Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs

SMALL STATES - Our series exploring how the UN and others can better serve these countries →

Personalities Can’t Be Ignored in Candidacies for UN Secretary-General


Irina Bokova with President François Hollande of France, at Unesco general conference in November 2015. N. HOUGUENADE/UNESCO
Irina Bokova, who runs Unesco, greeted by President François Hollande of France, at Unesco’s  conference in November 2015. Bokova, a Bulgarian, is a candidate for UN secretary-general. N. HOUGUENADE/UNESCO

What personal qualities are needed to become a successful United Nations secretary-general? The 2016 campaign to select a new leader features many novelties in the UN’s history: an official list of candidates, public job interviews by the General Assembly and informal panel debates in London and New York. Civil society coalitions and the current president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, are invested in making the selection more transparent and competitive.

But can these procedural reforms help to identify the best person for what is labeled the most impossible job in the world? After all, the secretary-general matters only as much as the person who holds that job, as he or she can rely on little explicit authority from the UN Charter. How much the position has developed is related to how previous secretaries-general have used it.

Looking at the personal qualities of three candidates, based on their different regional groups and the fact that they are women — a key point of discussion — is an important step at this stage in the process, which has entered the straw-poll step to begin eliminating candidates, which began as 12 and is now 11. (The next straw poll is Aug. 29.)

Don't miss a  story,  Subscribe to PassBlue

Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Helen Clark of New Zealand and Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica placed third and below, respectively, in the July 21 straw poll conducted by the UN Security Council. In the Aug. 5 poll, their rankings changed: Bokova slipped to fifth; Clark dropped to seventh; Figueres moved up to eighth. (Susana Malcorra, the foreign minister of Argentina, jumped to third in the Aug 5 vote.)

Ingvild Bode, the author.
Ingvild Bode, the author.

A successful secretary-general fulfills tasks and pursues an independent agenda in the spirit of the UN’s core principles, while retaining the trust of member states. The reality also entails negotiating the agenda with the Security Council, specifically the permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

Three personal qualities must be demonstrated by a secretary-general to succeed: first, because the secretary-general is the UN’s public face and primary symbol, the person who is selected must be impartial in representing and promoting its core principles.

PassBlue Related Articles
You might be interested in these posts.
[display-posts taxonomy="category" tax_term="current" orderby="date" posts_per_page="3" wrapper="ul" content_class="pb-inpost-list" wrapper_class="pb-inpost-layout" exclude_current="true"]

But the future leader of the UN also needs to back up statements with steadfast action. This is expressed in a second quality: a willingness to enter into confrontations. As some confrontation is to be expected when it comes to promoting agendas and policies, a secretary-general who shies away from confrontation and prioritizes only preserving working relationships with member states cannot be an inspirational leader.

Third, a successful secretary-general must know how to strike a balance between confrontation and compromise. This requires an ability to communicate appropriately with actors across UN dimensions, such as diplomats, UN officials and nongovernmental representatives.

The personal backgrounds of the three candidates are very heterogeneous: Helen Clark grew up on a farm on New Zealand’s North Island. As the oldest of four sisters, she learned “that girls could do anything and did do anything because that was the way farm life was.”

Clark can look back on a long career in domestic politics and campaigning for those posts: she was New Zealand’s first female prime minister from 1999 to 2008, followed by her 2009 appointment as administrator of the UN Development Program, or UNDP. Since it is the UN’s largest operational agency, this role makes Clark familiar with civil society partners. She was a student activist against the American war in Vietnam and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Clark is therefore versed in communicating with all core UN dimensions.

Irina Bokova was born in Communist Bulgaria as the daughter of the editor in chief of the Bulgarian Communist Party’s official newspaper. She has been director-general of Unesco, based in Paris, since 2009, after gaining experience in domestic politics and in her country’s foreign service up to ambassadorial level. Her connection to the Communist elite has been subject to criticism, while Bokova notes that she was not a Communist supporter but a diplomat.

“Everyone was a member of the Communist party in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe in that period,” she has said. “There was no choice.”

Bokova’s experience indicates primary familiarity with two UN dimensions: member states and UN officials. The UN Secretariat part of her socialization is, however, is limited to headquarters experience and does not include substantial interaction with civil society representatives because of the nature of Unesco’s work.

Christiana Figueres comes from a political dynasty with both her father and her older brother having served as presidents of Costa Rica. She just completed six years as the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, during which she focused on bottom-up-style negotiations with national governments.

Notwithstanding her elite background, Figueres appears at ease in the wide-ranging settings that defined her life as a climate negotiator: “I have no problem sitting on the floor, sipping hot water from a dirty cup. I also have no problem sitting next to Prince Charles,” she said in a profile last August.

