Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Still time for intrigue in United Nations SG race

Still time for intrigue in United Nations SG race
Published 14 Sep 2016 

So far the selection process for the next UN Secretary General hasn't generated much razzle dazzle. Hopes are fading the long process will result in the appointment of the first woman to the post, for example. We are yet to see any Security Council member exercise a veto, an act that could prompt a major upset.

After the fourth straw poll held over the weekend, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres remains in the lead. The highest placed women in the race, Bulgaria's Irina Bokova and Argentina's Susana Malcorra, both received seven 'encourages' in the last poll, compared to Guteres' twelve encourages. New Zealand's former PM Helen Clark is in eighth position, followed by Moldova's ex-foreign Minister Natalia Gherman. Costa Rica's Cristiana Figueres withdrew this week after a poor showing.

Why Helen Clark, the most popular of the candidates immediately following their General Assembly (GA) appearances – and the preferred prospect of United Nations staff according to a recent poll – remains at the rear of the main bunch has puzzled many. The reason probably lies in the dynamics of her 15 July interview with the Security Council. Publicly, we know nothing other than it took place. It appears there have been no leaks about how she, and the other candidates, performed in front of the Council.

The 71st United Nations General Assembly now underway in New York will be the last for SG Ban Ki-moon and the final for US president Barack Obama. The SG succession process has already been mentioned in official dispatches. Maybe when the world leaders converge for the General Debate next week - and perhaps more importantly at the cocktail party hosted by the US president in a tradition that goes back decades - the pace of the race will ratchet up from its current dawdle. [fold]

So far, this year’s straw polls process has been similar to the last SG selection four 10 years ago, when Ban led from the start. As the race progressed, China surprised the many who, thinking it would never countenance a South Korean as SG, expected China to exercise its veto. It seems likely the switch – China had been advocating a Thai – was done in agreement with the United States. Organising that manoeuvre would have been George W Bush’s man, John Bolton, who laid bare many secrets in his memoir Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad. In this review in the New York Review of Books Brian Urquhart wrote:

By June 2006, according to Bolton, Secretary Rice had a “short list” of one name: Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. With characteristic cynicism, Bolton quotes Rice as saying at the time, “I’m not sure we want a strong secretary general,” a remark presumably not intended for publication, and a gross disservice to his and Rice’s chosen candidate.

Bolton could yet disrupt the quiet process underway this year. He is among those who support Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Earlier this year there was even speculation Bolton could be Secretary of State in a Trump administration. For his part, the GOP presidential candidate has had little to say on the subject of the UN SG so far (though Trump does think he could save the organisation $US1 billion), but he has also repeatedly demonstrated his unpredictability.

The only other year a UN SG selection coincided with a United States presidential campaign was 1996. Then, Bob Dole’s success in encouraging his supporters to chant 'Boutros Boutros Ghali' at early campaign rallies forced Bill Clinton to halt the SG selection until after the presidential vote. At the time Bill Clinton’s people were doggedly against Boutros Ghali having a second term – even though the 14 others on the Council favoured that option.

This year the two selection processes will continue to converge: the next straw poll at the UN's New York headquarters is due on 26 September, ahead of that evening’s first presidential debate across town.

It's not clear exactly how long we will have to wait to see how the vetoes play out this time. One learned guess is that Brexit Britain would veto Argentine's Malcorra. (Watch for Boris Johnson's spluttering, whatever occurs.) The Argentinians know this; they are gambling Malcorra is Washington's preference and that the Americans will tell London what to do. There is also speculation the US will veto Irina Bokova, simply because UNESCO voted, under her leadership, for Palestine joining the organisation

The number of possible veto plays would weary the most ardent games strategist and a new card might soon come into play with speculation European Commissioner and Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva will emerge as a new candidate, possibly replacing her country's current choice, Bokova.

One thing is for sure, this race is not run yet.

 Photo courtesy of United Nations

You may also be interested in