The following is a guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Today the UN General Assembly formally approved António Guterres as the United Nation’s ninth secretary-general (SG). His coronation came surprisingly swiftly, after the Security Council briefly set aside toxic negotiations over Syria to unanimously recommend Guterres to succeed Ban Ki-moon, who steps down at the end of this year.
Guterres was an unexpected choice. Prior to the campaign, the consensus in Turtle Bay was that the time had come for the UN’s first female secretary-general, ideally hailing from Eastern Europe, the only region never to have held the post. As a Western European man, Guterres seemed to have the odds stacked against him. Guterres also had a reputation as a formidable political figure, having served as prime minister in Portugal and subsequently as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In the latter capacity he regularly spoke truth to power in the face of a growing global refugee crisis. In short, Guterres’s profile suggested he might be more of a general and less the secretary that the permanent Security Council members typically seek in an SG.
Guterres’ success in clinching the nomination is due in no small part to the new secretary-general selection process established this year. Thanks to pressure from civil society (notably the “1 for 7 Billion” campaign), the president of the General Assembly, and small and mid-sized member states, the United Nations instituted a formal, public nomination process. For the first time, official candidates had to submit a resume and a vision statement and then take the hot seat in a two-hour public hearing with the UN’s 193 member states. These reforms fundamentally changed the SG selection process, and gave Guterres the chance to emerge as an early frontrunner before deliberations began in the Security Council.
To be sure, the council tried to revert to business as usual. Following the General Assembly hearings, it closed the curtain to conduct secretive consultations and hold private hearings with each candidate, leaving observers to rely on twenty-first century smoke signals, mainly in the form of leaks on social media, to see which way the wind was blowing. Yet, although the council sought to reestablish its ownership of the selection process, the campaign underway had already developed a momentum of its own that shaped its deliberations. More broadly, the open General Assembly process established a precedent likely to have lasting implications for Guterres’s tenure as SG, for the United Nations, and for leadership selection at other international institutions.
Legacies for the Secretary-General
Guterres was selected in a process of unprecedented transparency and scrutiny, and the qualities for which he was chosen are likely to influence how future candidates will be judged. Two qualities in particular are worth emphasizing: the set of skills needed to succeed and the importance of public pledges. This year candidates had to impress not only the Security Council but also the General Assembly. By many accounts, Guterres outshone his competitors in this newly public campaign, winning over diplomats as the most qualified person for the job. His performance also shifted the race’s momentum away from the early frontrunner, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, whose General Assembly interview left many diplomats unimpressed.
The more open process also gave member states and civil society the chance to draw out pledges from the candidates on issues ranging from conflict prevention to climate change. When civil society advocated for a feminist SG, Guterres and his other male competitors promised to increase the number of women in the organization, particularly at the highest echelons. Ambassadors also pressed candidates to ensure that senior appointments were made on merit rather than to appease important member states. Having now made commitments on a range of issues, Guterres will be publically held to these pledges—and his failure to implement them could weigh on considerations for his reappointment.
Implications for the United Nations and Other International Institutions
Changes in the SG selection process this year not only altered the race’s momentum, they also gave a greater voice to the General Assembly—which in the past had simply rubber-stamped the Security Council’s preferred candidate. As even permanent members concede, the wider consultation process increased the prospect of a strong secretary-general and raised the diplomatic cost of appointing an unfit candidate, or one that would only be accountable to Security Council members. The members of the General Assembly, as well as civil society, can be expected to push for even greater transparency next time around, as well as measures to strengthen the independence of the SG.
The process also raises questions about the future of the UN’s regional groupings, given the failure of Eastern Europe to secure the SG position. Although regional rotation has always been an informal rule, many worried that Russia might upend the race in its final stages, despite Guterres having won five consecutive informal straw polls. In fact, Russia quickly endorsed Guterres once the Security Council moved to differentiated ballots that would have revealed a veto. This fed rumors that Moscow had struck a deal with Guterres that would guarantee senior posts to Russian nationals. In response, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin admitted to discussing senior staffing with Guterres, but stated firmly that no back room deals were made. He added that the Security Council and the wider UN membership had simply committed to select the best possible candidate, regardless of nationality or gender. The episode suggests that a more open process had encouraged Security Council members to look more closely at the candidates’ resumes than their passports.
Finally, the formal, open nomination process meant that the influence of domestic politics was more transparent than in the past. Bulgaria’s approach stands out in this regard: After agonizing over two female Bulgarian candidates, Sofia reversed its nomination late in the race, as Russia and Germany traded public barbs about rumored meddling in the decision. There is a sense that Bulgaria’s public and prolonged waffling harmed the campaigns of both of its candidates. Similarly, a gambit by former Australian Kevin Rudd, who announced that he was seeking his government’s backing, backfired when current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull refused to nominate Rudd due to questions about his “suitability,” in a public rebuke that reverberated in both Canberra and New York.
The new SG selection process played an important role in Guterres’s selection, and it will likely have lasting impact on the choice of future secretaries-general, as well as on how the UN itself operates. With luck, this move toward greater transparency will reverberate when it comes to selecting leaders in other international institutions, too. These nascent initiatives should be nurtured, even when the initial changes are imperfect, incomplete, or disruptive. International organizations, particularly the United Nations, need leaders able to breathe new life into bodies battered by scandals and charges of irrelevance. Open, merit-based selection processes are the best way to find candidates up to the task.