This year marks the last stretch of Secretary-General António Guterres’s current term at the United Nations, but in January he announced his desire to seek a second five-year term, ending speculation as to whether he would run again. If many diplomats and others think it’s going to be a smooth ride for Guterres as an incumbent, other people think that after 75 years, it’s time for a woman to lead the UN.
The presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, respectively, officially launched the selection process on Feb. 4, and according to AFP, Honduras’s ambassador has formally asked UN member states to nominate women. Member states should submit candidates’ names by May or June, before the Council begins its selection process, according to a joint letter from the presidents. The same day, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) informal group of countries wrote to the General Assembly president (Volkan Bozkir of Turkey) and the Security Council president (Barbara Woodward of Britain), asking not only for a more transparent selection process but also that member states “strongly” encourage nominating women candidates.
One particular woman who could be a candidate will be out of office soon: Angela Merkel.
In 2020, Merkel announced that she was not seeking re-election as chancellor of Germany, after more than 15 years in office.
Merkel’s name has been floating around as a possible candidate for the secretary-general role since at least 2016; as such, she could be high up on the list if she decided to run. In 2016, when the contest for secretary-general was in full throttle for the 2017-2021 term, seven women ran for the post against six men. Guterres won.
Yet according to Merkel’s spokesperson, the chancellor is not interested in the job, which should also end speculation — or maybe not: “Chancellor Merkel has repeatedly stated that she is not going to run for any political office — most recently last Thursday, 21st of January,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to PassBlue on Jan. 27, adding that Merkel said that day, “I am not running again and that means for no political office at all.”
On Jan. 28, Merkel, 66, announced her support for Guterres through a joint statement issued with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, saying: “We are delighted that António Guterres will be available for a second term as UN Secretary-General. In the past four years, he demonstrated great skills and foresight in steering the United Nations through difficult times and contributed significantly to bolstering peace and security.” The statement came the day after news broke that a new UN tech envoy appointed by Guterres faced allegations of sexual and other harassment.
An unappealing job?
Volker Lehmann, a senior policy analyst who works for the German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s office in New York City, told PassBlue in an email recently: “I was asked in 2016 about Merkel, and my answer was, ‘Of course, she would be an excellent SG.’ But back then, my response was, ‘Why on earth would she do that to herself?’ which I think is still valid.”
Franz Baumann, a German former UN assistant secretary-general, also predicted in 2016 that Merkel would not run. “Her interest in the Secretary-Generalship — or any other high-level post — is even less conceivable today,” he said. “Angela Merkel is a remarkable woman, comfortable in her skin, not in need of external validation, and with a high sense of propriety. My sense is that another executive function is not on her radar, even less joining a corporate board or hitting the well-paid lecture circuit.”
The secretary-general job has often been called the most difficult in the world, more secretary than general, and under Guterres, he has played the role of manager more than general, some diplomats say. In dealing with the Trump administration and the United States, the most powerful UN member state, Guterres was pressured to reform the UN while he tried to keep its integrity intact. As a result, he is perceived as being beholden to the US by an array of UN delegates, pundits and nongovernmental organizations.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis in multilateralism and so much of the UN’s public meetings going online, the years ahead will continue to pose critical challenges for its usefulness and visibility.
Matthew Qvortrup, a Canadian and the author of a 2016 unofficial biography, “Angela Merkel, Europe’s Most Influential Leader,” thinks that what drives Merkel, a trained scientist, is problem-solving, as she is known for her strong analytical skills — also sometimes criticized as “paralysis by analysis” — and her strong appeal for multilateralism.
“If there’s anything that the UN is, then it’s the behind-the-scenes, wheeler-dealer type of thing, and that’s what she’s perfected,” Qvortrup said. “I find it hard to see any politician who would be more qualified to do this task than a German politician. I think it would also be quite good for the UN to have a leader from a large country for a change, who’s actually in charge of more than 80 million people.”
Richard Gowan, the senior UN expert at the International Crisis Group, thinks that as the head of Europe’s most powerful country, Merkel could see the UN job as unappealing: “When you’ve been a leader of her stature, running the UN is a pretty significant step down when you’ve had the sort of sheer level of power inside the European Union that Germany enjoys,” he said.
“The idea that you would really want to come to New York and keep briefing the Security Council on Western Sahara struck me as slightly fatuous. It’s always seemed more likely to me that after a decade and a half in the top job in Berlin, the Chancellor is much more likely to focus on her interests in science and culture and not really worry about what’s happening in the Central African Republic on any given morning.”
A Merkel substitute?
Guterres is expected to run unopposed for now. Still, many civil society organizations, such as the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, want to see an open and transparent selection process and for a woman to occupy the UN’s top post. Many efforts were made in 2016, including significantly the 1 in 7 Billion network, to push for a woman to win, and the disappointment among some groups who were actively doing so was deep. The 1 in 7 Billion group is pushing for transparency and a competitive race again this year, but the incumbency of Guterres has left some advocates and diplomats reluctant to speak up, since that could alienate the secretary-general.
So who could be a Merkel model or stand-in?
