ONE might be forgiven for failing to notice that Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister, was last year handed the mantle of leadership of the world’s representative body, the United Nations (UN) – in an era of increasing political danger – and at a time when the political (and humanitarian) response capacity of the institution is dangerously stretched.
Since Mr. Guterres took office, it’s fair to say that there have not been any major global initiatives or institutional changes amidst the unrelenting geo-political chaos and humanitarian crises plaguing the global landscape. At a time when transformative leadership by the UN and multilateral agencies is badly needed to resolve global conflicts, Guterres and the UN are missing in action.
Compounding the new Secretary-General’s challenges and travails (having inherited a raft unfinished reform initiatives in the realms of management) is the verbal belligerence of America’s new President Donald Trump, who has mercilessly criticized the UN’s performance – and has tweeted that the world body is just a place “to talk and have a good time”. From all indications, it’s very likely that the Trump administration will show scant regard for the UN’s work – although President Trump’s confessed indifference to international institutions is already chipping away at the multinational diplomatic system that America did so much to build in the past two generations.
In all fairness to Mr. Guterres, his predecessor Ban Ki-Moon was not exactly the kind of morale-boosting and consequential leader who guided an overburdened, under-resourced, and under-valued organization particularly at the height of the Syrian crisis and in the thick of the geo-political imbroglio between Russia and Ukraine.
At various junctures during Ban’s tenure, critics pondered whether the verecund and soft-spoken South Korean was the right person in the first place to lead a world body facing Sisyphean and unprecedented global challenges, and struggling to assuage the concerns of a sceptical membership about its ability to tackle issues involving collective security, institutional working methods, efficiency, legitimacy and the increasing demands on limited resources.
In certain quarters, the stewardship of Ban Ki-Moon was seen in gloomy terms – so much so that some global leaders were openly critical of his capabilities. In 2009, a leaked report by a senior Norwegian diplomat delivered heavy criticism of Mr Ban Ki-moon. In the report, senior diplomat Mona Juul, the Norwegian Ambassador to the UN, wrote: “At a time when solutions by the UN and multilateral agencies are more necessary than ever to resolve global conflicts, Ban and the U.N are conspicuous in their absence.” Mr. Juul also wrote that Mr. Ban was “battling to show leadership.”
As it turned out, the continuity of both the Syrian and Ukrainian crises has put the leadership and credibility of the U.N into sharp focus. Which begs the question: How long will this bureaucratic colossus continue to hold pretence and reality so far apart?
In many ways, the United Nations, since its inception in 1945, has done many great things – particularly its capacity to rally nations in pursuit of global solutions to collective security and peace, tackling climate change and humanitarian disasters, and fostering socio-cultural co-operation among nations.
Yet, the dithering leadership and political polarization in the Security Council (the ultimate power issue) has not helped much in bolstering the image of the UN. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in 2016: “The Security Council continues to reflect the geo-political realities of 1945, not the 21st century. But reform is selfishly blocked even though the Security Council’s loss of legitimacy may mean that we could eventually lose the only supra-national forum we have to resolve matters of peace and war. The expertise, experience and evidence needed to solve these and many other pressing problems already exists. What holds us back is the lack of leadership that can galvanize the political will needed to deliver solutions. The world is experiencing a crisis of leadership, not a crisis of knowledge.”
As the growth and progress of the inter-governmental body has demonstrated, the choice of Secretary-General has always been a consequential matter for the international community. The second Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld – whom President Kennedy called “The greatest statesman of our century” – was hailed for his high principle and dedication, and for his ability to shape and direct political events. In 2011, The Financial Times wrote that Hammarskjöld “has remained the benchmark against which later UN Secretaries-General have been judged.”
Likewise, the Peruvian diplomat Javier Peres de Cuellar, who became the organization’s fifth Secretary-General, was a great influencer decorated by some 25 countries during his career. Experts agree that he presided over the UN during one of the most remarkable decades in the political history of the world (helping to break the stalemate imposed on the UN by Cold-War hostility.)
Perez de Cuellar’s successor, the Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has often been praised for “guiding the Organization through the tumultuous early 1990s and for helping shape the UN’s response to post-Cold War realities, drafting a seminal report on preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping.”
Of course, not to be outdone is the Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan, who is remembered for his thoughtfulness, intelligence and charismatic subtlety; but most importantly for his indisputable success in terms of institutional management and efficiency.
With all its challenges, the UN needs a leader who is savvy about politics and abrasively charismatic – and one who has high-order diplomatic and executive skills. As a former UN official intimated, “It should be someone who can sidestep the passive resistance used by organizations to avoid change.”
The new Secretary-General has already pointed out that overcoming the perverse political dynamics that currently pervade the world body will not be easy. Let’s hope Mr. Guterres also understands that this is indeed a good time to take inventory, and rescue a 70-year-old global organization mired in confusion and often out of touch with political reality.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.