Lonely at the top

Running the United Nations is a lonely job for António Guterres – and he seems to prefer it that way. 

Since becoming Secretary-General at the start of the year, Guterres has seemed impatient with the organisation’s bureaucracy.  He has repeatedly questioned whether the UN is fit for purpose, describing its peacekeeping mechanisms as “under-performing” and its approach to economic development as “at its exhaustion point.”  He tends to take serious decisions with a small inner circle of advisers, sidelining perplexed UN officials he thinks are not up to snuff, and address the most serious problems of all almost on his own. 

The Secretary-General’s behavior partially reflects the fact that, as a former prime minister of Portugal and chief of the UN refugee agency, he has a good deal of faith in his own judgment.  But it is also indicative of the fact that he has to pull off an enormous political conjuring trick if he is to keep the UN afloat in an era of American nationalism, geopolitical rifts, and multiple escalating humanitarian crises.  Guterres holds very few cards, so he has to keep them close to his chest if he is to maintain any flexibility.

Less is more

Guterres secured the post of Secretary-General last October with the intent to implement serious reforms of the UN system, the failings of which he had seen first hand during a decade at UNHCR.   In recent years, even loyal international officials have worried that the organization has become too bloated to survive; it is certainly pretty hard to justify the fact that there are over 1,400 UN development offices worldwide “with some costing as much money to maintain as they deliver in program funds.”  UN peacekeeping forces deploy almost 100,000 troops and police globally, but persistent reports of abuse or refusal to follow orders have become a liability.

Guterres took office intent on rationalizing this sprawling system.  He did not come with a fully formed package of plans, and has only recently been rolling out some of his main reform ideas for governments to review, starting with plans to tighten up the UN development system.  He is still mulling over plans to reorganize its main political and peacekeeping departments.  The precise details of these are only really of interest to connoisseurs of international institutional organigrams.  But three broad themes are emerging from his various plans and statements.  The first of these is that the new Secretary-General is quite happy to admit that the U.N. should do less in many areas.

When it comes to conflict management, for example, Guterres and his advisers have signaled that they would like to spend more time on relatively small-scale but high-impact preventive diplomacy and mediation rather than the large but often creaky peacekeeping missions the UN has deployed in trouble-spots such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.  The Secretary-General has devoted considerable time to trying to save this year’s Cyprus reunification talks and behind-the-scenes efforts to contain the crisis in Venezuela.  He has put a lot of energy into South Sudan, too, but he has signaled that he believes that the African Union should play a greater role in leading stabilisation missions on its continent.

In terms of international development, Guterres has called cutting back on duplication and pooling resources to make the UN more cost-effective and agile. If shrinking the organisation’s global footprint is one key to his vision, the other is increasing his authority over its remaining operations. 

Guterres is keen to clarify the lines of accountability linking his own office (where he has set up new strategic oversight structures) and UN staff in the field.  Currently, UN departments, missions and offices answer to a multiplicity of directors and governing boards.  Having been a low-level participant and observer in a couple of UN reform processes myself, I have mainly been struck by how much time the denizens of these various entities spend trying to keep even the slightest shred of useful information from getting to one another. Chopping through this internal UN nonsense will require disentangling several Gordian knots simultaneously.

The third main theme of his thinking is the need to free up ambitious and innovative UN staff (and there are still quite a few of them, for all the institution’s weaknesses) to get things done by reducing the managerial burdens they work under.  Some parts of the UN system, including some of its highest-risk blue helmet missions, are constrained by rules and procedures that are fundamentally designed to stop them achieving their mandates.  A few years ago, to cite a relatively minor example, it took the general commanding a UN mission in a volatile African country five days to get the necessary permissions to fly to a remote base where soldiers had been murdered.

Guterres, who keeps up a punishing personal schedule and makes a point of visiting suffering civilians in unsafe places like Somalia whenever he can, loathes this stuff.  “The staff rules, the budgetary rules, the financial rules of the UN,” he told global leaders in Davos this January, “if they were a result of a conspiracy not to allow the UN to work, they would be what they have.”  If the Secretary-General got his way, he would clearly like to reshape the UN as an organization that does less but does it better, with less fuss.  

