On Sept. 12, the U.N. General Assembly will meet for its first session with António Guterres as secretary-general. Guterres, who began his five-year term on Jan. 1, has already started to make his mark on the organization, while responding to potential famines in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan; the Syrian civil war; North Korea’s nuclear ambitions; an ongoing refugee crisis; and a U.S. president who has repeatedly questioned the usefulness of the world body.
In addition to addressing a litany of global crises, Guterres must manage the nuts and bolts of an organization that’s home to 193 member states, tens of thousands of employees and a dizzying array of agencies and missions. Even the U.N.’s most ardent supporters admit the bureaucracy needs to be modernized and tackle black eyes, such as Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which was introduced by a contingent of U.N. peacekeepers.
Even the choice of Guterres to head the world body — while generally praised — was met with disappointment from those who had hoped a woman would become the U.N.’s first female secretary-general.
Guterres seems mindful of the issue. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Guterres, told The Diplomat that as part of the secretary-general’s agenda, the U.N. has set an institutional goal to achieve gender parity in its senior ranks and then across the organization.
Guterres also has bolstered efforts to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic and elsewhere, a longstanding problem. A compact among member states addressing the issue and outlining common policies to prevent it is on the agenda for the September meeting.
Guterres, a former U.N. high commissioner for refugees, also wants to make the world body more efficient, accountable and nimble. He has proposed decentralizing authority in the top-heavy bureaucracy, streamlining peacekeeping and other institutions, and increasing development funds by showing donors more verifiable results.
Strong Voice at a Critical Juncture
Guterres, 68, is the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations, succeeding Ban Ki-moon, who served from 2007 to the end of 2016.
The selection of Guterres was historically unprecedented in its transparency. The 12 candidates shared their views on international issues and presented their visions in open meetings before the General Assembly. For the first time in the U.N.’s 70-year history, these internal proceedings were televised live. But as in past votes, the final arbiter of the decision-making process came down to the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and the U.S. must agree on a consensus candidate. Historically, the secretary-general has come into the job hamstrung by the big world powers, often representing a safe compromise who won’t threaten U.S. or Russian interests.
Still, Guterres is a high-profile name whose independence won’t be easily neutered. Born in Lisbon, Guterres was raised under the watchful eyes of dictatorship and spent extended periods in the countryside, where he grew to sympathize with the struggles of poverty. He began his career in public service when he was elected to the Portuguese Parliament in 1976. He served as a member for 17 years and went on to become prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002.
Prior to his appointment as secretary-general, Guterres served as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015, heading one of the world’s foremost humanitarian organizations at a time when the number of people displaced by conflict and persecution rose from 38 million to over 60 million. During his tenure, he called for better treatment of refugees by European nations, worked to secure funding for Syrian refugees and oversaw the most significant structural reform process in the agency’s history.
This experience seemed to influence the Security Council’s decision in choosing a successor to Ban at the height of the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II.
At the time, Lord Michael Williams, a former top U.N. official, praised the choice, calling Guterres “extremely well-qualified.”
“In selecting António Guterres, many members of the Security Council were acutely aware that migration and refugee issues are likely to continue to dominate the international agenda in the coming years,” Williams wrote in a blog post last year for Chatham House, a think tank in London.
Dujarric told The Diplomat that Guterres’s experience as UNHCR “at a time of increasing numbers of refugees” informs how he approaches his new role.
Dujarric described Guterres’ strategy for tackling the world’s challenges as “preventive diplomacy.”
This “doesn’t just mean preventing conflict, but investing in development” such as good governance, climate readiness and community health, Dujarric said.
Guterres has said that preventing conflict “means going back to basics — strengthening institutions and building resilient societies,” he wrote in a January Newsweek op-ed. “Since so many conflicts emerge from disenfranchisement and marginalization, it means putting respect for human rights at the center of national and international policy.”
Refugees International, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., said Guterres is up to the task.
“The secretary-general is very well-positioned to address humanitarian issues. As the former high commissioner for refugees, he understands humanitarian challenges. And as the former prime minister of Portugal, he appreciates that humanitarian crises must have political and diplomatic solutions,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, in a statement to The Diplomat.
But Schwartz also said that Guterres needs more support from the U.S. to address humanitarian crises effectively.
