Was it only two years ago that so many people were elated by the appointment of António Guterres as secretary-general of the United Nations? After public debates organized by the president of the General Assembly and informal ones by the 1-for-7-Billion “Find the Best UN Leader” coalition, he emerged as the top candidate in the Security Council’s five straw polls. Civic and government groups alike emitted a huge sigh of relief.
It was high time for the bully pulpit to be occupied again by a visible, outspoken public figure after a decade of non-leadership by Ban Ki-moon, in The Economist’s withering assessment, “the dullest — and among the worst.”
The General Assembly’s 73rd Session opens today, Sept. 18. Donald Trump is expected to use that platform on Sept. 25 and a Security Council meeting the next day to continue dismantling the rules-based international order that the United States created and has championed for seven-plus decades. Trump may wreak even more havoc than he did last year at the UN, because leading the applause in the US delegation will be his third national security adviser, John Bolton.
Pursuing the slash-and-burn tactics that he could not fully implement during the George W. Bush administration as the unconfirmed US permanent representative to the UN, Bolton has joined Trump in routinely sneering at international organizations and cooperation of any kind. Partners and allies are irrelevant in their zero-sum ideology. Both disparage the UN as mostly a waste of money and are averse to collaborative decision-making in any context.
Yet Guterres has largely been missing in action. He was supposed to be different.
For only the second time — the first was in 1996 — the campaigns for the UN secretary-general and the US president ran in parallel. Both were protracted. The UN version produced a slate of 13 nominees, seven of them women. The selection process was more open and transparent than previous versions of the Security Council’s papal conclaves had been.
Trump’s election, in contrast, was a democratic anomaly of the Electoral College. However, Trump has been the opposite of missing in action. Amid the mind-numbing number of his domestic disasters, his attacks on multilateralism often get lost. They should not. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the UN Human Rights Council, Unesco, the Global Compact on Migration and the P5+1 Iran deal are myopic at best — for the US and the planet.
Guterres, having served two successful terms as prime minister of Portugal and then as UN high commissioner for refugees, broke through the UN’s criteria of political correctness: he was neither from Eastern Europe nor a woman but seemed the right man for the job.
Guterres and the rest of the world are now up against an anti-multilateral campaign that chillingly recalls the America First Committee, founded in 1940 by such proto-fascists as Charles Lindberg, Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin to keep the US out of World War II. That well-organized campaign lasted less than a year; Trump’s namesake version will one day collapse as well, although hopefully without the equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
For the moment, essential components are wanting: vision and leadership and a willingness to run risks, all remarkably absent during nearly two years of Guterres’s five-year mandate. Paradoxically, the UN today is the logical place to convene conversations and orchestrate action to address global problems. This universal-membership institution provides the means to confront a multitude of life-threatening problems that unilateral actions simply cannot address effectively.
At the same time, the world organization’s limitations — not only its sovereignty-bound foundations but also its atomized and wasteful operations — are obvious to anyone except the blindest UN cheerleaders.
Controlling politics is beyond his reach, but in addition to standing up more firmly for multilateral values, Guterres could and should address immediately the waste, overlap and lack of synergy in the UN and its system of organizations. High-level panels, international commissions, academic treatises and media analyses have underlined the fragmentation and institutional turf wars over scarce resources. There’s no reason the secretary-general can’t replicate the administrative slimming and decentralization that he carried out over a decade at the UN refugee agency.
Guterres is fully aware of the UN’s political flaws as well as structural and staffing shortcomings. We must hope that he finds the fortitude not to shy away from the Sisyphean task of transforming — and that is the word — how the UN does business. Could he use the Trump administration’s tightening of financial screws — including its nearsighted, heartless halt of funding to the UN’s Population Fund (Unfpa) and the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa) and the Green Climate Fund, which supports the Paris Agreement — to do what long has needed doing?
If the secretary-general fails, yielding more blowback for multilateralism, the UN will become even more marginal. At that juncture, we could have a real-time test of my earlier proposition that the world without the UN could be even worse off.
As one former deputy secretary-general, Mark Malloch-Brown, wrote shortly after leaving office, in his book “The Unfinished Global Revolution,” “The call for reform is likely to grow steadily . . . [and] the question remains when, not if.”
Ban Ki-moon’s immediate predecessors instituted sweeping staffing and management changes in 1992, 1997 and 2002. Not as photogenic and charismatic as Kofi Annan nor as abrasive as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Guterres should become more of a thorn in the sides of government and UN officials. He should emulate Dag Hammarskjold — usually at the top of everyone’s list of secretary-generals who made a difference.
Aside from his quiet diplomacy on climate change, Ban provided a model of how not to do the job. His own jaw-dropping self-description was “invisible.”
To date, Guterres merits, alas, the same adjective. Despite “Amerika uber Alles,” the Trump administration’s declared war on all things multilateral, and a UN system begging for change, anyone who cares about the future of the world would ask, Why be invisible?