A woman at the head of the United Nations?

The prime minister of New Zealand, John Key, has announced that his country is putting forward a candidate for the post of Secretary General of the United Nations: Helen Clark, herself a former prime minister, and also currently head of the United Nations Development Programme.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The post will become available on 31 December 2016, when Ban Ki-Moon’s second term expires. Many regard Mr Ban as ‘the invisible man’, a Secretary General who has had little impact on the world scene, and who has failed to act in any significant way in such important crises as the Syrian civil war and the resulting European migrant flows. He is often compared unfavourably with his predecessor, Kofi Annan. It is therefore suggested that someone more dynamic might be better in the job.
Helen Clark is certainly dynamic. Having been raised on a farm where her father had four daughters and no sons, she was brought up with hard physical work, and she has kept up a routine of mountain climbing and other demanding pastimes throughout her career, so she has a commanding physical presence and energy which is the opposite of Mr Ban’s quiet bureaucratic style.
It is not quite so clear that she would say anything very different. If you consider what Mr Ban says rather than the way he says it, there is not much to criticise. He has been active in promoting action against global warming, for instance, and while he hasn’t been effective in Syria, this year he provoked large demonstrations against himself in Morocco, where he spoke out against the Moroccan government’s failings in the long-running conflict in Western Sahara. The simple truth, which any UN official will explain to you, is that the United Nations is only the expression of the wishes of its member states. If the member states don’t want to act through the UN, there will be no action. It is not an independent force.
It is true that the United Nations was originally conceived as a means of collective intervention in international crises, and many people would still like to see that promise fulfilled: but its failure to do this does not make it completely useless. The agencies – the World Health Organisation, UNESCO and so on – do important work year after year. It is difficult to see the point of the General Assembly, since there is no real mechanism to enforce any decisions made there (if it made any decisions, that is), but the general idea of a world political body is valid, so there is no reason to shut it down. When it comes to crisis management, political will is expressed through the Security Council, and its permanent members maintain a balance of power established in 1945. Everybody knows this is ridiculous, but nobody can come up with a formula for reform that will please everyone. Should Brazil have a permanent seat? India? What about the fact that the whole of Africa is left out? For the time being, once again, there doesn’t seem to be much anybody can do about the situation.
This perpetuates what you could call a ‘veto culture’. The permanent members of the Security Council can veto UN decisions. A relevant example of this was the United States’ disgraceful veto of the re-election of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as secretary general in 1996. The explanation given by Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN who cast the veto, was that Boutros was not active in reform. A much more likely explanation is that he had been making too much noise about the fact that the United States had consistently failed to pay its contribution to UN operations. With this veto, the United States signalled that even in the post-Cold War world, they were not prepared to tolerate criticism: and as it was still Africa’s turn (Boutros was from Egypt) they found a more agreeable African, Kofi Annan, fresh from masterminding the worst catastrophes in the history of the organisation as the head of Peacekeeping who had run the operations in Bosnia and Rwanda - but who was careful never to criticise the United States despite its clear contempt for the whole concept of the United Nations.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, like many other Secretaries-General, had been a foreign minister, but there are different kinds of foreign minister. Mr Ban was South Korean foreign minister, but was known in his own country as ‘the Bureaucrat’, efficiently carrying out state policy; whereas Mr Boutros-Ghali had had a much more active and creative career, playing an important role in peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel, for instance. He was also a professor of International Law – a considerable person.
So the question facing Helen Clark’s candidacy is this. Do the permanent members of the Security Council, and particularly the United States, really want a dynamic and politically active Secretary General? Might they not prefer another faceless bureaucrat?
The fact that she is a woman is a side issue. There are now seven candidates, although more may appear in the next few months, and four of them are women. There is a general acceptance of the idea that the next Secretary General could well be female. But Helen Clark is the only candidate to combine two factors: personal political experience of leadership, and experience as a UN insider. She has spent the last seven years running one of the UN’s most important agencies, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and can justifiably claim to be a qualified UN bureaucrat. But this would be the first time that a former head of government had become Secretary General, and it is difficult to see that this independent-minded and feisty Kiwi would take any nonsense from other world leaders if she got the job. During her political career she saw her personal approval rating go down to 2% at one point but stuck to her guns and completed two terms as prime minister with enormous success.
The veto culture might support her candidacy. Six of other declared candidates are from Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia and Moldova), and the logic of this is that there has never been a Secretary General from Eastern Europe. Like Helen Clark, some of these candidates are former politicians, including two prime ministers and one president. There is also António Guterres, on paper a rather similar candidate to Helen Clark, having been prime minister of Portugal and then head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). However, all the Eastern European countries are anti-Russian, having experienced Soviet occupation and/or political domination, and whatever the personalities or abilities of the candidates, it is quite possible that Russia will veto all of them. This kind of thing is done behind closed doors, to avoid the embarrassment of an actual vote. If Russia or another permanent member makes it known that a particular candidate is not acceptable, that candidate might be quietly withdrawn. In fact the mechanism has always been that the permanent members of the Security Council decide on an acceptable candidate among themselves, without public discussion.
If we look at Helen Clark’s achievements and policies during her political career in New Zealand, we see an excellent fit with the United Nations culture: housing for the poor, anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons positions but with support for the New Zealand military in peacekeeping roles, and of course support for indigenous peoples, special representation for the Maori people now being an integral part of the New Zealand system.
The UN has always resisted the idea of having a Secretary General from the English-speaking countries that made up the original ‘United Nations’ – it was the term used to mean ‘The United States plus the British Empire’ during the Second World War. But it is difficult to see how anybody could see New Zealand today as a tool of Anglo-American imperialism. In fact, any Anglo-American imperialists would be faced with quite a different problem: a Secretary-General who not only speaks their language, but who has long experience of getting what she wants.

Christopher Lord’s books include ‘Politics’ and ‘Parallel Cultures’. His journalism is published internationally. He has lived in 9 countries and speaks 7 languages.

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