Can a European run the UN?


Picture of Richard Gowan
Richard Gowan

Richard Gowan is Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York

Since Austria’s Kurt Waldheim bid farewell to Turtle Bay in 1981, a Peruvian, an Egyptian, a Ghanaian and a South Korean have been Secretary-General of the United Nations, making it 35 years since a European last held the job. But there’s a reasonable chance that a European will gain the position next year – as long as an ugly geopolitical fight involving Russia, the US and the EU doesn’t get in the way.

The incumbent, Ban Ki-moon, will step down on 31st December. Last month, nine candidates to replace him attended hearings at the UN General Assembly to show off their credentials, kicking off a selection process that should culminate in September. Seven of the candidates hail from Eastern Europe. In an echo of the Cold War, former members of the Warsaw Pact and ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine caucus under the Eastern European banner in New York. There’s an informal UN convention that top jobs rotate between regions, and nobody from the group has ever been Secretary-General. The region’s diplomats have argued strongly that it’s their turn.

In theory, this is a good opportunity for the European Union to insert someone good at the top of the UN. The bloc’s members pay over a third of the UN budget, and EU citizens already occupy a strikingly sizeable number of the organisation’s top posts. The current Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, is a Swede, and other key posts, such as the head of the UN refugee agency, virtually always go to Western Europeans – for instance, a series of French diplomats have run the organisation’s influential Department of Peacekeeping Operations for two decades.

This is a moment when the EU needs the UN, and would benefit from having one of its own at the helm, more than ever

Many African, Asian and Latin American diplomats argue it’s now time for EU members to relax their grip on the UN. Yet this is a moment when the EU needs the UN, and would benefit from having one of its own at the helm, more than ever. UN agencies are on the front line in the effort to manage the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and will be key to any future attempts to help refugees return home. From Mali to the Golan Heights, UN peacekeeping forces are struggling to contain jihadists that threaten Europe.

Additionally, the Secretary-General has a potentially significant role in managing tensions between the West and Russia. Ban Ki-moon helped forge the compromise over Kosovo’s independence in 2008 that allowed the EU to send police officers and rule of law experts there, while leaving the territory’s status unclear. Ban also tried to take a leading role in the crisis over Ukraine, flying to Moscow for a lengthy face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, although on this he had no impact. Having an impressive European diplomat as Secretary-General during a future bust-up with Moscow would be advantageous for the EU. So does this mean that a host of top-flight EU leaders have thrown themselves heartily into the race? Not entirely.

Of the seven current Eastern European candidates, only three are actually EU citizens – the others hail from Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro and Serbia. The EU trio includes former Slovenian President Danilo Türk, erstwhile Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusić, and the Bulgarian head of UNESCO Irina Bokova. Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák is also widely expected to enter the race quite soon.

These are solid candidates, but none has set the race on fire. Pusić has hinted that she doesn’t believe she’ll get the job. Bokova is sometimes called a front-runner, but diplomats felt her performance at last month’s General Assembly hearings lacked substance. Western officials say they wish Bulgaria had put forward its well-liked EU Commisioner Kristalina Georgieva instead – under the hazy rules that govern the process, there’s still time for Sofia to switch nominee.

Some analysts believe it’ll prove impossible to find any European candidate Russia can agree on with the US, France and UK

The one declared candidate from an EU member who has created some excitement in New York is, ironically, not an Eastern European. António Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and head of UNHCR, gave a compelling performance at the General Assembly, emphasising his humanitarian credentials. Yet while the General Assembly process garnered international attention, it’s not certain that it’ll have much impact on who finally becomes Secretary-General.

The five permanent members of the Security Council still have the decisive say over the job, as they can all veto anyone they don’t like. Russia has signalled that it’ll play hardball over the selection process, and is liable to block anyone from an EU or NATO country it feels is too close to Washington and Brussels. This could favour some of the candidates from non-EU Eastern European countries such as Serbian politician Vuk Jeremić and Moldovan foreign minister Natalia Gherman. Some analysts believe it’ll prove impossible to find any European candidate Russia can agree on with the US, France and UK, opening the race to other regions.

Working on this logic, former New Zealand premier Helen Clark is already openly in the race. Australia’s Kevin Rudd and a number of Latin American politicians are also said to be ready to jump in. For all the EU’s interests in the UN, the Secretary-Generalship may slip away from the Union as the race speeds up and gets nastier.

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