When António Guterres was chosen by the United Nations Security Council in October to become the next leader of the UN, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted precisely who would be commanding the Oval Office of the White House in January 2017, just as Guterres’s term opened.
Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency of the United States, Guterres not only inherited a caseload of hellish problems to control with limited powers but he must also manage Trumpian plots to minimize if not gut the UN’s core work.
As a European ambassador summarized the situation for Guterres: “The terms of engagement have changed since he got the job. This is very different from anything we’ve ever seen before.”
While the wars in Yemen and Syria rage on and people die there with not one person sent to jail or prosecuted for war crimes; and as terrorism persists, famine looms in parts of the world and millions of refugees hang in limbo, Guterres surely knew his job would be ridiculously challenging.
To put it graphically, Guterres has inherited “a real pile of shit,” said Thomas G. Weiss, a New York scholar on the UN.
Raised a Catholic in Lisbon, Guterres wanted to become secretary-general to act as a savior. Having spent 10 years visiting refugee camps as head of that UN agency and given his Socialist tendencies to remember the poor and fix human injustices, Guterres might have innocently assumed he had the backing of the richest country in the world, America.
“His deep caring and pain were evident when he confessed that there was one question that always weighs heavy on his heart. ‘That is: how can we help the millions of people caught up in conflict, suffering massively in wars with no end in sight?’ ” said Kairat Umarov, the ambassador of Kazakhstan to the UN and an elected member of the Security Council.
But support from Trump, who tweeted revenge for what he perceived as the UN’s anti-Israel bias and clubby ways right before he moved into the White House, couldn’t be more unreliable than at any time in the last 10 years for the world body. This is not the first secretary-general to withstand serious blows by US administrations that were striving to win points from a broad swath of American voters, who are generally clueless about the UN.
“The other time it was like this was in the early days of [Ronald] Reagan — rocky,” recalled an American who held a top political affairs post at the UN. Moreover, with John Bolton, a US ambassador to the UN under the George W. Bush administration, the American noted, “things could have been hairy.” Yet everything, he concluded, worked out in the end for the UN.
In talking with ambassadors who represent their countries at the UN as well as policy specialists and academics, most people expressed instant empathy for Guterres as he copes in his first months in his new job, especially regarding his relationship with the US. People who commented on Guterres — mainly on background — want him to succeed.
Advice to Guterres came from many quarters. He should frame his interests and agenda “in a way where he convinces the Trump administration that he’s their ally, not their opponent,” said Melissa Labonte, a professor of political science at Fordham University in the Bronx who has written about the UN.
Trump’s fast moves to defund parts of the UN has made the normally confident Guterres “very troubled,” said a South American diplomat. Trump recently cut millions of dollars of contributions to the UN Population Fund, which provides lifesaving maternal-health care — and contraceptives — to the world’s poorest women.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, is busy hammering away at peacekeeping missions, regardless of what any mission may do — like fight Al Qaeda terrorists in the Sahel region of Africa — or whether she has ever visited these precarious sites. She skipped a UN Security Council trip to the Lake Chad basin in West Africa, what some media and political leaders are calling the world’s most neglected crisis. Instead, she tweeted that she was home, not feeling well and watching “Lone Survivor.”
Prompted by Haley, who has admitted she is still learning on the job, Guterres sent a memo to UN program leaders to “adjust” to US cuts. Reductions to other UN aid programs hover as the US sharpens its knife to its own development arm, USAID.
“All objectives — the SDGs, peace and security — will not be achieved in the short- to medium-term,” the South American diplomat said. Guterres, who has been traveling nearly nonstop around the Middle East, Africa and Europe, would prefer to stay in New York more often. But if you consider where he has traveled — to such places as Berlin, Brussels and oil-rich Middle East nations — it may indicate he is seeking money to fill a widening US hole.
Some diplomats noted with alarm that with the US retrenching financially and criticizing it in blanket ways — always a simple target — China is eager to step into the void. Japan, which is the second-largest donor to the UN general budget, after the US, and the third-largest to the peacekeeping budget (after US and China), said it was tracking such moves by its giant neighbor.
Yet a Japanese diplomat said in an interview that it was “premature” to declare whether his country would increase its financial donations to the UN peacekeeping budget and other operations.
“China is obviously more active on the international front,” the diplomat said. “We will see what China will do in the UN” and “observe what China is going to do on the ground.”