Her political career has been full of surprises. Born in Hamburg (then part of West Germany), her family moved to East Germany when she was young. As an adult, she was named minister only one year after entering politics with the Christian Democratic Union, and since then she became the first woman chancellor as well as the longest-serving leader of the European Union.
Throughout her years in office, Merkel successfully bailed Greece out of the eurozone during the economic crisis in 2015. She was also a leader during the refugee crisis inside the European Union, with her now-famous statement, “We can do this!” welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany, despite the political fallout. More recently, Merkel was praised for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic at home, as Germany still has a relatively low death per capita ratio after a rough second wave.
After leading Europe’s most powerful country for so long, it’s fair to think that she wants to take some well-deserved rest, and that’s her current signal in Germany.
“Merkel and her husband have a weekend cottage in the Uckermark in the North East of Germany — maybe they might spend some time there,” Patrick Rosenow, editor in chief of the journal German Review on the United Nations, told PassBlue in an email.
“Last year, the chancellor told Der Spiegel in an interview what she dreamed of as a former GDR [East German] citizen: ‘Seeing the Rocky Mountains, driving around in a car and listening to Bruce Springsteen — that was my dream.’ Maybe traveling could also become an opportunity.” Merkel was married first to Ulrich Merkel, a physicist, in 1977. She divorced him in 1982 but kept his last name. She has been married to Joachim Sauer, a professor of quantum chemistry, since 1998.
But Qvortrup thinks Merkel’s become too much of a workaholic and won’t disappear from public life.
“I think the thing about Angela Merkel is she’s 100 percent 24/7 politics, and she is really like a political animal and has nothing in her life apart from politics, really,” Qvortrup said. “Then she sort of says that she likes to go and watch the opera, to go hillwalking, but in reality, she just forces herself to take two weeks of holiday.”
Qvortrup noted that when Merkel learned about the 2008 banking crisis, she was attending an opera, listening to Mozart in Salzburg. He said: “I mean, what kind of person does not turn her phone off? When you go to a classical concert?”
The Russia calculation
If Merkel has maintained relatively good relationships with China throughout the years — having most recently led fruitful negotiations for a Europe-China trade deal, her relationship with Russia is far more complicated.
The five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — have veto power over the secretary-general selection, so Russia could always block Merkel’s nomination. A Russian diplomat at the UN told PassBlue that it was too early to say anything about the selection process overall. In 2016, it began early in the year and ended in October, with the Guterres choice. The relationship between Germany and Russia turned sour in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, and it hit a new low a few months ago over the alleged poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, according to the German newspaper Der Spiegel.
Rosenow doesn’t think Merkel would get Russia’s approval even if she changed her mind.
“Alexei Navalny is the last low point at this moment, I guess,” Rosenow said. “My assumption is that even [though] Germany is only a middle power, it might be too powerful for a UNSG candidate country and to reach a consensus within all P5 members of the UNSC and the E10 maybe.”
Anyone else daring to run?
While Human Rights Watch recently criticized Guterres for not directly calling out blatant human-rights violations globally, other organizations and UN experts appear to be satisfied with his tenure, especially for his ability to survive the presidency of Donald Trump, given his combative approach toward the UN. As a Security Council diplomat put it, “Any secretary-general who survived Trump deserved a second term.”
Gowan of the International Crisis Group thinks Guterres’s run for a second term should be smooth. He announced through a letter to UN member states that he was interested in running again.
“I think that there were a number of potential candidates waiting in the wings to apply if António Guterres decided that he did not want a second term,” Gowan said. “There was quite a lot of speculation that if President Trump stayed in office that Guterres would feel that it was time to stand down after a pretty difficult time with Trump since 2017. Now as it stands, Biden has won, Guterres is going for a second term, so I really don’t think that we’re going to see many other candidates throwing their hats into the ring.”
While UN observers are expecting little competition for Guterres, Ben Donaldson, the co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion network, is calling for a process as transparent as the one in 2016, which was groundbreaking for the UN. He wrote in PassBlue in November, “But it is precisely because of the formidable social, economic and humanitarian challenges across the world that it remains as important as ever.”
Another concern for a possible race could be geography. Guterres is a former Portuguese prime minister, and having another Western European secretary-general again could be problematic, as geographic rotation has become an unofficial “due regard” of the selection process. If Guterres wins again that would give his region 10 years in that role. Some UN pundits and diplomats think that Eastern Europe should get the job next, as they think the region was robbed of its turn in 2016, although many candidates from there ran for the post.
Still, no one has announced a candidacy, and the president of the General Assembly told the media recently that it was up to the 193 member states to submit names.
“Angela Merkel would of course be a godsend for the UN with her methodical, diligent, goal-oriented and no-nonsense way of operating,” Baumann, the former UN official, said in an email. “She would once again imbue the Secretary-General’s office with gravitas, purpose, and visibility, restore the esprit de corps of the staff, and integrate the work of the Secretariat and the Funds and Programmes that currently operate in silos. Alas, it won’t happen.”
This article was updated to include new information about the UN secretary-general selection process.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.