What the UN’s New Leader Needs to Know
Surprisingly to many, the ninth United Nations secretary-general will be António Guterres, a former socialist prime minister of Portugal.
One surprise is that the winning candidate is not from the Eastern European regional group, which has never had a secretary-general, while Western Europe is getting its fourth. Another surprise is that the winner isn’t a woman, which will be disappointing to proponents of gender-identity politics. Mr. Guterres did serve 10 years as UN High Commissioner for Refugees and was previously active in the Socialist International, with both positions serving as springboards for his current candidacy.
What should Mr. Guterres know to perform his new job, and how should we judge his performance over the next five (and perhaps 10) years?
First, he must recognize that he owes his position to the Security Council’s five permanent members. This political reality causes gnashing of teeth in the missions of other UN members, and it sometimes raises the blood pressure of a secretary-general. But to be effective, Mr. Guterres will have to live in the rickety house the “perm five” have built, not align himself in opposition to it.
These five nations will often be divided, reflecting their national interests in global affairs, and thereby gridlocking the Security Council, as during the Cold War. So be it — Mr. Guterres must adjust. While there are other powerful, rising countries in the UN, unless they persuade one or more of the perm five to turn on Mr. Guterres, they inevitably are lesser factors.
Second, across the sprawling UN agencies and programs more broadly, Mr. Guterres should recognize that member governments set policy, and the multiple UN bureaucracies must implement it. Neither the secretary-general nor UN secretariats have any independent policy-making roles, although long years of acting as if they do have created a troublesome institutional culture.
Mr. Guterres will be more productive if he concentrates on his limited turf, such as by reforming the UN secretariat’s bureaucratic morass. As Article 97 of the UN Charter says, the secretary-general is merely the organization’s “chief administrative officer.” If Mr. Guterres fancies being this century’s Dag Hammarskjold, floating above the mundane world of nation-states, this may earn him points among the world’s high-minded, but he will accomplish little.
This is where Mr. Guterres’ European Union experience is worrying. Just as they have become accustomed to ceding national sovereignty to EU institutions in Brussels, many European diplomats in New York are perfectly comfortable doing the same with the UN. Such an attitude regarding already too-independent-minded UN staffs is definitely something Washington should oppose. (A reminder for Mr. Guterres: With Britain exiting the EU, that organization will soon have only one Security Council permanent member.)
If member governments cannot agree on policy, then the UN should do nothing. Disagreement among the members isn’t an excuse for either the secretary-general (or the secretariat) to freelance, as former Secretary-General Kofi Annan was wont to do throughout his tenure. So doing will invariably lead to conflict with significant UN voting blocs and distract from other urgent tasks. Joe Biden likes to quote his mother saying disapprovingly of people who act beyond their bounds: “Who died and made you king?” Mr. Guterres should listen to Mr. Biden’s mother.
Third, when the UN does act, especially in matters of international peace and security, the secretary-general must focus diligently on the problem at hand. In particular, UN peacekeeping needs urgent attention. These efforts now total (according to current UN statistics) 16 operations, nearly 119,000 deployed personnel and a $7.87 billion annual budget. Allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, spreading cholera in Haiti and mismanagement dog UN peacekeeping forces, whose halos have slipped since they received their collective Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.
UN peacekeeping history is packed with operations that were launched to end conflicts (or at least bring cease-fires) but never actually resolved them. In effect, UN military or political involvement becomes part of the conflict battle space, not a catalyst for ending it. Some disputes, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, are insoluble under existing circumstances. In such cases, withdrawing or substantially downsizing UN involvement until conditions are more propitious may, with the UN crutch removed, force the parties to take greater responsibility.
But where conflicts are resolvable, an international player of Mr. Guterres’s experience can make a difference, if he puts in the time and effort. It is not his job to appoint special representatives for peacekeeping or political missions, and then sit back and watch how they do. Active management and involvement by the secretary-general — which was the style of early secretaries general — is more likely to achieve concrete results, assuming the secretary-general carefully follows Security Council direction.
Given the problems endemic in the UN bureaucracy, and a world in flames — although many of the world’s problems are beyond the UN’s competence to solve — Mr. Guterres has more managerial work before him than his predecessors have been willing to undertake. If he sticks to that and whatever else UN members assign him in coming years, he will be fully occupied. If he strays beyond his remit, there is trouble ahead.
Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007). This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal.