New Opening Available: the Hunt for a New UN Secretary General



Seeking talented, eloquent executive for leadership role in maddeningly complex supranational organisation, preferably of eastern European descent. Must be fluent in American sycophancy, with demonstrated experience in similarly unwieldy bureaucratic machine. Men need not apply.

Later this year, the UN General Assembly will gather to elect a new secretary general to replace South Korea's Ban Ki-moon, whose term will end in December. Mr Ban, who has held the post since 2007, will pass on a daunting portfolio of internecine and cross-border strife and an organisation riddled with deeply institutionalised internal bureaucracy. Who exactly will inherit this morass remains to be determined.

Close observers of the UN have already indicated the preferred characteristics for candidature: female (no women has ever held the UN's top job), eastern European (the region is yet to be represented by a secretary general) and, by convention, relatively inoffensive to both America and Russia, whose blessings are usually required for a candidate to avoid being vetoed by the security council.

Several suitably-qualified women fit the bill. The frontrunner is Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian national and the current head of UNESCO, the UN's cultural and social department. However, because Ms Bokova was a diplomat for Bulgaria's former Muscovite communist regime, her candidacy may yet be obstructed by Washington. If that occurs, Kristalina Geogieva, another Bulgarian and the current EU budget commissioner, may take her spot, although she too has come under fire – this time from Moscow – over the EU sanctions imposed on Russia in connection with its involvement in Ukraine.

There are, of course, a number of other suitable candidates, notwithstanding the fact that they fall outside of the unofficial demographic stipulations. Michelle Bachelet, former head of UN Women and the current Chilean President, has been previously endorsed for the role, however she is yet to officially confirm her candidacy. Other potential contenders include António Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister and the head of the UN's refugee agency, and Helen Clark, the undiplomatic but efficacious former prime minister of New Zealand (and current head of the United Nations Development Program UNDP). And, at the back of the pack, is Australia's own Kevin Rudd, whose eligibility is bolstered by his Chinese-language credentials but whose candidacy has received only a lukewarm reception from UN insiders.

Perhaps the most qualified candidate (and a woman and East German in her own right) is, unfortunately the most unlikely place herself in contention for the position. Whether or not Angela Merkel, the eminently qualified and generally popular German chancellor, is interested in the role has been the subject of persistent speculation, however there has been no indication as yet that she has any intention to step forward.

There are good reasons for electing an eastern European women. As a multinational organisation, the UN should aspire to equitable gender and geographic representation amongst its senior leadership. However, the pursuit of this laudable aim should not disqualify those other suitable candidates with the leadership potential to guide the UN through the coming decade. It is too important a job for that.

The UN needs a strong leader. Entrenched conflicts in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo have undermined outsiders' perception of the UN as a neutral and unbiased mediator in the world's most hostile regions. Moreover, institutionalised internal rivalries (Pakistan and India, or China and Japan, for example) threaten to render the organisation incapable of achieving the grand consensus the UN needs to take swift and decisive action in uncertain times.

Mr Ban, who has stewarded the UN since 2007, is widely considered to have been an ineffectual leader. This may have been the natural result of the circumstances of his election. At the time, he was considered to be the "least worst" of the prospective candidates for election (that is, the lowest common denominator deemed suitable to the P5, comprising America, the UK, Russia, China and France). Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, even confided that America's endorsement of Mr Ban was in part due to a perception amongst US diplomats that he would be a weak leader (and therefore, presumably, more susceptible to US influence).

The UN member states have a suite of highly qualified candidates to choose from. Whether or not any of them are capable of navigating the Orwellian admonitions and Carrollian logic of the UN bureaucracy is another matter entirely. However, the lowest common denominator approach towards electing the world's top diplomat hardly sets the foundation for the election of the strong and inspiring leader the UN so badly needs.

The UN matters. Its peacekeepers are often the only countervailing force in the world's most remote and dangerous regions, and the General Assembly continues to provide one of the only forums for antagonistic nations to discuss the issues between them on equal footing. The world needs a strong and effective UN, and, for that, it must choose a leader who will demonstrate those same qualities.

Tyler Drayton is a Sydney-based lawyer and graduate of the University of Sydney.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: makeroadssafe (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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