In the quest to ensure continuity of world leadership through peaceful transitions, Guterres became United Nations Secretary-General on 1 January 2017, following his formal election by the UN General Assembly on 13 October 2016. United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Security Council’s recommendation for the appointment of António Guterres as the ninth Secretary-General of the UN. Mr. Guterres takes over at a time the recent Gallup Survey notes that only 38% of people think the UN is effective. He takes over at a time, when global instability is at its highest – the fear of a new Cold war; heightened unilateralism; intractable wars in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan; threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, global terrorism, climate uncertainty, poverty, hunger, and many more. In short, Mr. Guterres’ assumption to office coincides with a global super-structure that is unable to be supported effectively by the foundation of the UN, laid in 1945. He assumes office January 1, 2017.
Many describe the position of the UN Secretary General as ‘the world’s most visible bully pulpit’. But that is so only as far as the occupant is concerned. Many think that the direction and effectiveness of the UN usually depends on the character of the occupant of the seat.
The newly-appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres.
Many have accused the outgoing Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon of inaction. In fact, the Economist described him as “the dullest and among the worst”. Beyond his quiet diplomacy on Climate Change, on which he succeeded in exacting a Protocol in Paris this year, Ki-Moon, perhaps will be remembered only by his own jaw-dropping self-description as “invisible”. He achieved virtually nothing – most times, only pandering to the whims and caprices of big powers, notably the US. At least the two past predecessors were described as men of steel (by the Economist) – Kofi Annan as ‘Charismatic’ and Butrous Butrous Ghali, before him, as ‘abrasive’.
In any case, the selection of a new UN Secretary-General should rekindle optimism about the potential for multilateral cooperation. A socialist, reformist, two-term Prime Minister of Portugal, and a two-term head of the UN Commission on Refugees, Guterres is expected to understand the UN’s political flaws, as well as structural and staffing shortcomings. Indeed, it was his experience and competence that won him the day, overcoming both the lowest-common-denominator dynamics and the perceived political correctness: geography – supposedly it was Eastern Europe’s turn to fill the top job – and gender, dashing the hopes of many activists that a woman, this time, should be the Secretary General.
Two major issues confront Guterres: UN Reforms and global stability. For the UN to fulfil the aspirations of the founding fathers and to save ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war … and for them to ‘live in larger freedom’, the UN needs a thorough shake up. Sweeping staffing and management reforms are needed. Obviously, those in senior leadership positions will tender in resignations. And that would provide Guterres with the chance to make adjustments rapidly, either through new blood, reappointments, or elimination of posts altogether. Ki-Moon failed to do just that, but his two immediate predecessors instituted sweeping staffing and management reforms in 1992, 1997, and 2002. Again on UN reforms, Guterres has the onerous task to succeed, where Kofi Annan failed. The latter redefined security and felt that only a collective responsibility towards security would assure the world of stability. As contained in his report ‘In Larger Freedom’, he wanted a world, where multilateralism determines the contours of global security. He wanted a reform that touched the Centre of gravity of the UN system – the Security Council. As we indicated earlier, whereas the UN is state-centric, current global realities make the foundations of the UN weak. The activities of non-state actors demand that the UN be reformed to be able to respond effectively.
The second issue Guterres will have to deal with is the current global levels of instability. Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen are but symptomatic of a world that is crashing. Incidentally, the UN has been made impotent in all these, because geo-politics, unilateralism, and ideology have laid the grounds for a creeping ‘Cold War’. Why would the US support rebellion and for regime change (Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria), while Russia or Iran would support the status quo. Indeed, it is this kind of situation that has given birth to activism in terrorism. The whole world is engulfed in the smoke of terrorism, while the war on terror is being fought on ideological grounds (so the terrorists fighting in Yemen –the Houthis- are such, but those fighting Assad in Syria are ‘pro-democracy forces’). What a world! The Middle East is boiling. Russia has built a strong base in Syria, sending one of the most sophisticated arsenals (the SA 23) to Syria; the US has beefed up its arsenals in Turkey and other places like Saudi Arabia; North Korea is threatening to use nuclear weapons because the US and S. Korea (now joined by Britain) are constantly conducting exercises; China has taken a large chunk of the South China Sea and has refused to obey the outcome of an international tribunal; Turkey is chasing the Kurds, calling them rebels;… Guterres has a plate full of worms! We need not be told that transformation is imperative, if the UN is to become capable of responding to a growing list of life-threatening challenges, ranging from the creeping ‘New Cold War’, the proliferation of WMDs to pandemics; from terrorism to climate change; and from mass atrocities to poverty.
It seems though that Guterres’ distinguished tenure in government (Portugal) and UN management experience, as well as his renowned diplomatic finesse may well play for him to give the world a new UN that would stand the test of time.