The Next Secretary-General and the International Political Environment That Awaits Him

By Kenneth Anderson
Wednesday, October 12, 2016, 11:07 AM

The U.S. presidential election is not the only election currently going on in the world. This is also the season for the U.N. to select a new Secretary-General to replace the current S.G., Ban Ki-Moon. (UPDATE: On October 13, Antonio Guterres was elected to the post of Secretary-General by acclamation in the General Assembly; his term begins on January 1, 2017.) The election process is indirect and opaque, and depends in the first place on the Security Council—including its veto-bearing permanent members—being able to reach agreement on a candidate.

The current 2016 S.G. election cycle has seen many different forces pushing the selection in one direction or another. These include the customary regional lobbying for one candidate or another (in a U.N. system in which informal custom dictates a regional rotation of many top level U.N. positions, including the S.G.); Eastern Europe is the only regional group that has not had a S.G. appointment, though tensions over Ukraine have raised questions as to whether any Eastern European candidate would be acceptable to all P-5 members. A concerted push by many states and international NGOs for the first woman S.G. has also been important, including support from the United States, at least to the extent of Ambassador Power encouraging the nomination of women candidates. Additionally, there are pressures to find a candidate who could win support from both United States and Russia as relations between the two countries become increasingly acrimonious.

So it was something of a surprise when a straw-poll vote (the 6th) taken among Security Council members last week resulted in the emergence of Antonio Guterres—a former prime minister of Portugal who has spent the last 10 years as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—as the clear, indeed, overwhelming favorite. As the Guardian’s Julian Borger reports:

In a rare show of unity, all 15 ambassadors from the security council emerged from the sixth in a series of straw polls to announce that they had agreed on Guterres, who was U.N. high commissioner for refugees for a decade, and that they would confirm the choice in a formal vote on Thursday. “Today after our sixth straw poll we have a clear favourite and his name is António Guterres,” the Russian UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters with his 14 council colleagues standing behind him.


The Security Council does not formally appoint the Secretary-General. Article 97 of the UN Charter provides that the “Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In theory, the General Assembly could reject the Security Council’s recommendation, although that is only a beyond-remote possibility in Guterres’ case. There will be plenty of analyses of Guterres’ political views (as Prime Minister, he was a socialist), his performance as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, his managerial and diplomatic skills, and his likely approach to the office of Secretary-General.

More interesting at this point, however, is the question of where Guterres’ (or anyone’s) upcoming Secretary-Generalship fits within the apparent trajectory of current international politics, governance, and the role of the U.N. Also important is the question of U.S.-U.N. relations in a period of both a new U.S. administration and a new U.N. Secretary-General, set against a background of increasingly jostling and competitive Great Power politics, and the relative decline of American hegemony. (I think my 2012 book on U.S.-U.N. relations, Living With the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order, still bears reading today; you can read the first four chapters here on SSRN. Chapter 4 deals with the relationship between international collective security and the US as hegemon.)

The Secretary-General, to be even modestly successful or at least avoid failure, has to adapt to the current of international politics—a trivial observation, but true. There is important institutional risk in this, however, particularly for the next Secretary-General. The period in global politics from 1990 and the end of the Cold War until, roughly, the early 2000s marked a "golden age" for the aspirations (if not the reality) of liberal-internationalist global governance. By “liberal internationalism," I mean the dream of a world in which international law and international institutions would overcome the anarchic power-relations of competing sovereigns; sovereignty itself would, if not fade away, be radically tamed in a new global order under a global rule of law presided over by global institutions.

In terms of U.N. Secretary-Generalships, this was the era of Kofi Annan, more or less, whose S.G. term ended in 2005. He was the “rock star” of Secretary-Generals, and his visibility and charismatic personal presence raised hopes among many that the office of Secretary-General would gradually evolve into a kind of informal, moral “presidency of the world.”

The 1990s through around 2000 were also the high water mark of enthusiasm for international NGOs, re-intellectualized as “global civil society”—an independent source of legitimacy for the U.N., beyond and apart from the U.N.’s sovereign state members. Annan assiduously courted the international NGOs, and in turn they ascribed to the institutional U.N. and Annan’s office itself a legitimacy in global governance of a different kind from the legitimacy afforded it by merely sovereign member states. In the final years of his S.G. term, Annan began describing the Security Council as the “management committee” of the world’s “fledgling collective security system"—ascribing to the Security Council a governance role that assumed a commonality of global purpose among the P-5 that one would be hard-pressed to detect today.


International politics were already in transition by the time the current S.G., Ban Ki-Moon, took office. Ban Ki-Moon was known as a diplomat’s diplomat, and his instincts, especially after 9/11, the Iraq War, and the events of the 2000s were to pull the S.G.’s role back to something closer to the concept of the S.G. as “humble diplomatic servant” of the sovereign state members of the UN. This brought him in for considerable criticism in the first several years of his tenure, particularly from those who believed he was sacrificing gains made by Annan toward an independent “president of the world” role for the S.G.. International NGOs, who had gained a great deal in the way of access, power, and legitimacy from Annan, were particularly critical. Some prominent journalists such as James Traub (author of a fawning 2006 biography of Annan) sharply criticized Ban for his lack of visibility.

