Last week, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced plans to move to New York to head the International Rescue Committee, a leading humanitarian organization. In his new position, Miliband is likely to be a powerful voice in debates over crises such as that in Syria. His decision may have inspired some envy at the United Nations, which would benefit from the services of such a seasoned political operator. UN officials are already starting to size up early candidates to replace Ban Ki-moon as secretary-general in 2017. The next leader of the UN is likely to be a European. But he or she may lack Miliband’s stature.
The battle to succeed Ban could turn nasty, pitting Western-backed candidates against alternatives favored by Russia. If that sounds like a return to the cold war, it’s because the UN has never fully shrugged off the old East-West divide. There’s an unwritten rule that the post of secretary-general should rotate between different regions. Since World War II, three Europeans, two Asians, two Africans and one Latin American have held the office. But, in an anomaly dating back to the days of the Iron Curtain, the UN treats Eastern Europe as a distinct region. And no Eastern European has been secretary-general.
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This essay has been reprinted from World Politics Review.
Richard Gowan is responsible for developing the outreach and profile of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation; in addition, he works at the center on peacekeeping, multilateral security arrangements and the relationship between the United Nations and the European Union. Formerly the manager of the Europe program at the Foreign Policy Center in London, he is also a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has broadcast widely, including on the BBC, CNN and the Lehrer NewsHour, and frequently contributes to policy magazines and Web sites.