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On the Campaign Trail for the World’s ‘Most Impossible’ Job

The United Nations’ first televised live debate in the General Assembly with some of the candidates for secretary-general, an event broadcast by Al Jazeera in 2016. Candidates, from left: Irina Bokova of Bulgaria; Igor Luksic of Montenegro; Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica; Danilo Turk of Slovenia; Helen Clark of New Zealand. 

The job of United Nations secretary-general is the “most impossible on earth,” as the first postholder, Trygve Lie, famously told his successor, Dag Hammarskjold. Though Lie spoke partly in jest to amuse the assembled reporters, the remark has stuck with UN observers for its eerie insightfulness. After all, the UN chief is charged with somehow bringing about global peace, prosperity and social progress, while lacking any levers of conventional power.

The scale of this challenge hasn’t dissuaded contenders from seeking the job. António Guterres, the Portuguese incumbent, is seeking a second five-year term after trouncing 12 competitors in 2016, including seven women. His “dialogue” with the UN General Assembly, where he’ll make his case publicly and take questions from ambassadors — and, apparently, civil society — is set for May 7.

Seven would-be challengers have expressed interest in contesting for the job, including Rosalía Arteaga, a former Ecuadorean president and vice president. But as none so far have obtained their countries’ nominations — a new policy that is being enforced in this race though it is not a written rule — they are not recognized as candidates by Volkan Bozkir, the General Assembly president, or by the Security Council president, a monthly rotating post. The two presidents have publicly said they are equally responsible for carrying out the selection and appointment process this year. (In May, China is president.)

Bozkir’s office and the Council presidents have declined to share the list of the names of “applicants” openly, although several of them have identified themselves on Twitter and through press releases. The most recent candidate, Arteaga, was announced by Forward, a London-based digital movement that is seeking a “people-backed” candidate. Arteaga does not have her country’s endorsement so far.

1 for 7 Billion, an international advocacy group that pushes for more transparency in how UN chiefs are chosen, recently called on UN member countries to clarify whether contenders must have the backing of governments to be official candidates. “The process around how applicants, whatever the source of their nomination [including self-nomination], can become official candidates requires clarification,” the statement reads. “States should work to issue guidance on this.”

Guterres will likely sail to reappointment, many observers say, as secretaries-general are by custom granted two terms. Serious hopefuls — including an array of women — are said to be waiting until the race in 2026, when what is expected to be Guterres’s second term will wrap up. The names of potential candidates for that race have already begun circulating.

But what does running for the world’s most impossible job involve? Numerous experts and past candidates were asked about their experiences, and documentation was also consulted. One aspect that reverberated is that despite how much the process was democratized in 2016, still only five countries decide who becomes arguably the world’s top diplomat.

Since 2006, when the Security Council began inviting UN member countries to nominate candidates for its review, a contender’s first step has been to obtain his or her country’s official nomination. Most of the time, there is no inherent cost to a government for putting a candidate forward, and if a contender makes a credible pitch, he or she has a solid chance to get nominated. Once that first hurdle is overcome, a candidate’s campaign can get going in earnest.

Candidates generally try to sell themselves through national lobbying, participation in intergovernmental forums, public appearances at civil society events and interviews with the media. They travel to the capitals of UN Security Council member countries, seeking audiences with senior leaders. Some also visit other influential capitals, like Berlin, and attend international conferences like meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement and the League of Arab States, where many senior leaders can be met at once.

“I did a quick spin around the world carrying my CV and a letter from the King,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat who ran for secretary-general in 2006, speaking with PassBlue from Pennsylvania. That race was won by South Korea’s foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon.

Depending on the level of support in a candidate’s government and its willingness to invest resources and diplomatic capital, candidates may receive financial and in-kind campaign contributions. Funds may be disbursed for travel purposes, staff may be provided to assist the candidate, a president or prime minister may make some phone calls, a foreign minister may have a quiet aside with a peer from another country and select embassies may chip in eyes and influence.

The sums are paltry. Though exact figures are unavailable, it can be comfortably inferred that the combined spending of all 13 candidates in 2016 was far less than the millions of dollars involved in an average United States House of Representatives race.

Danilo Turk, a former Slovenian president who ran for secretary-general in 2016, ran “a modest campaign,” he told PassBlue from his office in Ljubljana, the capital. “My funds were very limited, I couldn’t travel very much.”