Guterres, who is 67 and goes by Tony, is married to Catarina Vaz Pinto, who has stayed in Lisbon as the deputy mayor for cultural affairs. Guterres did his homework when he arrived on the 38th floor of the UN secretariat: his roomy office offers stunning views of New York from his aerie above the East River, including densely packed Queens, a microcosm of UN nationalities. His goal was “conflict prevention,” a mantra he invoked as a candidate for secretary-general, and his rhetoric was rooted in practicality: he wanted to keep conflicts from happening rather than unwind them as they tore places and people apart.
He was also more than willing, he said repeatedly, to reform the UN bureaucracy to be more deliberate.
“We expect Mr. Guterres to continue to work on a number of important agendas”: peace and security, reform and development and ridding peacekeeping of sexual abuses, the Japanese diplomat noted.
Angela Wells, the communications officer for the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University, has worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Africa. She said she appreciated Guterres’s focus on conflict prevention, but that he needs to give more attention to protecting humanitarian workers, who have been increasingly killed on the job.
“In South Sudan, where historically humanitarian workers could work free from any substantive insecurity, we’re not seeing that anymore,” Wells said. “They are continually under threat in places like Yemen and Syria. He needs to emphasize that there must be no immunity for these crimes. Once humanitarian workers lose access, the whole response can collapse.”
The Trump administration’s proposed money cuts to parts of the UN — most of which must go through Congress — could provide an opportunity for Guterres to change the world body, like sharing control more evenly among the 193 member nations, a few people suggested.
“The UN at large and Secretary-General Guterres, in particular, should regard these cuts as an opportunity to welcome greater contributions from the many emerging political and economic powers to better reflect the new multipolar world order,” said Mona Ali Khalil, a legal adviser for Independent Diplomat, an international group that represents nonstate actors in peace negotiations.
Guterres, Khalil added, could also achieve more diversity and regional representation in what remains a permanent-five-centric “distribution of leadership positions over the substantive departments of the Secretariat.”
UN staff members cheered on Guterres when he arrived for his first day at the UN in New York on Jan. 3. His jaunty enthusiasm struck a new tone for the UN, downtrodden by the inability of the former secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to halt the war in Syria — stuck by Russia and China on the Security Council and unsuccessful diplomacy by the US, Britain and France, the other permanent Council members.
Guterres ran into political flak immediately with the US as he chose a special envoy for the UN’s “support mission” in Libya. Salam Fayyad, a well-respected former prime minister of Palestine, may have gotten the imperative green light from Nikki Haley, but she was apparently overruled by the White House. This embarrassment for Guterres revealed how much he needed to clear his decisions deep within the US presidency. Such direct approval has not been necessary for previous secretaries-general.
As a counterweight, Guterres had also planned to pick Tzipi Livni, the Israeli politician, for another top envoy spot in the UN. That idea vanished amid the Fayyad flap.
Another first step for Guterres was to revive the dormant Cyprus peace talks on political reunification of the island, now divided into Greek and Turkish sections. Much fanfare was made as Espen Barth Eide, the UN envoy for Cyprus and a Norwegian, met with the two sides in the Cyprus standoff early in the year. After many photo opportunities and sessions, the talks have fallen off the map.
Some analysts and media accuse the Russians for interfering in the negotiations, as they try to maintain control of offshore gas development near the island and their offshore banking interests in Cyprus.
The first Trump immigration ban, announced on Jan. 27, symbolized Guterres’s inner conflicts as the new secretary-general: should he speak against the ban on seven Muslim-majority countries to the US or relegate that tricky role to other UN officials, like the low-key refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, an Italian? Guterres took days to remark publicly on the ban, which was blocked (as was the one trotted out in March), taking heat on Twitter and from the media at the UN for his days of silence.
Since then, Guterres has held only two meetings with journalists who cover the UN in New York; for a man who vouched he would be a transparent secretary-general, his distance has provoked anger from reporters. His “discreet diplomacy,” as his office calls it, has meant not automatically issuing statements about meetings with VIPS like the ex-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and some government leaders, such as Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, who stopped by the UN last week.
Other crucial private discussions include half-dozen conversations with Haley, who said she found the UN “misguided.” (When asked by a reporter about what “worked” at the UN, Haley said “the diplomats” – who are not, of course, staff members of the UN.)
