Friday, January 27, 2006

Next UNSG Must Know Security

The last post contained a few reflections on who might be the next UN Secretary General; pointed to Ghani as the best present choice; and speculated a bit about theoretical Scandinavian dark horses. But, instead of guessing names, which tendencies and structural demands can be established for the selection?* If the UN is to retain or regain the standing it had during the 1990s as a medium of choice for international politics the next UNSG has to be able to embrace a proactive, not just a defensive agenda. It seems there are at least four elements:

The Basics: The next UNSG must be able to cope with a defensive agenda as a minimum. The first UNSG post quoted an FT article out of Davos with positionings by a few candidates, which pointed out that the coming UNSG must be able to handle several challenges at the same time. Sorting these into categories, the following defensive agenda emerges:
Be a diplomat: "Cater to great powers, disgruntled middle-income countries and the developing world"; "balance US objectives with the rest of the world’s suspicion of US motives"; "deal with a rising China and India"; "have mental strength to absorb savage criticism for events sometimes out of his or her control". Be an administrator: "Push through major institutional reforms"; "expand operations around the world"; "do this amid US congressional demands for managerial change following the oil-for-food and other corruption scandals"; "develop new tools to cope with: nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, human rights atrocities, persistent poverty, disease and environmental degradation".

The Politically Correct Demands: According to the site of reference concerning the next UNSG (, two general expectations or hopes seem to be widespread: that the next UNSG be Asian and/or a woman. The former demand is probably more in play than the latter just by virtue of the stakeholders. Truth is, the taking turns argument is not an old institution: it was invented as part of the argumentation of why Perez de Cuellar should have the post. The Asian countries will of course defend whatever candidate emerges, but the claim is not enshrined.

The Secret Stuff: While all of the other countries do have a say, it is both difficult to imag
ine possible and would be very counterproductive for the UN to get a candidate which the US cannot greenlight. One element, though can help making the US accept a given candidate -- and it is said that this has always been the case -- would be if the US "had something" on the person (e.g. Hammerskjöld, Waldheim and de Cuellar).

The Post 9/11 Demands: While the defensive agenda -- being a diplomat and an administrator -- is necessary but not sufficient, the final weight of the two next groups is harder to gauge. What we can say with some certainty, though, is that in the post-9/11 context, the UN faces some challenges very different from those it did during both the Cold War and the 1990s intermission. The UN and its backers wish to retain or regain its or parts of its status as a the reference global mediating institution as it looked to be for a while in the 1990s. As written elsewhere, this is unlikely to happen: 9/11 meant that the relative American indifference of the 1990s was over, and that DC recaptured the initiative taking role. Instead, the G8 along with other more ad hoc decision making circuits is likely to figure as the forum of choice. Yet, nevertheless, UN reform is extremely important for those parts of the global agenda that the UN runs, i.e. large chunks of development.

This means, that the next UNSG cannot merely stick with the largely defensive agenda that the FT article stakes out. The UN has to be able to deliver in terms of security politics, not just as a function of American wishes, but, in order to be a bridgebuilder, proactively deliver on American promises in ways that accomodate or sufficiently satisfies both the US and the other players. Effectively, the next UNSG must be bold enough to bring forth policy proposals very early on in these policy processes.

And here is the problem: Candidates who have only worked with "civil affairs" would probably be less readily receptive to the function of security as a policy domain. Getting a new UNSG with strong preferences for the development agenda is important -- and many development people probably would love one that would also "stick it to the rich countries" once in a while -- but this can easily backfire in terms of the UN's relative standing as a problem solving forum. So, the next UNSG must not only be a diplomat and an administrator, be well-versed in development but also have in-depth experience with security in situations when push comes to shove. Merely having been a foreign minister might not be enough.

* = Update: Richard Holbrooke has had his say on the subject in the Washington Post: Holbrooke insists on the Asian claim, and offers both a number of candidates and more general reflections.

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