The UN Gets a New Boss
Antonio Guterres officially took his new position as UN Secretary General on January 1st. In an interview with Newsweek, the Portuguese former Prime Minister mentioned the 'failure' of the international community to prevent conflicts and called for a more 'creative diplomacy'. His challenges are numerous - from Donald Trump dismissing the UN as “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time” to the conflict in Syria. His largest hurdle might be to give the UN its credibility back, after a bruising few years. This is the topic of BTP’s Chat this month.
6 Mins (1564 Words)
Albane de RochebruneNikita, Adam, Charles, thanks for joining today’s Chat, I want us to discuss about Antonio Guterres, the new UN Secretary General. What do you think of his appointment? What do you think he means with his call for a 'more creative diplomacy'?
Nikita BernardiI was surprised he was the appointment. More than anything, just because of the mood in global affairs at the moment: he used to be the UN Commissioner for Refugees, he's part of the Socialist Party [in Portugal], so he seems to be a different kind of leader to the new swathe of populist leaders reaching positions of power or influence. It’s going to be interesting to see him interact with this new dynamic in international affairs.
Adam MaddockI agree. One of the points I thought: his politics, not only are they defined as social democrat rather than socialist - because in Portugal the 'social democrats' are the centre right, and so the 'socialist party' are the social democrats - but his politics are much clearer than Ban Ki Moon, whose were quite opaque.
Charles AnglinHe's a pragmatist above all else. I think the reason he has been appointed is that Security Council members, although they don’t want someone to take a moralistic line and challenge them. What they really want is someone who's a manager and problem solver. Because there are some particular issues that the UN has to be engaged with and we’ve really had an era of kind of, if not inaction, then certainly hesitation and indecision with Ban Ki Moon. I think people are looking to have someone who gets the job done, whatever that job and task happens to be at the time.
AlbaneAnd so do you think that's what being a creative diplomat means?
CharlesWell, yes. What's the purpose of diplomacy other than to get people to do things, to resolve problems?
AdamAnother thing he has a reputation for is of being inclusive, and being very good at dialogue. He's not one of these autocrats who has his view of the world. He will get people involved, he will delegate, that’s possibly one of the reasons he was chosen, because of his reputation.
AlbaneWhat do you think are the most pressing issues he is going to face?
NikitaI think something that isn’t a policy point but something that’s really pertinent: people seem to not take the UN very seriously anymore. That’s something he is going to have to face. As an institution it needs to find some legitimacy again. Currently it’s often viewed as 'Oh, a slap on the wrist from the UN!’, and then nothing happens. To me that's something he really has to contend with.
CharlesWell, the 3 biggest issues: Syria, Iran and North Korea.
It’s pretty obvious the North Koreans are going to try to test Trump, which given Trump’s temperament could lead to a few worrying moments for the rest of the world.
The UN was heavily involved in the Iranian nuclear settlement, which again Trump is threatening to unravel, though actually the main part of that was the raising of sanctions and the release of the money has already been done, so it’s hard for Trump to undermine. Then there's Syria, where peace continues to be as elusive and confusing as it seemed to be 5 years ago.
But then there are some other long standing issues like the Western Sahara. We are now in year 41 of that particular dispute and it was one of the issues that Ban Ki Moon made clear that he wanted to kick start a new process on. I think, having been High Commissioner for Refugees and with about 150000 refugees in camps as a result of the Western Sahara dispute, it’s an issue that Guterres probably will want to engage in.
AdamWell, an extension of the linkage to Trump, climate change will be interesting. I think that Trump has a pretty jaundiced view of the UN anyway, so US funding to the UN may be reduced significantly, which will be a challenge.
AlbaneTrump has been highly critical of the UN describing as 'a club for people to get together and have a good time'. Do you think he's right?
CharlesTo a certain extent, but I think we should also remember Harold Macmillan was accused of having a policy that was all jaw-jaw, all talk, and he said jaw-jaw is better than war-war. So there is some truth in the UN being a talking shop, but when that talking shop is the only thing preventing all out conflict...
NikitaBut it’s not Charles, it’s not preventing anything at the moment!
CharlesI think you've been reading too many alt-right websites.
AdamThis is a very interesting point. In popular culture, the perceived power of the UN is much greater than the reality. I used to play a game called Civilisation 5, which is where you play a civilisation and run your country, and in that the UN could tell you what to do and you would have to obey. And there are countless movies where you go to the UN building and the 'UN is gonna tell you what to do'. Well as we know that is simply not the case.
CharlesNo, of course, the UN in itself doesn’t have the authority to impose anything. The UN is made up of its members, but it’s a forum and a structure and a process by which its members can have that conversation. Of course, no country can be forced to do these things. It is about, however, managing to forge a collective approach based on some very disparate views and interests. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be UN secretary general! But I don’t think there is any point in criticising the institution. The institution is made up of its members. And all the institution can do is pull those members together and try and provide a process which generate collective action. The UN serves a purpose.
I think however, a lot of its institutions and mechanisms are flawed, that’s certainly true, for example the Security Council needs to become more representative. Trying to preserve the political balance of power in 1945 and never updating that, that is going to be increasingly problematic (and certainly has been). But also there needs to be some reform of the bureaucracy. Ok there are great myths about the money that gets spent on offices rather than aid. But anyone who tries to pretend that the UN is a model of bureaucratic efficiency is having a laugh.
NikitaI think Adam’s point is very pertinent. There needs to be understanding of the limits of power of the UN. That's fundamental, even when it comes to bureaucracy.
CharlesI think that’s it. The UN in a lot of places does a very valuable job, but its room for manoeuvre is dictated by the willingness of its members to allow it to do things. And all of its members, all of the time, will try to prevent it that they regard as against their individual interests. That is the way of nations and governments. And it takes a very clever diplomat and leader to navigate an institution around those interests.
AdamCharles' point is well made. I think one of the psychological problems is the priority in preventing things rather than doing things.
CharlesThat’s right. if you’re really lucky, that clever, inspirational diplomat and leader can convince enough countries, every now and again, that doing something is the only way to prevent something worse happening.
AlbaneAmina Mohammed, the former Minister of Environment in Nigeria, has been appointed as the deputy secretary general. We had the pleasure of working with her in the past. What do you think of this appointment?
CharlesIt’s very good news. That position as deputy secretary general is only about 20 years old, and I think it was created because countries recognised the work load of the Secretary General is too great. I think it was meant to take away some of the organisational responsibilities so they could focus more on the diplomatic role.
Everything that I hear, including in our own experience, is that she's efficient and a straight talker. The fact that he chose to approach her and appoint her - because it’s a personal nomination - is a pretty good sign that he's serious about imposing as much rigour as is possible on the processes of the UN.
NikitaWhat do you think Albane, because you worked with her?
AlbaneWell, she is great, efficient, selfless. She is a woman, she’s African from a key country, Nigeria. She's a fierce fighter – that can only be a good sign.
And now my last question to each of you. If you were to talk to him for 15 seconds, what would you tell Antonio Guterres?
AdamDon’t let the bastards get you down!
CharlesI’m slightly tempted, despite everything I’ve said, to go for John Bolton’s quote [who was appointed by George W. Bush as Ambassador to the UN] who said, 'if you knocked the top two floors off the UN building in New York, nobody would notice'. But I'll probably go with saying: 'Choose your top 3 priorities and then stick to them for the next three years. Because they are the only things you will be able to achieve'.
NikitaWhat would you say Albane?
AlbaneI would ask if by any chance, he’s not looking to hire anyone in his team!