Haley is rumored to be forging a national name for herself through her ambassadorship to the UN, starting with unpopular tactics like decreasing the size of UN peacekeeping missions and closing others. Haley hammered the Congo operation first, despite violent politics in the country and the recent murder there of an American working for the UN, Michael Sharp. (Another UN colleague, Zaida Catalan, from Sweden, was also murdered, along with a Congolese translator.)
Haley’s approach to UN peacekeeping is not strictly about numbers, said an Italian diplomat; otherwise, “we would oppose that.” Instead, peacekeeping reform by Haley — and by Guterres — represents “an evolution” in fleshing out which missions need to be reviewed.
An accountant who ran South Carolina for nearly two terms as governor, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, has endorsed Trump’s refugee bans, calling them necessary for keeping America safe. Her profile at the UN has spiked as she condemned the chemical weapons assault in Syria on April 4 and justified the retaliatory US missile strikes two days later. Yet her contradictions linger, as the week before those events she said that removing Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, was not a US priority. Her immediate boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has also been contradictory on US foreign policy in Syria, but he has grown more consistent on his stance as he heads to Russia for a visit this week.
Haley came to the UN after first discussing with Trump the job of secretary of state, she confirmed, and as her second term as governor had one year left, with term limits stopping her from a third try in the near future. Her reputation in South Carolina was built on combining stern warnings with “Happy Monday” greetings. A big win for her was preventing a Boeing plant from unionizing in a state that never embraced collective bargaining by employees.
Haley’s blunt disdain for the Human Rights Council — “so corrupt” — echoes ancient sentiments from previous US administrations. Except, that is, for Obama’s, which determined that participating in the Council was smarter diplomacy than abandoning it. Haley’s foreign-policy contradictions extend to the Council’s membership: as Trump welcomed Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to the White House, he and Haley didn’t mention that Egypt may be one of the big spoilers on the Council.
“Ambassador Haley has said she is looking for ‘value’ in the Council, which she called ‘corrupt’ and filled with ‘bad actors’ — ignoring that it has, for example, established important investigations and reports on North Korea, Iran, Syria, Belarus, Mali and other countries,” said Felice Gaer, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, Guterres, Gaer noted in an email, “hasn’t defended the Council when it should be defended, nor criticized it directly. (In Geneva he said it had to be balanced, and credible, but attached no country names to his remarks which seemed to be aimed at the Council’s treatment of Israel — but might have just as easily been soothing word for Iran or Syria.)
“He needs to focus more directly on fixing the Council’s obsession with Israel, including by conveying to states that they need to end the biased treatment and should treat Israel like other countries.”
Guterres is also lagging in his goal to inject fresh blood in his ranks. He kept Ban’s communications team in place and reappointed Western officials to the most influential jobs, like peacekeeping (France), political affairs (US) and disarmament (Japan) — the first two, men. His vow to shape a more equal UN by gender and by region is flagging. His senior appointments by gender, however, are much more advanced than under the previous secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, according to the New York University Center on International Cooperation.
In addition, his deputy, Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian who was environment minister until March and the orchestrator of the UN’s 17 global development goals, made a splash when she arrived at the UN but has not been seen much since.
Guterres’s most powerful ally among UN member states is France. France wanted Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, in the UN job from the get-go, reflecting the Socialist agenda of François Hollande, who leaves office as president of France this year, as well as other Western European governments. South Americans, like Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking nation, rallied close to him, too.
Most ambassadors interviewed for this article offered sympathetic assessments on Guterres: a Russian diplomat — as if mirroring his own plight — said Guterres was a “strong man” working under “huge pressures.” The American who worked in UN political affairs under Reagan and George W. Bush said that Guterres was “hitting the right notes” on peace and security issues while not getting “into arguments with the incoming administration” of the US.
After all, he added, “They [Trump administration] don’t know what they’re doing.”
Member states, explained an African ambassador on the Security Council, were banding together to optimize Guterres’s position with the US. “We are helping him by talking to America on how to improve this issue,” the diplomat said.
“If any man can deal with that government” — the US — “it’s António Guterres,” said Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian who runs the International Peace Institute, a think tank located across the street from the UN.
A low bar for Guterres could be his most important advantage, said Thomas Weiss, the academic expert, given that Guterres followed Ban Ki-moon — a “disaster.”
“Never take a job after someone who has done a terrific job,” Weiss said. “You can’t possibly do it better. So, Guterres has the good fortune of following Ban Ki-moon rather than Kofi Annan.”
Kacie Candela contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated on April 13, 2017.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.