In new UN chief, redefining what's needed to be world's 'top diplomat'

As former prime minister of Portugal, António Guterres is the first UN head to bring national political experience to the table – a skill many say is much needed to address the organization's looming challenges.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Secretary-General-de­signate Antonio Guterres of Portugal, addresses the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York.

It makes a certain amount of sense that the person selected to lead the United Nations has almost always been a diplomat. They don’t call the UN secretary-general, who sits atop a global institution of 193 nations, “the world’s top diplomat” for nothing.

But when António Guterres takes the helm in January as the UN's ninth secretary-general, the former head of the UN’s refugee agency will stand apart from all the other diplomats who have occupied the post.

That’s because the appointment of Mr. Guterres – a former prime minister of Portugal – will mark the first time a diplomat with national political experience has led the UN.

Advocates of the world body, and even some critics, are finding hope in Guterres’s executive experience. Tapping a politician might help make the sprawling and often remote institution more effective – and, they say, more responsive to major development and security challenges and the millions of lives affected by them.

“The ideal CV for a secretary-general would include two things: extensive experience at the multilateral level and evidence of strong political talents, because the ability to persuade is really the essence of this job,” says Michael Doyle, an international relations expert at Columbia University in New York who was also a senior adviser to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“If we look at Guterres, we see he has them both: He was a head of government, and he has the leadership at UNHCR [the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees] for 10 years,” Dr. Doyle says. “It’s really a combination we haven’t seen before, and I think it augurs well for the UN and the job he’ll do leading it.”

A courageous choice?

On Thursday, the UN General Assembly voted by acclamation to approve Guterres to replace outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean diplomat whose second five-year term ends Dec. 31. The vote confirms the UN Security Council’s surprise selection of Guterres last week from a field of 13 candidates.

This was supposed to be the year that a woman was named as secretary-general after seven decades of male UN leaders. Seven of the candidates were women, with several considered highly qualified. Given a tradition of geographical rotation in the secretary-general’s chair, some countries – including veto-wielding Russia – also thought it was high time to choose someone from Eastern Europe.

But in the end the Security Council went unanimously for a Western European man whose proven managerial and political skills may be something the UN needs in an era of rising public skepticism toward distant transnational governance.

Many women in particular were disappointed that a man was chosen yet again to lead an institution that serves a world where women and girls are half the population – and the key to addressing many critical development challenges, according to many development experts.

But others say they are encouraged the Security Council resisted pressures to make their selection based on gender or geography and instead focused on the skills the UN needs today.

“I think [choosing Guterres] was actually quite courageous,” says Michel Gabaudan, president of the advocacy organization Refugees International and a former UNHCR regional representative who worked several years under Guterres.

“Instead of it being the result of the kind of backroom deal-making the Security Council is accused of, I think he got the job because he made by far the best case for why he should be selected,” Mr. Gabaudan says. “And I think that is a promising sign for the UN.”

Some longtime critics of the UN also found reason to cheer in Guterres’s appointment. John Bolton, who was US ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush, says the outcome was a “surprise” in part because the Security Council did not bow to the proponents of “gender-identity politics” who had lobbied hard to appoint a woman.

Mr. Bolton points out that the UN charter states only that the secretary-general is the body’s “chief administrative officer,” and from there he advises Guterres to stick to managing the organization’s hulking bureaucracy and to leave policy to his bosses on the Security Council.

The secretary-general is charged with managing the UN’s 40,000-strong bureaucracy and its 100,000 peacekeepers. Guterres will take the helm with the image of UN peacekeepers tarnished by cases of sexual assault on missions in Africa and another mission’s introduction of cholera to post-earthquake Haiti.

Global persuader

But others see the secretary-general much more as a global persuader and advocate for the peace and advancement of all mankind the UN was meant to foster.

Gabaudan says Guterres impressed him at UNHCR as a “forward thinker” who is able to discern the implications of global challenges. He notes, for example, that Guterres was the first UNHCR chief to underscore the impact that climate change would have on global human migration.

“He looks at how the world is changing and tries to look ahead to the impact of those changes and what might be the solutions to that impact,” Gabaudan says. “His approach [at UNHCR] was to try to address these challenges – like the impact of climate change on human mobility – before they became intolerable.”

Indeed, earlier this month when Guterres learned the Security Council had selected him, he told reporters his focus would be on “prevention, prevention, prevention.” Guterres said he would encourage the world to nip problems in the bud – whether it’s a nascent civil conflict or a looming global challenge like climate change – before they grow to threaten global progress.

That may sound overly lofty to some, but for others, the emphasis on prevention underscored the incoming UN chief’s pragmatism.

“It tells me he’s shrewd and has very good judgment,” says Columbia’s Doyle, noting that growing divides on the Security Council – particularly between veto-wielding powers Russia and the United States – will make tackling “hot” conflicts like Syria challenging.

“We’re entering a difficult time for the UN,” Doyle says, “but where Guterres might be able to find some common ground is on prevention, and his words suggest he understands that.” Implementation of the Paris climate accord or steps to quell a regional conflict before it balloons to implicate big-power interests are examples of the kind of results-oriented “preventive” work Guterres is talking about, Doyle adds.

Here too, the political experience of a former prime minister should come in handy, Gabaudan says.

“A big part of his job will be to mobilize member states to take action in ways that prevent the worst of growing challenges,” he says. “His combination of a political person with strong principles, but one with an ability to understand the history that shapes where people are coming from, will serve him well in his efforts to do that.”

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