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Bureaucracies do not have a great reputation, and the United Nations bureaucracy is no exception. They are seen as inefficient, cumbersome and rigid, adjectives that are also routinely associated with the UN Secretariat. At best considered a “necessary evil,” bureaucracies tend to attract scorn rather than analysis.
The UN Secretariat, however, is different. Although it shares many similarities with other bureaucracies, including an inborn tendency to grow, the UN bureaucracy is unique in several ways. This makes what it does (and what it doesn’t do) far more interesting — and consequential — than it is given credit for by the public, by academics, by politicians and by UN officials themselves.
I have been mindful of the UN’s quality since I was given access, in 2010, to the diaries and private papers of the late Sir Marrack Goulding, a Briton who was a UN under secretary-general from 1986 to 1997. (I have also written a book, “Dangerous Diplomacy,” about the role of the UN in Rwanda, using the archival material of Sir Marrack.)
Goulding was a workaholic and, among other things, managed the Herculean task of keeping three daily diaries throughout his 40-year career: meeting, traveling and personal journals. He was also at the receiving end of thousands of documents and letters, which makes the Goulding archive one of the largest and frankest on the UN, even as the organization has retained much of its Cold-War secrecy.
What does this archive reveal? Beyond the gossipy and the frivolous, of which there is plenty, some institutional patterns emerge.
The first is how the UN bureaucracy is used by countries, particularly the most powerful ones, to achieve their objectives. It is well known that appointments at the under secretary-general level are often decided in national capitals rather than in New York, with the result that a secretary-general hardly controls his own cabinet. By his own admission, Goulding’s own appointment was decided by Margaret Thatcher.
What is less recognized, however, is the mechanism by which countries come to like –and thus exercise influence over — certain departments rather than others. The most prized units have historically been the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs, and it is not accidental that they have been engaged in a sustained competition since their birth at the hands of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the early 1990s.
The peacekeeping department, for starters, has been controlled by France since the late 1990s; and an American has led the Department of Political Affairs for more than 10 years; a new executive of the department is now being most likely decided on by the United States. (In his reform of the UN’s peace and security pillar, Secretary-General António Guterres is combining aspects of the two departments.)
Bureaucratic turfs are hardly special to the UN; battles between ministries of foreign affairs and ministries of defense, for instance, regularly occur in national bureaucracies from London to Bogotá. Yet there are considerable differences with the situation in New York, where secretaries-general, unlike prime ministers or presidents, are unable to enforce discipline over a cabinet that they barely control and whose members they cannot fire. Neither can a secretary-general count on a stable majority in the General Assembly or — perish the thought — in the Security-Council, for a secretary-general must pass proposals in these settings, where everybody belongs to the opposition.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see the UN bureaucracy as a hapless victim of nasty member states. It is made up of a variety of actors with their own agendas, and the plurals are important here since the UN Secretariat is not a monolith and is best understood as a sum of departments that often clash over resources as well as objectives.
What those departmental agendas and objectives consist of, who comes up with them and for what reasons, are fascinating questions that have long been neglected by the public, scholars and even UN officials. To that list one could add presidents and prime ministers. Addressing the questions is critical because we can then better understand how the organization works and what role the secretary-general can realistically play in it.
Part of the agendas and goals naturally revolve around departmental functions, for each bureaucratic unit within the Secretariat has a role (peacekeeping for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations; peace-building for the Department of Political Affairs). Yet those functions are broad and undefined: peace-building, for instance, is contentious precisely because different people see peace — and what the UN ought to do to achieve it — in different ways.
If peace means the absence of war, then the UN’s role will be limited; if it means establishing conditions for a stable society, the goal is a formidable one.
Since certain departments are sometimes influenced — if not directly controlled — by the most powerful nations, their agendas are not necessarily decided by the secretary-general or by the department’s leadership but by influential capitals. This is where the Secretariat emerges as a fascinating stage on which a plurality of actors –bureaucrats in New York, politicians in the capitals and civil servants in both places –skillfully operate.
Unfortunately, the lack of memos and transcripts coming out of New York means that the exact ways in which this process happens remain nebulous, a fog that the Goulding archive partly clarifies.
The last factor that makes the Secretariat a captivating study is the secretary-general’s sometime feeble, sometimes desperate attempts to establish authority over the Secretariat and its civil servants. These attempts vary widely, ranging from the virtually imperceptible (Ban Ki-moon), to the gentle (Javier Pérez de Cuéllar), to the combative (Boutros-Ghali). Although nobody can become secretary-general by antagonizing the five veto-yielding members of the Security-Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US), a deterioration of the always-precarious relationship between the UN leader and the US superpower is virtually inevitable, as even Kofi Annan discovered.
It is not accidental that Guterres, like all his predecessors, announced a program of large bureaucratic reforms as soon as he entered office. Also unsurprising is that he was actively encouraged, if not pushed, to do this by Washington, where he has paid a few visits and where the new US president, Trump, praised him for his proposals. (It’s unclear if Trump read them.)
History will tell whether Guterres was luckier than his predecessors in the difficult, if not impossible, task of satisfying the US superpower while also strengthening his role. The fact that his proposals worried several capitals because of their perceived loss of influence in New York to the benefit of the White House is not promising.
This essay was updated.