Figueres combines a career in diplomacy with leading roles in domestic ministries and was her country’s lead negotiator at the UN Convention on Climate Change from 1995 to 2010. Apart from her familiarity with member states and UN officials, Figueres also has nongovernmental experience from having lead the Center for Sustainable Development in the Americas and collaborating closely with civil society in preparing the Paris climate change summit meeting in December 2015.

Bokova displays a strong commitment to UN values, demonstrated during the 1990s transition process through her work toward the early admission of Bulgaria to the Council of Europe and advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. Her interviews since she was appointed to Unesco are full of statements on core UN values and affirm the importance of multilateral solutions.

Clark’s record on UN values also appears straightforward. Her opposition to the Iraq war during her time as prime minister, compared with her support of New Zealand’s participation in the UN-authorized Afghanistan intervention, reflect a firm belief in multilateral solutions. This is underlined by Clark’s interviews as both prime minister and as the UN Development Program administrator.

As Figueres built her career on combating climate change, her statements include much vocal support for UN values, such as building trust through institutions. Figueres’s commitment can also be accentuated by her performance in a recent public secretary-general candidates’ debate: when asked who would admit to UN responsibility and apologize to Haitians for a cholera outbreak connected to UN peacekeepers, she was the only candidate to raise her hand in a symbolic moment.

To what extent, however, have the three candidates been inclined to confront the support of or defense of UN values?

Bokova’s behavior across her career, especially at Unesco, seems almost exclusively motivated by balancing member state interests rather than pushing for a potentially controversial agenda defending UN principles. During her tenure, she balanced, for example, Unesco’s vote to recognize Palestine as a full member by also prioritizing Holocaust remembrance. Bokova has shown her confrontational side in response to the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS in Syria, negotiating for the inclusion of references in Security Council resolution 2199. But engaging in confrontation was easier here because she did not need to speak against member states, who are united on the matter.

Overall, Clark’s career displays a strong willingness to enter confrontations, evidenced, for example, by her decision to continue as Labour leader despite electoral defeat and party opposition in the mid-1990s in New Zealand. Some people have referred to Clark as “the minister for everything” during her time in office, while others characterize her as “straightforward” and a “trailblazer.” Further evidence of her willingness for confrontation has emerged in her management style at UNDP, where she cut an unprecedented number of senior-level jobs.

Figueres appears well versed in striking a balance between confrontation and compromise, as her negotiation of the Paris climate agreement attests. Here, “she was noted for her ability to bring warring factions together, with calm, good humour and occasional flashes of anger,” an article in The Guardian said. Her tenure at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which started right after the failure of the Copenhagen summit meeting in 2009, has been characterized by direct, passionate communication on the importance of combating climate change and personal diplomacy with important figures.

As expected, all three candidates display a clear commitment to UN values on a rhetorical level. They differ across other qualities, however, with Clark and Figueres conforming more closely to expectations for a successful secretary-general. Clark and Figueres have been more willing to enter into confrontations when pursuing their agenda, while Bokova has emphasized safeguarding working relations.

This retrospect suggests that Figueres and Clark are more likely to become an activist secretary-general pursuing a normative agenda designed to safeguard and promote the UN’s main principles. Their varied socialization across all core UN dimensions should also make Figueres and Clark familiar with communicating effectively across different contexts and knowing which confrontations to pick.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Ingvild Bode is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent in Britain. From 2013 to 2015, she was a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellow with joint affiliation at United Nations University and the University of Tokyo. Her research agenda covers peace and security, particularly the potential influence of individuals on processes of policy change at the UN and changing state practices toward the use of force. Bold holds a Ph.D. in political science and international relations from the University of Tubingen, Germany.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

Personalities Can’t Be Ignored in Candidacies for UN Secretary-General
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Daniel Pulw
Daniel Pulw
7 years ago

There are four female candidates. Your article focuses on only three of the women vying for UN SecGen. There is so much unbalanced analysis and reporting on this important matter. Natalia Gherman is a highly qualified candidate from the Republic of Moldova who is unique amoung the nine remaining candidates.

Susan Markham
Susan Markham
7 years ago

What a pity the author didn’t do a similar analysis on Susana Malcorra who at this stage of the selection process looks more likely to be chosen than any of the 3 women candidates focused on in this article

Karsten Stolt, PhD
Karsten Stolt, PhD
7 years ago

Irina Bokova has led UNESCO out of its gravest financial crisis. She has managed to cut more than 400 staff and raised alternative funds to sustain “core programmes”. Unlike Helen Clark, Irina Bokova has introduced such reforms in a balanced manner, without confrontation. This is a valuable skill for the UN, not a character weakness, which is an advantage of Bokova to other candidates for SG.

Irina Bokova has also achieved a lot to promote the freedom of expression. Nobody else has done anything comparable before her. The article’s author should be aware that this is not a topic that all governments agree upon. It takes courage, persuasive power and perseverance, which is a way to achieve results without confrontation. The UN needs a leader with such a character!

Related Posts
Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously