Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s bid to become the UN secretary-general (SG) is finally out in the open after he requested Australian government support for his nomination, ending months of speculation.
Foreign minister Julie Bishop has confirmed Mr Rudd’s request will today be put forward to Cabinet, where support for Mr Rudd is mixed. Should the nomination become official, Mr Rudd will join a field of 12 other candidates, and he will be the first-ever declared Australian candidate for SG.
The UN Security Council will hold its first straw poll — an informal, secret ballot to gauge support for the candidates — in three days time. The UN has taken steps to make this year’s process more transparent and inclusive, but the veto-wielding permanent five (P5) members of the UN Security Council remain the ultimate decision-makers in selecting the next SG (for more background, see ‘Everything you need to know about the UN secretary-general race’ and Security Council Report’s latest research report).
As many commentators have pointed out, Rudd’s prospects are fairly dim in a year when civil society groups and many member states are calling for the first female SG and the Eastern European Group (with Russia’s support) is demanding its turn as the only UN regional group that hasn’t held the SG post. While I agree that Rudd faces an uphill battle, the fact that the race has played out differently each time and that P5 members maintain such wide-ranging priorities and geopolitical outlooks makes it difficult to predict, and leaves the door open for surprise contenders. With the UN context in mind, below are five key factors related to Rudd’s prospects to keep an eye on.
1. Perception as a prominent Westerner.
In the past, the UN Security Council has generally selected career diplomats from countries considered to be small- to medium-sized neutral powers to serve as SG. The Council has never chosen a former head of state or government, often preferring candidates the P5 perceived at the time to be ‘more secretary than general’ and thus more pliable. Rudd’s status as a Westerner with close ties to the United States combined with his international stature and reputation as an ambitious leader might be too much to take for some of the P5. If, for example, Moscow assesses that Rudd is too close to the West and would wield influence in a way that would threaten Russia’s agenda at the UN, his candidacy will be dead in the water.
2. Relationship with China.
Although China hasn’t been as outspoken as others in the P5 thus far, Beijing’s views on the next SG should not be underestimated as it has taken strong positions in the past, including playing a critical role in Ban Ki-moon’s selection in 2006. China’s position is likely to be even more important for Rudd, given that he’s had a quite tumultuous relationship with Beijing over the years. On the one hand, Rudd is the only SG candidate who speaks Mandarin, and he is a lifelong China scholar who has liaised extensively with Chinese officials. On the other hand, he is known for botching relations with China as prime minister, and it’s unclear whether Beijing has forgotten Rudd’s infamous reference to being ‘rat-f***ed’ by the Chinese in the 2009 climate change talks. By some accounts, he has spent the last two years working to repair the relationship — he made 10 trips to China between June and November last year and has been ‘sucking up to them relentlessly,’ according to one diplomat. He reportedly is on good terms with President Xi, and some Chinese diplomats have said they could ‘tolerate’ Rudd as SG. While some on the inside speculate that the darkest days of Sino-Kevin relations are in the past, it remains to be seen whether China could bring itself to green light Rudd over a more pliable candidate with a less complicated history.
3. P5 willingness to block the competition.
Rudd’s chances of winning hinge not just on positive votes but also negative ones in the form of P5 vetoes for the other candidates. Rumours of P5 favourites continue to swirl — Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) is said to be Russia’s, Helen Clark (New Zealand) may enjoy British support, and the United States is rumoured to be backing Susana Malcorra (Argentina) — but a single P5 veto would end their bids. One of Rudd’s friends has joked that ‘Kevin would need to do a Steven Bradbury to get there,’ a reference to the Australian speed skater who won gold in the 2002 Olympics when all of his competitors crashed on the final turn. If several of the serious contenders have a potential veto, Rudd would at least have a better shot of crossing the finish line.
4. The Kiwi edge.
As mentioned above, the jury is still out as to whether the P5 has an appetite for selecting a prominent former head of state or government. If they are willing to consider one (and if the Security Council looks beyond Eastern Europe), there are several reasons to believe New Zealand’s candidate, Helen Clark, would have an advantage over Rudd. Not only would she fit the bill for the first female SG, she also boasts extensive UN experience, having served as head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) since 2009. On top of that, NZ is currently serving on the Security Council, giving it the opportunity to lobby regularly on Clark’s behalf among its Council colleagues. Clark, however, is not without her own baggage. Controversy around her human rights record and management at UNDP has emerged in recent months, and some speculate that she could prove too left wing for the US. Regardless, if the SG race comes down to a trans-Tasman affair, Clark is likely to come out on top.
5. Informal dialogue performance.
The President of the General Assembly expects to hold informal dialogues for any new candidates entering the race, suggesting that Rudd will end up sitting in front of the UN General Assembly for a two-hour public interview as the other candidates have done. Geopolitical realities and previous interactions with candidates are more likely to shape the P5’s views than a candidate’s performance at these interviews, but a lacklustre showing in front of the General Assembly certainly wouldn’t help Rudd’s prospects. Bokova, for example, did not appear to live up to the high expectations for her informal dialogue with some observers describing it as disappointing and lacking in substance.
If Rudd's nomination is finalised in time for the first straw poll on 21 July, we may get some indication of Rudd’s chances, but this might not emerge until the Security Council holds the first colour-coded straw polls (those that differentiate permanent members), which are still under discussion.
While there are certainly plenty of headwinds facing Rudd, he can’t be completely counted out. As one commentator reminds us, ‘He did after all become prime minister twice, despite having few friends and no factional alignment within the Labor Party.’
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