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What Now, António?


Secretary-General António Guterres briefs reporters after an informal meeting with negotiating parties on Cyprus in Geneva, April 28, 2021. As Guterres is about to be elected to a second term, the author asks, what are the prospects for change at the UN over the next five years? UN PHOTO

António Guterres soon will be recrowned Secretary-General after Manhattan’s five-member Electoral College, the permanent members of the Security Council, send its recommendation to the General Assembly for a ceremonial vote. In 2016, his election was an unusually transparent process — at least by United Nations standards — with contenders vetted by the General Assembly; the global civil society campaign 1 for 7 billion added further scrutiny. But Guterres’s renomination this spring was a fait accompli. The formality was adorned by a public “dialogue” hosted by the General Assembly president with UN member states and a handful of nonstate representatives. The comic, earlier distractions by seven self-declared candidates, none of whom had any national backing, did little except accelerate the confirmation of the incumbent for another five-year term.

The ritual is now over. Vaticanlike white smoke has been absent for some time on First Avenue. Ban Ki-moon’s and Kofi Annan’s second mandates also were clear by summer; only Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who ironically ran unopposed, was denied a second term by a US veto.

The ongoing existential challenges of Covid-19 and climate change can only be addressed with enhanced international collaboration. Yet, for many politicians, pundits, and the public, the UN is an afterthought, if a thought at all.

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What are the prospects for change during a second Guterres term? His earlier government and UN management experiences, together with evident energy and diplomatic finesse, made him the best of the declared candidates in 2016. Arguably, he would not have been elected under previous, more Byzantine procedures, and Ban would not have been elected under the more public ones. The 2016 process overcame lowest-common-denominators and political correctness: geographical rotation had suggested East Europe’s turn, and gender a woman’s turn.

After five years, Guterres has altered gender for senior appointments; but there are few other assets on his balance sheet. An unkind early critic’s snide description was “a Portuguese Ban Ki-moon.” The latter prided himself as “invisible.” Guterres merely is.

What will the next five years bring? Shakespeare’s social science would predict “What’s past is prologue.” I am tempted to agree, not much.

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Ever the inveterate optimist — one cannot remain in this business otherwise — I am hoping to be wrong. So, let’s rephrase my question: What might a “liberated” António Guterres accomplish? This essay first addresses an underlying factor in liberation, the Biden administration, before hazarding an answer.

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Washington, How Changed?

2016 was only the second time — the first was 1996 — when the campaigns for the US president and the UN secretary-general coincided. In 2021, Guterres is an incumbent with, fortunately, someone other than Agent Orange in the White House.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the 38th floor no longer can rely on the handy excuse for inaction, echoing Richard Nixon: “You don’t have Donald Trump to kick around anymore.”

We cannot minimize new nationalisms and populisms, but the siege against multilateralism has abated with Joe Biden’s election. US Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s pronouncement on her first day on the job: “Multilateralism is back, and diplomacy is back, and America is back.”

Diplomatic rhetoric is one thing, action another. Rejoining the WHO and the Paris Agreement as well as restoring funding for UNFPA and UNRWA are significant. Limits are also clear: Washington nixed the Security Council’s pleas for a cease-fire in Israel-Palestine; more clashes with Beijing and Moscow are inevitable.

That said, the Biden administration’s orientation and the requisite international collaborative efforts to address the pandemic and climate change could help reinvigorate the world organization.

What Can Guterres Accomplish?

While 2017 was unimpressive, might a “liberated” Guterres act more decisively during a second “honeymoon” in 2022? He could make headway in three areas despite what Trygve Lie aptly called “the most impossible job in the world.”

1. Fewer Moving Parts

In the 1969 Capacity Study, Robert Jackson tried to imagine a restructured development system, but he could not slay the “unwieldy . . . pre-historic monster.” Successive secretaries-general have not reigned in the so-called system; fragmentation has metastasized. The cross-cutting emphases of peacebuilding and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — there is nothing that is not on the agenda — have exacerbated the frantic pursuit of limited resources. Most UN organizations now engage in spheres of activity far removed from their original mandates.

“Boss” is an inaccurate description for the Secretary-General who is, at most, primus inter pares. Specialized agencies are independently funded and managed, answering to their own governors. Even UN special funds and programs are autonomous. Every new problem or increased emphasis over almost eight decades has led to accretion of new organizations or subunits of established ones. While the need for coherence to confront global challenges has never been greater, the UN has never been more disjointed.