Ban did gradually undertake a visible global role on some issues, such as climate change, but the terms of his tenure on core issues of international peace and security inevitably have reflected changing international politics. Given a rising China with aims at regional dominance and a Russia re-emerging in both its “near abroad” and also just “abroad,” the Security Council could no longer be conceived, as the “management committee of our fledgling collective security” system. Chapter 4 of Living With the U.N. offers three fundamental modes of activity for the Security Council:

(i) “management committee of our fledgling collective security system,” in a genuinely collective and corporatist way;

(ii) "concert of the great powers," who at least sometimes come together to establish and maintain order in the world but still as sovereign players acting in concert;

(iii) "talking shop of the great powers," the place for diplomacy and debate in a multipolar world of increasingly competitive powers not typically in any concert; less still as manager of a collective for security.

David Bosco, whose 2009 book Five to Rule Them All is essential reading on the history and role of the Security Council, has written in somewhat related terms on the modes of activity for the Security Council. The “management committee” role is the is the one most consonant with liberal internationalist global governance—but it only works under the limited circumstances of agreement among the P-5 on their interests (or indifference, because of lack of interests at stake). The "management committee" modality does have important functions even in today's acrimonious environment, it should be stressed—for example, authorizing and supporting U.N. peace-keeping missions. But the circumstances in which it is the mode of Security Council action are circumscribed.

The Security Council that has increasingly been characteristic of Ban Ki-Moon’s later tenure as S.G. has been much more either (ii) or (iii)—and most recently (iii), the talking shop of the Great Powers. In that case, the role of S.G. is much closer to that of a coordinating diplomat providing a negotiating table, while cajoling Great Powers toward one goal or another (and exercising some moral suasion, to be sure). Fundamentally (iii) embraces a U.N., and office of the S.G., in which sovereign states, Great Powers, and the P-5 (rather than international NGOs, “good global governance” states without significant militaries or willingness to fight, or the office of the Secretary-General itself as independent global actor) are the key actors around which the rest revolve. This has been Ban Ki-Moon’s world during the last several years.


The question most central to the global role and institutional possibilities of the incoming Secretary-General—almost certainly António Guterres—is how he will address himself to an international security environment and a Security Council whose Great Powers are increasingly at odds with one another. Amid this environment, the implicit American security guarantee of global order, the existence of which has meant that U.N. collective security has never been put to a make-or-break test, is increasingly in retreat. The Obama administration’s “withdrawal into multilateralism,” as I put it, can be spun as the U.S. finally embracing U.N. collective security. But, as many U.S. allies have noted with dismay and states hostile to the U.S. have noted with satisfaction, in reality it is the withdrawal of the security guarantee of the global hegemon.

The Security Council will have to be S.G. Guterres’ focus in the next few years at least, including articulating the U.N.'s role in the midst of major conflagrations, such as Syria, in which P-5 members are both deeply enmeshed and at odds with each other. The Security Council itself will increasingly be in its “talking shop of the nations” mode. This is to say that the golden age of liberal internationalist aspirations is over, and the nostalgia that many in the field of international law and organizations have for it will be a trap and a snare for the new S.G. This "nostalgia," expressed more precisely, consists of clinging to the (mistaken) belief that utopian promises of liberal internationalism are still the best hope for resolving conflicts among the Great Powers at the present moment, rather than some more pragmatic understanding of international law and organizations expressed in state action.

This is a moment in which the U.S. and Russia are warning each other that they will protect themselves over Syrian airspace including by attacking air defense installations or shooting down jets. Whatever other U.N. topics look large, the incoming S.G. will need to frame (whether publicly or not) the rising issues of international peace and security in terms that take account, even if not acknowledged explicitly, of the fact of disagreement on at least some fundamental premises of the international order. The incoming S.G. would be prudent not to assume agreement or acquiescence in (all) those norms—least of all by assuming general agreement with an ideal of liberal internationalist global governance that was formed in the golden age of the 1990s. The golden age is over, for better or worse.


My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the golden age was valuable insofar as it yielded certain fundamental norms in international law; I am loath to see those norms disappear. (We can debate another day what those norms are.) But it seems to me that their disappearance (or downgrading), if that happens, would be the result, in significant part, of the extent to which they were ascribed—as part of a “package deal,” so to speak—to a general view of liberal internationalist global governance. When the “package deal” turns out to have overreached and no longer carries broad legitimacy on its own, and thus finds that it is losing its place as a general normative framework of international governance, then many of these particular fundamental norms are also undermined along with the general framework, because they were treated as necessarily part of the “package.”

Additionally, the Obama administration’s conflation of U.S. hegemonic power with the international order of collective security through the U.N. system, such as it is, has succeeded merely in undermining the legitimacy of each in its own realm, rather than one strengthening the other. (This seems to me the best understanding of the Libya regime change operation.) In any event, whether any of the above commentary turns out to be true or not, the incoming Secretary-General is going to have to give some view about the nature of global governance, its legitimate basis, and the role of the U.N. and the office of the Secretary-General in it. Maybe incoming-Secretary-General Guterres can find some way to elide the question and avoid having to answer it, but in the currently fraught inter-state security environment, I doubt it.