Turk said he received a €30,000 grant ($33,300 in 2016) from his country’s foreign ministry, along with one staffer assigned to him as an aide. “Most of the work I did alone,” he said

In this respect, official candidates who occupy high-level jobs during their run for secretary-general may carry a slight advantage over former officeholders like Turk.

Susana Malcorra, a former chief of staff to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was the Argentine foreign minister when she ran in 2016 to succeed her former boss, who did not seek a third term. While she had no staff or budget for her candidacy per se, she had aides in her capacity as foreign minister, and meeting other leaders was part of her day job.

Malcorra rarely traveled for the sole purpose of her candidacy, she said in an interview from her home in Madrid. But she added campaign activities to her official business as foreign minister. “What I did was take advantage of my capacity to travel throughout the world [as foreign minister] and make my pitch,” she said.

This enabled her to meet with foreign ministers or higher-level officials from each of the Security Council’s P5 (permanent-five countries) — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — access not enjoyed by all candidates. Among her rarified opportunities was participating in Group of 20 gatherings, where top world leaders converge.

Since the 2016 selection process, public events hosted by civil society and the media have also become integral to the campaign trail. That year, candidates gave speeches at think tanks and took part in public debates with their competitors. “It gave some candidates, particularly those who were not so well known, a boost in terms of publicity,” wrote Natalie Samarasinghe, the director of the United Nations Association-UK, an independent advocacy group, in an email to PassBlue. UNA-UK hosted, with other nonprofit groups and The Guardian, three public candidates’ debates in 2016 in New York City and London. Seven contenders participated, including Guterres. “Candidates could use these events to build momentum and support, and to test ideas and messaging,” Samarasinghe added.

Beside their efforts to gain international exposure and build support among UN member countries, a candidate’s most important meetings are their encounters with senior decision-makers in the capitals of the P5.

Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the UN, shed light on what happens in such meetings, during an interview from his home in Oxfordshire. “The [British] foreign secretary will see any candidate with credibility,” he said, equipped with a brief from Foreign Office staff advising whether Britain wants the candidate to advance in the selection process.

“If we don’t want the candidate to make progress,” Greenstock continued, “there will be a polite exchange on global affairs and the health of the UN.” If, on the other hand, London is interested in the candidate, the conversation would be more substantive and transactional.

“The foreign secretary will say . . . ‘If you actually did get through, how would you regard the UK’s place in the UN?’ ” Invariably, such conversations with P5 leaders turn to what senior UN posts might get allocated to their nationals.

One effect of the P5’s veto power over who gets to become UN chief is that they pressure candidates into earmarking senior UN jobs. In his forthcoming memoir, Ban Ki-moon recalls a phone conversation he had with France’s foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, as the selection process for secretary-general in October 2006 was winding up.

“He asked me outright to appoint a French national to head the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations,” Ban writes, adding, “I was uncomfortable with the assumption that Paris had a lock on any position.”

Overall, policy takes a back seat in the selection process behind the personal attributes of the candidates.

Early voting for a UN chief takes the form of straw polling in the Security Council, when the 15 permanent and elected members cast positive, negative or “no opinion” ballots per candidate. The field starts to winnow once straw polling begins. For many candidates, the polls introduce some unwelcome chaos into their campaigns.

Danilo Turk came in second behind Guterres in the first straw poll, on July 21, 2016, but his results worsened over the next months. (There were six rounds of polling up to October, when the Council announced it was picking Guterres.) “Until 21 July, the procedure was defined, largely public,” Turk said, “but then a different dynamic took place, beyond the reach of candidates.”

As the final selection culminates this year — there is no definite timeline — decisions are being made in private exchanges among diplomats, their superiors in capital cities and their counterparts from other countries, largely out of the candidates’ control.

“Things happened all over the place,” Turk said. “Then eventually they crystallized in communication between permanent members in the Security Council, as they always do.”

Asked what advice she had for future candidates, Malcorra stressed that cajoling the permanent Council members is paramount. “This looks like an obvious comment,” she said, adding that it can, however, easily slip candidates’ minds as they spend much of their energy appealing to the UN’s 188 other member countries.

“It’s the Security Council — and essentially the P5 — who are going to decide,” she said. “Just be aware of that.”

Dali ten Hove is an international affairs consultant, currently affiliated with the Igarapé Institute. He was the researcher on the forthcoming memoirs of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World,” and was part of the UN’s 75th-anniversary team. He is a board member of the UN Association of the Netherlands and a former trustee of the UNA-UK. He has a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University.

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