With resources limited, each member of the decentralized and dysfunctional UN family constantly seeks extrabudgetary funds. The race to the bottom is relentless. The UN’s organigram would have challenged the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, whose elaborate contraptions depicted bureaucratic structures to exert maximum effort to achieve minimal results.

The 30 (or 70, depending on who is counting) central moving parts of the UN development system alone (variously called funds, programs, offices and agencies) function alongside an equivalent number of supportive functional commissions and research and training organizations. The headquarters of the main organizations are in 14 countries (and 15 cities). There are also more than 1,000 representative offices of UN organizations worldwide (and over 1,400 for the UN as a whole, including peace operations).

The UN’s fragmentation and donor incentives explain why all organizations stress their relevance and invariably expand while eschewing a tighter UN. Except for UN Women’s fusion from four smaller units, the UN system has never shuttered major entities. Donors must cease talking out of both sides of their mouths and insist on consolidation and centralization, not the vacuous “coordination,” the time-honored recipe to conduct bureaucracy as usual.

Jackson’s collaborator and former under secretary-general Margaret Joan Anstee described the Capacity Study as “the ‘Bible’ of UN reform because its precepts are lauded by everyone but put into effect by no one.” Guterres could and should become a heretic and build upon his modest 2018 reform. UNDP no longer manages country coordination, which is under the UN deputy secretary-general — alas, without financial carrots let alone sticks.

2. More Big Ideas

Evidence from the independent United Nations Intellectual History Project demonstrates that the UN’s most distinctive contributions come as a purveyor of ideas, as a norm- and standard-setter. (Truth in packaging: I was one of the directors.)

The project’s 16 books and more than 80 in-depth oral histories constitute a foundation on which Guterres should build. Ideational output about development was largely unanticipated in 1945, but the following positive contributions suggests the potential of UN ideas: promoting human rights; providing an international framework for national development; quantifying the world to measure and compare economic and social progress; changing the debate about trade and finance; setting global goals; proposing policies to combine growth with poverty reduction, productive employment creation and better income distribution; and bringing together environment and development.

Other ideas were ignored or could have been pursued more vigorously or with less political correctness. Such debits include a late reaction to the Washington Consensus, weak responses to the problems of the poorest countries and to HIV/AIDS, too little attention to culture and inadequate attention to inequality. Yet, the UN’s balance sheet shows a surplus, and the asset column would expand if we included peacekeeping and quiet diplomacy from the international peace and security pillar.

In short, the UN’s most significant value-added lies in policy ideas, normative innovations and standards. What would have happened without it? One can imagine a world without many of the concerns elaborated above or with their coming on stream later than they did. But it would be a poorer and less humane world than the one to which the UN aspires and, at its best, achieves.

Guterres is no intellectual, but he could surround himself with more first-rate minds to push the UN’s comparative advantage as ideamonger. It could help make sense of the kitchen-sink SDGs without priorities or sequencing. An unkind William Easterly suggested another acronym for this predictable product of the competitive nonsystem at work: “senseless, dreamy, garbled.”

To realize the SDGs’ potential as universal aspirations, the UN system’s value-added should be hard-hitting monitoring, which provides the opportunity to demonstrate that the world organization can call a spade a shovel. If human rights matter, for instance, Xinjiang and Palestine cannot be ignored. The UNDP’s quasi-independent Human Development Report provides a model. Member states should grumble with the publication of any honest analysis.

Guterres should emphasize intellectual agendas and climb back on the bully pulpit that has been vacant since Kofi Annan left office.

3. Better Use of Better People

Contributions by UN officials are often overlooked as is the necessity to emphasize competence over nationality, gender and age. The world organization could and should rediscover the idealism of the international civil service. It needs to make room for original minds, to create more mobile personnel and career paths. Guterres could make a difference.

Ignoring standard operating procedures and making waves is essential in the exercise of leadership to overcome member-state sensitivities and break down the impenetrable silos of separate UN organizations. For instance, former US Congressman and later UNDP administrator Bradford Morse, together with Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, broke the rules in the feudal system when they headed the Office of Emergency Operations in Africa in the mid-1970s. So too had Jackson broken the house porcelain in UNRWA and Bangladesh by using his skills honed during World War II in defending Malta and working with the Middle East Supply Center. Their experience, reputation and autonomy permitted overriding the UN’s institutional inertia.

Such no-nonsense personalities and approaches are essential at senior and junior levels to make meaningful the ideal of an autonomous and competent international civil service, a legacy of the League of Nations found in the UN Charter’s Article 101. Old-timers, especially the idealistic first generation recruited in the 1940s and 1950s, are appalled with internal politics and the quotas that trump competence and shamelessly justify favoritism. If government nominations for reserved jobs continue, as they undoubtedly will, the Secretary-General and other senior officials should insist on several candidates with the choice left to them.

