EU indecision on UN Secretary General choice plays to Russia’s advantage

There are still, for now, some very serious European contenders with real chances of success. 

The race to replace Ban Ki-moon as United Nations Secretary-General in 2017 is an awful muddle, yet it may still culminate in victory for a well-qualified European.  The current frontrunner is former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, but European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva seems poised to make a last-minute entry into the race later this month. 

Both would be credible winners.  But the contest has cast a harsh light on the EU’s lack of diplomatic cohesion.  The choice of Secretary-General is no trivial matter for Europeans.  From Mali to Syria, UN peacekeepers, mediators and aid officials are struggling to manage conflicts and refugee flows on the EU’s southern flank. But while the Security Council is supposed to start a decisive round of polls to home in on the final choice for the next Secretary-General in early October, EU members remain divided over whom to support. 

ECFR's World in 30 Minutes: Who will be the next UN Secretary-General?

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This is playing to the advantage of Russia which, like the other permanent members of the Security Council, holds the power to veto any candidate.  Moscow has demonstrated an impressive capacity to manipulate UN rules to get its way over the Syrian crisis since 2011, as I noted in an ECFR paper last year, and it is playing a similarly sharp game over the Secretary-Generalship.  The race may climax with President Vladimir Putin making the final choice between Guterres and Georgieva — or blocking both and forcing the Security Council to hunt for a compromise candidate.

This situation arises from two quirks of UN tradition.  One is a convention that the post of Secretary-General rotates between different regions.  The second is that “Eastern Europe”, an area consisting of former members of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, is still treated as a distinct region in UN diplomacy a quarter century after the end of the Cold War.  No Eastern European has ever been Secretary-General.  As the end of Ban’s tenure came into view, a host of politicians and diplomats from the region floated their candidacies, making it difficult for a single European champion to emerge early on.

While eight Eastern European candidates formally entered this year’s race, at least half of them never really stood a chance.  Some, such as former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic, were fairly openly using the race as an opportunity to raise their profile and have some fun.  Three more serious challengers — all still in the race — are current Slovak foreign minister Mirolsav Lajcak, former Slovenian president and UN official Danilo Turk, and Serbian politician Vuk Jeremic.  The most widely discussed Eastern European contender has, however, been the Bulgarian director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova.

Bokova’s candidacy has been notable for two reasons.  The first is that she is generally believed to have good ties to Moscow, and to be Russia’s candidate of choice.  The second is that she had to fight hard to beat Kristalina Georgieva for Bulgaria’s nomination at the start of this year, sparking serious political in-fighting in Sofia.  Even though Bokova won this initial battle in February, diplomats and UN officials have always speculated that Georgieva – who was universally praised for her performance as European humanitarian commission from 2010 to 2014 – would find a way to re-enter the race if Bokova stumbled. 

Many UN insiders have wondered whether any Eastern European candidate could win the Security Council’s backing, given recent tensions between the West, China and Russia over Syria.  A number of non-European candidates, including Argentinian foreign minister Susanna Malcorra and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, also pitched into the race.  Malcorra, who served as Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff from 2011 to this year, is widely believed to have been America’s preferred candidate.  Bokova, Clark and Malcorra have also pressed for the UN to appoint its first female Secretary-General.

Malcorra, who served as Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff from 2011 to this year, is widely believed to have been America’s preferred candidate.  Bokova, Clark and Malcorra have also pressed for the UN to appoint its first female Secretary-General.

Against this backdrop, Antonio Guterres at first looked like a peripheral candidate when he entered the contest at the start of this year.  He had a good case for the job, having run the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015, and is a strong political communicator – a qualification that many diplomats prioritize after ten years of the congenial but uncharismatic Ban Ki-moon.  But as a male and a Western European, he looked like a non-starter.  His fortunes changed dramatically in April, when the UN General Assembly held a round of hustings with the candidates.   Guterres, witty and obviously on top of the UN’s problems, was generally declared the winner of this public face-off, and has enjoyed solid momentum ever since.

But the EU’s members have failed to throw their united weight behind Guterres or any other  candidate.  Britain initially signaled its support for Clark, and British officials have been bluntly dismissive of the Eastern European candidates.  France has gingerly backed Guterres, but seems uncertain about how far he is able to go.  Spain, which holds a temporary seat on the Security Council, appears to have divided affections for Guterres and Malcorra.  Germany, as we shall see, apparently nursed a continuing belief in Georgieva.

This is not to say that a formal “EU candidate” could have aced the competition.  He or she could have been an easy target for Moscow.  Many non-Western diplomats feel that the EU has too much say in UN affairs at is, especially as the Europeans like keeping the organization’s costs down.  But as the race has gone on, the lack of EU unity has begun to look more chaotic than wise.

Guterres’ momentum has been confirmed by a series of four straw polls in the Security Council since July, in which the fifteen members vote anonymously to “encourage” or “discourage” the candidates (the results, theoretically confidential, leak at high speed).  Many of the candidates have seen their scores fluctuate considerably between the polls, but Guterres has always been on top.  In the last poll, held at the start of this month, he had twelve encourages, two discourages and one “no opinion”.

The other EU candidates have had mixed fortunes.  After a poor start, Slovakia’s Lajcak has gained significant support in the last two polls, securing ten “encourages” this month.  Turk, by contrast, has faded from a strong early showing and now seems mired in the middle of the field.