Pushback from White House
A month after winning the 2016 election, President Donald Trump disparaged the U.N. in a tweet, calling it “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
Some panned Trump’s choice for ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, a South Carolina governor who lacked foreign affairs experience. But she impressed senators on both sides of the aisle in her confirmation hearings, and many Democrats appreciated that she did not endorse across-the-board cuts to U.S. funding for the U.N. (Washington contributes roughly 22 percent of the U.N.’s core operating budget of $5.4 billion.)
Since then, Haley has established a reputation as a firm advocate for U.S. interests who doesn’t toe the Trump line. She was strident in her criticism of Russia long before the issue of Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. election became a legal headache for the president. She also has been vocal about human rights abuses committed by North Korea and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
Even though Haley has grabbed the U.N. bully pulpit to defend human rights, she echoes Trump’s tough talk that the organization needs to be leaner and less reliant on American taxpayer money. She praised recent cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping budget and spearheaded efforts to reduce the U.N.’s footprint in places such as Sudan’s Darfur region. As a fierce defender of Israel at the world body, she has also accused the U.N. of harboring an anti-Israel bias.
“Haley has done an impressive job of attacking and defending the U.N. at the same time,” Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations told Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch for an April 24 article. “She has convinced the Republican base that she is tough on the U.N. and is pushing for real cuts, while also making nice with foreign diplomats.”
Even if Haley is an effective voice for the U.N., it remains to be seen how much influence she has over her boss. Despite international condemnation, Trump pulled America out of the landmark Paris climate agreement, and he generally eschews the type of multilateralism on which the U.N. was founded in 1945.
Trump’s “America first” doctrine has worried observers that he will sideline both the world body and Guterres, who, like his predecessors, faces constant pressure by the five permanent Security Council members to hew to their positions and fill the top ranks with their countrymen.
Human rights advocates also accuse Guterres of staying silent about abuses in favor of quiet diplomacy to resolve disputes such as the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen and sectarian fighting in South Sudan, often leaving it to his human rights commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to denounce atrocities and autocrats. Supporters say Guterres can make more inroads mediating behind the scenes than publicly lecturing other countries, but critics worry this approach sets a dangerous precedent, especially in light of the Trump administration’s reluctance to promote human rights.
Trump’s unilateral foreign policies have also cast a shadow over Guterres’s relevance, particularly when it comes to the secretary-general’s signature issue: refugees. The president’s travel ban on six predominantly Muslim nations and his efforts to curtail U.S. refugee admissions fly in the face of U.N. pleas that wealthy nations do more to help the world’s displaced. Trump also appears eager to bypass the U.N. and work directly with Russia to find a resolution to Syria’s six-year civil war.
In a hacked January email released to Newsweek in August, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador in Washington, told the country’s U.N. representative on the eve of Trump’s inauguration that, “The U.N. won’t be very important for the next four years.”
Cutting Fat Without Losing Muscle
The exchange may have been a joke, but Trump seemed to validate the point when he unveiled his proposed budget for the fiscal 2018 year, which would cut funding to the State Department by 31 percent and foreign assistance by about 29 percent. That includes steep cuts to U.N. programs including climate change initiatives and peacekeeping operations, where Trump wants to cap U.S. contributions to 25 percent, down from the current 28 percent.
“The figures presented would simply make it impossible for the U.N. to continue all of its essential work advancing peace, development, human rights and humanitarian assistance,” Dujarric told The New York Times in May.
The U.N. has already agreed to decrease its peacekeeping budget by nearly $600 million to $7.3 billion for the upcoming year, and Guterres himself does not seem opposed to winding down certain missions.
“When it comes to conflict management, for example, Guterres and his advisers have signaled that they would like to spend more time on relatively small-scale but high-impact preventive diplomacy and mediation rather than the large but often creaky peacekeeping missions the U.N. has deployed in trouble-spots such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan,” wrote Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and U.N. researcher at Columbia University, in a July 25 brief for ECFR.
“The Secretary-General has devoted considerable time to trying to save this year’s Cyprus reunification talks and behind-the-scenes efforts to contain the crisis in Venezuela. He has put a lot of energy into South Sudan, too, but he has signaled that he believes that the African Union should play a greater role in leading stabilization missions on its continent,” Gowan wrote. “In terms of international development, Guterres has called for cutting back on duplication and pooling resources to make the U.N. more cost-effective and agile. If shrinking the organization’s global footprint is one key to his vision, the other is increasing his authority over its remaining operations.”
