As much as this moment of unity among the United States, Russia and other Security Council members coming together on António Guterres as the next United Nations secretary-general is to be relished, it’s not just the who that matters. It’s the what of the job. Unless the big powers are willing to let Guterres play a statesmanship role akin to that of Dag Hammarskjold, the UN’s most influential secretary-general (1953-61), and unless Guterres shows he is up to filling those shoes, the UN stands little chance of playing the role the world needs it to play.
Three examples of how Hammarskjold showed what a strong, assertive and determined secretary-general could contribute to global peace and security:
• In 1954-55, shortly after becoming secretary-general, Hammarskjold’s personal diplomacy resolved a crisis between the US and China over American prisoners of war captured during the Korean War and facing life sentences based on Chinese military tribunal convictions for espionage. With China having been denied UN membership and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles fulminating that we shouldn’t even be talking “to those people,” this was a “labor of Hercules,” as one Hammarskjold colleague put it.
• His key role in resolving the 1956 Suez crisis entailed taking on two permanent members of the Security Council (Britain and France), balancing the Cold War interests of two others (the US and the Soviet Union), navigating the dynamics of third-world nationalism and at least somewhat modulating the Arab-Israeli conflict. This diplomacy included setting up the first UN peacekeeping force, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), a success in itself and the basis for peacekeeping becoming a continuing UN role.
• With the former Belgian Congo, newly independent in 1960, engulfed in a multisided war among Congolese factions and Cold War proxies, Hammarskjold invoked the never-before-activated Article 99 of the UN Charter: “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The UN’s agenda was not only what the Security Council told the secretary-general to pay attention to, but also the reverse. While the Congo crisis was not resolved, this was less because of what Hammarskjold didn’t do than what other parties did to undermine his efforts (the CIA among them). He died in a tragic plane crash on Sept. 18, 1961: ostensibly an accident but long suspected as an assassination, with an investigation recently reopened and no definitive conclusion so far.
In his eulogy, Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, acclaimed Hammarskjold as “one of the greatest servants it [the international community] ever had — a brilliant mind, a brave and compassionate spirit. I doubt if any living man has done more to further the search for a world in which men solve their problems by peaceful means and not by force than this gallant friend of us all.”
Even Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, paying a condolence call to the Swedish embassy in Moscow, conceded that while “our relations were somewhat ‘special’ . . . Hammarskjold was a great man.”
Eulogies aside, the superpowers sought to ensure that only compliant candidates would be considered for secretary-general. Successors, for their part, learned the lesson of being less assertive and independent.
One was derided as not having much more of a role in key issues of the day than a “head waiter”; another as having so little political weight that if he fell out of a boat there wouldn’t even be much of a splash.
“SG” became short for “scapegoat,” as major powers passed the buck of blame to the UN, deflecting their own shares of responsibility.
The US bristles at any encroachment on its prerogatives. Russia nods toward the UN when it is useful for criticizing the US but unilaterally annexes Crimea and invades Ukraine. China won’t even let the secretary-general do a ceremonial meet-and-greet with the Dalai Lama.
Yet the trade-off of some encroachment on prerogatives for a secretary-general who is more assertive and a UN that is more effective at what only the UN can do and what even the major powers need the UN to do can be a net positive even for the major powers: actually, given the global scope of their interests, especially for the major powers. So, too, for the smaller and less-powerful countries with less capacity of their own and few recourses globally.
This kind of secretary-general-ship has four critical elements:
Statesman of the Charter: This was Hammarskjold’s core operating principle. Of course, the secretary-general must be sensitive to the interests of member states, all 193 of them. But he does need to be independent and assertive as warranted by the demands of international peace and security, what Hammarskjold called the secretary-general’s “exclusively international obligation under the Charter and without subservience to a particular national or ideological attitude.” For their part, member nations must live up to their responsibility, as per the Charter (Article 100), “to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General [writer’s emphasis] and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.”
The S-G’s exclusively international obligation . . . exclusively international character of the responsibilities: this obligation and these responsibilities are the essence of the uniqueness of the Secretary-General as leader of the world’s principal international institution.
Soft Power as Secular Pope: “In no other hall, from no other platform can a world leader speak to all humanity,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in introducing Pope Francis for his September 2015 speech at the UN. With prime access to that same hall and same platform, the next secretary-general needs again to be the “secular Pope,” as Hammarskjold was dubbed, arousing the conscience of the world and inspiring with a vision, realistic but ambitious, of what it means to be an international community.
Prioritize Peacekeeping Reform: No issue is more crucial to the UN’s credibility than peacekeeping. Yet the prominent story lines are about sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, the failure to stop mass atrocities in Sri Lanka, peacekeepers being overrun by an Al Qaeda affiliate in the Golan Heights, covering up Sudanese attacks against civilians in Darfur and bringing cholera to Haiti. Peacekeeping is, as The New York Times put it, “bigger and costlier than ever — and confronting an identity crisis.” A 2015 internal commission made 140 proposals for reform. Plenty more come from think tanks, scholars and nongovernment organizations. While these involve the roles of many players, the fact that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations falls within the Secretariat gives the secretary-general both responsibility and opportunity for making a strong impact.
Reinvigorate the International Civil Service: In the Oxford speech that was his last before his death, Hammarskjold spoke of “a dedicated professional service . . . recruited primarily for efficiency, competence and integrity . . . on a wide geographic basis . . . responsible only to the Organization [UN] in the performance of its duties and protected insofar as possible from the inevitable pressures of national governments.” As needed as this was in the mid-20th century, it is even more so, given the scope and complexity of the early-21st-century global agenda. The balance needs to be restruck for some but fewer political plums and quotas and more merit-based, cultivating a new generation of experts, globally representative and with skills across the full range of the UN’s broad portfolio.
If politics as usual prevails and preservation of prerogatives remains the priority, none of these improvements will happen, and the UN will continue to be all-too ineffectual, leading to more deadly conflicts like Syria, where it is unable to play a significant role; more peacekeeping missions unable to keep the peace; and more global health pandemics like Ebola, in which too little is done, too late, too poorly. All of which will lead to more undermining of the credibility of the institution, more damaging of the brand.
A more effective UN is not the sole answer to 21st-century global peace and security. But it is part of the answer. That won’t happen without a secretary-general who provides strong and inspiring leadership. As the world gets ready to welcome Guterres as the new S-G, it is an opportunity to change the profile to what it once was, and what it can and needs again to be for our world to prosper.