Annan and the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change proposed, and the 2005 World Summit agreed, to consider buyouts to cut deadwood and permit new and younger staff. This longstanding proposal probably would not improve matters — enterprising staff could take a payment and seek alternative employment while the real deadwood would remain. The tougher challenge is how to gather new timber and recruit, retain and promote the best and brightest.

We can square the circle regarding quality, autonomy and representation. Diversity can be fostered by favoring regional geographic representation or language groups, by casting the net to attract world-class candidates and reduce cronyism. Quality need not suffer while moving toward a better balance in representation other than nationality.

“Just say no” would limit pressures by governments, friends and family for candidates from industrialized and developing countries alike. Guterres should start close to home. He no longer needs to curry favor for another mandate; so there is no excuse to reserve posts and clear senior appointments with member states. This could have a knock-on benefit for the top positions in other UN bodies, including breaking the US and European monopolies on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.


Scholars and diplomats are fascinated with the global sprawl of networks and informal institutions, but they yawn when analyzing intergovernmental institutions. Why the enthusiasm for ad hoc pluralism rather than systematic multilateralism? The wartime “United Nations Alliance” crushed fascism and led to the San Francisco Conference. When governments rely on intergovernmental collaboration, it works. The UN’s wartime actions suggest that contemporary global governance is a second-best surrogate for more robust multilateralism.

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If global problems require global solutions, they also require strengthened and legitimate intergovernmental organizations, especially of the UN system. Ironically, this message was lost during the 75th anniversary, which came and went with champagne via Zoom. The Charter’s 1945 language calls for a “chief administrative officer,” but the Secretary-General has become more and could become more still. The second term of António Guterres is more crucial than observers realize. There is more room for leadership and initiative by the UN’s executive head than many believe — and more than many governments wish.

Another mandate for a secretary-general should be the occasion to rekindle optimism about the possibilities for international collaboration, even for this jaded author who is as old as the United Nations itself. António Guterres appreciates the world organization’s political flaws and structural faults. I have not lost hope that liberated from campaign constraints and with a more supportive US administration, he can find the intestinal fortitude to run some risks.

This essay originally appeared on the website of the New York City office of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.  

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).


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What Now, António?
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Robert Kesten
2 years ago

There are a number of leverage points in the UN world. Being focused, and as indicated in the article, fine tuning priorities is essential. We (PDHRE) have long encouraged moving to two pillars and a human rights foundation. If security and development are built on a human rights platform, with human rights benchmarks, there will be a clearer message coming from the organization and its tentacle organizations. It could offer a method to begin a significant streamlining process.

Ellen Tolmie
Ellen Tolmie
2 years ago

Hurrah! Thank you for this incisive outline of the UN’s achievements, the need for more big ideas and what the UN can, with courageous leadership, still contribute at this critical global juncture. I hope SG Guterres sees this and takes up your challenge. And congratulations on your full 75 years!

Robert Cox
Robert Cox
2 years ago

I want to respond, just to say “I am here” and how I wish for many more to connect with Passblue and UN’s ongoing affairs. I am saddened to see G7 and NATO operating outside of the UN, looking like avoiding the UN is the main objective. And the sort of universal oversight that the two little “regional” councils of NATO and G7 are claiming. Is China somehow connected to the “North Atlantic”? G7 is led by USA with grandiose statements of global responsibility in the form of nuclear weapons and 800 military bases used as the “leading fist” for ZERO “negotiations” in Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, etc. Domination is a characteristic of lots of living matter. But even a two-year old can dominate without a trace of anything but self-interest which adults basically ignore and wait for the tantrum to pass. USA has claimed dominance in this Earth since 1945, when USA was a clear victor of WWII. But the Four Horsemen of the (American) Apocalypse are the old iconic demands: Manifest Destiny, Monroe Doctrine, American Exceptionalism and Unfettered Access (to all markets). The “power” of the US currency is shrinking daily as great efforts are made to keep it viable, but global finance is in crisis, and printing money won’t save the “reserve currency” if other countries are creating means to “avoid” the USD. The phony “Cold War” rhetoric is pure garbage, insulting to anyone following this debacle of the 21st century. Cold War is GREAT to forget about climate action that needs global co-operation that our “leaders” are robbing from us, The political goofiness of prehistoric statecraft, takes away from the clear way forward of co-operation and being simply “Us ALL” here on planet earth, a genetic “family” interdependent with all life on Earth.

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