge is to find an eastern European acceptable to both Russia and the West to avoid a veto by Moscow, Paris, London or Washington (an exercise that starkly highlights how anachronistic the Security Council permanent membership is).

A third equally credible potential candidate, albeit from Southern Europe, is U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal.

Two former prime ministers from down under, Helen Clark (New Zealand) and Kevin Rudd (Australia) are also widely believed to be interested. The two countries belong to the West European and Others Group in the U.N. political geography.

Would Europeans endorse an Australasian for their once-in-40 years turn of the world’s top diplomatic post?

Solidarity, empathy, integrity, decency, moral compass, intellect define a good and effective secretary general, who speaks as the conscience of common humanity amidst the hurly burly of great power diplomacy.

Most U.N. observers rate Dag Hammarskjold (1953-61) and Annan (1997-2006) as the best secretary generals. A central challenge with which both had to contend, with mixed success, is how to combine the U.N.’s legitimacy and international authority with the global reach and power of a superpower. Had the P5 known in advance how these two would act once in office, it is doubtful either would have been chosen.

As we prepare to select the next secretary general in 2016, this leads to a sobering conclusion: The very skills and character traits needed for the world’s top diplomatic office will ensure the best candidates are vetoed.

Until we see the likes again of Hammarskjold and Annan, the U.N. is unlikely to recapture the heights of influence it attained during their years of stewardship.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He is author of “The United Nations, Peace and Security” (Cambridge University Press) and other books, and co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.”