Yet Gowan pointed out that Guterres faces the contradictory challenge of streamlining the U.N. while “Trump and his advisers have repeatedly expressed an interest in eviscerating it.” The puts the secretary-general in the odd position of trying to shrink the world body while protecting it from egregious cuts — all in an era of cascading humanitarian crises.
“[Guterres] needs much greater support from key member states, especially the United States,” Schwartz said. “The U.S. government has traditionally been the most active and generous partner to the U.N. on humanitarian assistance and humanitarian diplomacy, but has recently demonstrated ambivalence about continuing to play that role.”
A State Department press officer declined to respond directly, but reiterated Haley’s statement on World Refugee Day.
“The United States gives more humanitarian aid than any other country, but money alone is not enough — we must also work to end the conflicts that drive these people from their homes, while tearing apart their countries. We have lots of work to do at the U.N., but the world’s refugees and the countries that host them should know they can continue to count on the United States to lead,” Haley said in her June 20 statement.
“[Guterres] has been spending a lot of time on ensuring that the relationship between the United States and the United Nations is a strong and productive relationship,” Dujarric told The Diplomat.
“U.S. involvement in the U.N. is critical. The U.S. has a leadership role to play in the United Nations,” he added.
Areas of Cooperation
Trump potentially realized the value of that role when the U.N. recently voted to slap a tough new round of sanctions against North Korea in response to its latest missile tests — the most tangible achievement the White House has produced so far in its efforts to curb Pyongyang’s rapidly accelerating nuclear weapons program.
Another area where the U.S., especially under Trump, will likely want to cooperate with the U.N. is in countering terrorism and violent extremism.
Here, Guterres is making strides, according to one expert.
“I think he deserves a lot of credit for prioritizing the need to modernize the U.N.’s counterterrorism architecture,” Eric Rosand, a former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department who is now with the Brookings Institution, told The Diplomat.
Rosand credits Guterres with managing the passage of a General Assembly resolution in June that established the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism headed by an undersecretary-general.
But ensuring passage of the resolution required political deal-making that Rosand said “raised some negative attention.”
Rosand said Guterres appointed a Russian, Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov, to head the counterterrorism office to gain Russia’s support for the resolution. Paradoxically, Rosand said, the bargain allows Russia — a state that represses its civil society and supports the regime in Syria, which itself has sponsored terrorist groups — to dictate much of the U.N.’s counterterrorism policy.
Even so, it “required a certain amount of political guts” for Guterres to open this office as one of his first initiatives, Rosand said. Having helped to develop and launch the Global Counterterrorism Forum, Rosand knows how difficult it can be to reach agreement on anti-terror policies among many diverse states.
Moreover, Rosand faults former Secretary-General Ban for not doing enough to prioritize counterterrorism.
Williams agreed with this assessment back in October 2016, when he wrote that “the U.N. has ceded ground on the critical issue of international security” under Ban.
Rosand said that tackling global terrorism will require the U.N. to take a “whole-of-society, whole-of-government approach” that recognizes the root causes of terrorism and engages workers in the religious, health and development spheres who can “intervene before someone commits an act of violence.”
Rosand urged Guterres to acknowledge the role states play in isolating certain segments of their populations and creating “deficits in service delivery,” which breed resentment.
“These are the connections [Guterres] needs to be making and the message he needs to be delivering,” Rosand said.
A potentially larger problem looms for Guterres and the global community, however. The extent of U.S. cooperation on counterterrorism — or any host of issues — is being overshadowed by a more existential debate about the leadership roles of the U.S. and China under an isolationist American president.
“The big question facing Guterres … is whether China will now replace the U.S. as the main guarantor of international cooperation,” Gowan told The Diplomat via email.
Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared to relish Beijing’s growing international clout when he gave a forceful defense of free trade at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, the first appearance by a Chinese leader at the forum.
After Trump signed an executive order pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, China reiterated its support for the agreement alongside the European Union and other U.S. allies.
“[I]t is possible that Trump’s destructive tendencies will force Guterres and the U.N. to turn to China to keep multilateral bargains like the Paris accords alive,” Gowan said.
Either way, the Trump effect on international politics and diplomacy cannot be underestimated.
Asked about the loose ends Ban left that Guterres must now tie up, Gowan said: “The Ban era at the U.N. is now almost a distant memory because Trump has rewritten the diplomatic rulebook.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.