So why not simply declare Guterres a worthy winner and have done with it?  The answer lies in Moscow.

The same goes for Bokova, who has had to contend with a fiercely negative briefing campaign apparently engineered by the UK (including a brutal attack on her management skills in that well-known organ of multilateral thought, The Daily Mail) and has only picked up seven “encourages” in both of the last two polls.  If Bokova’s alleged ties to Russia have hurt her, Malcorra appears to have been equally hampered by her apparent U.S. support.  She too sits in the middle of the pack, as does Clark.  One Western diplomat rather unkindly dismisses the bulk of the current candidates as “zombie candidates” with no pathway to victory.

So why not simply declare Guterres a worthy winner and have done with it?  The answer lies in Moscow.

Many observers assume that Russia does not like Guterres, on the simple calculus that having an articulate former NATO head of government with a strong humanitarian streak atop the UN could cause the Kremlin headaches.  Ban Ki-moon has been critical of Russian policy in Syria at times, but has tended to back down under pressure from Moscow.  A more daring and compelling UN chief would be a distinct irritation.  More generally, Russia has repeatedly stated that it wants an Eastern European Secretary-General, and there are rumors that President Putin personally gave his backing to Bokova.  From Moscow’s point of view, therefore, securing the job for someone from its neighborhood is now a matter of diplomatic pride.

This is where Kristalina Georgieva may re-enter the picture.  Having maintained a low profile over the summer, Georgieva came back into view this month, when stories emerged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had raised her potential candidacy with Putin at the G20 summit.  Last week, the Bulgarian government appeared ready to drop Bokova and put Georgieva forward as a new candidate.  The European Commission also effectively endorsed its Vice President’s ambitions to move from Brussels to New York, with Commission President Jean Claude Juncker’s Chief of Staff Martin Selmayr tweeting that “Kristalina would make a strong UNSG, and [would make] many Europeans proud.”

This was premature.  No sooner had stories about Georgieva’s entry into the race surfaced than Russian officials moved to smack them down, and the Bulgarian government shied away from dropping Bokova.  Instead it has indicated that it will wait for the results of a fifth Security Council straw poll on 26 September before considering its options.  If Bokova is unable to boost her level of support, she will face renewed pressure to make way for Georgieva, although she may balk at standing down even then.

So as world leaders gather for this year’s UN General Assembly, the race to be Secretary-General is becoming more rather than less chaotic, and the EU looks even more confused than before.  In apparently backing Georgieva, Germany has raised new question marks about the credentials of Guterres, despite his high level of diplomatic support.  The European Commission’s support for Georgieva, while understandable given her strong track record in Brussels, also looks undiplomatic given that Lajcak – foreign minister of Slovakia (the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency) – is still in the game.

If Bokova is unable to boost her level of support, she will face renewed pressure to make way for Georgieva, although she may balk at standing down even then.

If Europe is in a muddle, Russia may still act as spoiler as the race speeds up.  It may not be able to secure victory for Bokova, demonstrating the limits of its power in the UN system, but it is still able to torpedo Guterres, Georgieva or Lajcak if it wishes.  Moscow has been opaque about its ultimate attitude towards all three candidates, and at various times has sent subtle signals that it could actually approve any one of them, even including Guterres.  This approval would, however, come at a price.   Moscow is likely to ask whoever it selects to place some friends of Russia figures in their senior administration. 

There is speculation in both New York and Sofia, for example, that Guterres could offer to appoint Bokova his deputy, although the idea of two Europeans at the top would alienate African, Asian and Latin American diplomats.   Moscow could ask for some more subtle concessions from the final winner.

Russia is not the only significant power looking for concessions from the next Secretary-General.  China, which has remained markedly passive through much of the race, has indicated that it would like to appoint one of its nationals as the head of the UN’s peacekeeping department.  This is a powerful internal post that France has filled for twenty years, so Beijing’s gambit represents a significant challenge to Europe’s power at the UN.  It may ultimately settle for a less prominent post or set of posts.  But if China really wants the top peacekeeping job, it may be hard for any Secretary-General to refuse.

Finally, the U.S. has still to show its hand.  Most UN-watchers believe that, while Washington may have originally wanted Susanna Malcorra to win – and there are still rumors that the U.S. will mount a last-minute drive to boost her candidacy – it could live happily enough with Guterres or Georgieva.  But if it looks like either candidate is on course to make major concessions to Russia and China, the Americans may start to get cold feet.  The U.S. was decisive in the selection of both Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon as Secretaries-General in 1996 and 2006.  Is it really willing to let Moscow call the tune this time around?

There is not much time left to find out.  In October, the Security Council will hold more polls, but with the five veto-wielding members using colored ballot papers, so that they can indicate which candidates have absolutely no chance of success.  This should whittle down the no-hopers, but negotiations over the eventual victor could drag on. Eventually the Council will move on to proper votes, but the permanent members will probably try to settle on a consensus candidate before doing so. 

There may be more last-minute candidates lurking beyond Georgieva.  Some insiders are talking up the chances of Sigrid Kaag, an impressive Dutch UN official in the Middle East who led the operation to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons. In a worst case scenario, the whole process could drag on towards the end of the year with no clear outcome.  But a little optimism is in order.  There are still, for now, some very serious European contenders with real chances of success.  The EU may have muddled through the selection process in a divided fashion.  But in politics it is not the process that counts.  It’s who gets the final victory.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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