Trouble on the tracks

This may be no more than a nice dream.  The UN is a system that has a curious capacity to turn sharply-tuned visions of reform into mush.  The institution, one official jokes, contains its own “deep state” of long-serving staff members who will always fight change. Even a largely symbolic January proposal by Guterres to relocate the political sections of different UN secretariat problems in shared spaces to ease communication ran into bureaucratic obstacles.  But these little local difficulties do not register next to the major political dilemma confronting the Secretary-General:  The fact that he has had to argue for all possible reforms to the UN against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s blundering into power.

If Guterres wants to streamline the UN, Trump and his advisers have repeatedly expressed an interest in eviscerating it. The White House has proposed cuts amounting to billions of dollars to peacekeeping, humanitarian operations and development work.  This has sometimes involved more rhetoric than reality – the U.S. settled for markedly smaller reductions to the UN peacekeeping budget than the $1 billion it had originally demanded, for example – but the president’s innate contempt for multilateral diplomacy has cast a long political shadow over the Secretary-General’s initial period in office. Guterres needs to reform and shrink the UN system while simultaneously protecting it from the most egregious U.S. cuts.

This puts him in the position of a general guiding an orderly retreat from a chaotic battlefield.   In a best-case scenario, he will be able to make enough sensible reductions to the UN’s operations and budgets to keep the U.S. at bay and make the organization work more effectively.  But there is always a risk that the retreat will turn into a rout.  If Washington keeps pushing for unsustainable cuts, or other nations choose to pick fights with the U.S. over its multilateral miserliness, Guterres could find it politically impossible to reform the UN in a sensible way.  His two predecessors, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, both saw solid proposals for UN reform fall apart due to inter-governmental tensions in less difficult diplomatic periods.    

To make matters worse for Guterres, the U.S. administration is only one of multiple sources of chaos with the potential to overwhelm his agenda.  The greatest challenge to the organization may not be Washington, but rather a surge in conflicts and humanitarian crises – including the conflict-driven famines unfolding in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen – that UN peacekeepers and aid officials have been unable to bring under control.  While the UN has called for over $6 billion to assist the 20 million victims of the “four famines”, international donors have stumped up less than half the required amount. 

In the meantime, UN forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Congo face worsening violence on top of the ongoing crisis in South Sudan.  The chances of escalating killings in one of these countries throwing the UN further off balance remain high, with the situation in CAR looking especially dicey this month.  Guterres might like to shift the UN towards a lower-cost model of crisis management in theory, but in practice he has to chase down the resources and political help he needs here and now.

Keeping up with these multiple challenges is draining work.  The Secretary-General was reportedly “visibly despondent” after the failure of Cyprus talks in which he had invested significant early political capital.  The UN has had some success this year, such as its role in successfully disarming the FARC rebels in Colombia, but there are no more easy wins on the horizon for Guterres.  He will need to expend a vast amount of energy on chivvying international leaders to support him and the institution he represents.

The Secretary-General is not at a total loss.  His behind-the-scenes diplomacy has won him a range of friends that could prove useful.  He appears to have developed a passable working relationship with U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who is a more mainstream Republican than Trump and does not want to take the blame for letting humanitarian crises escalate.  Conversely, he has long-established and close ties with African and Latin American leaders that allow him to call in favors in times of crisis.  While European governments were not united behind Guterres’s candidacy during the 2016 Secretary-General race, the EU as a whole broadly supports his vision for rationalizing UN systems.  While UN officials grumble about their new chief’s mysterious ways, and the New York press corps complain that he is not sufficiently transparent with them, diplomatic observers generally say he is making the best of a bad job.

Some observers still think that Guterres can ultimately turn the turbulence around him to his advantage, playing off the Trump administration’s threats to persuade other countries and his own system to back his reform plans.  But Guterres does not seem entirely confident that things will work out so satisfactorily: In recent months, he has made a number of quite frank references to the possibility of China replacing the U.S. as a global leader if Washington charts a destructive course.

The Secretary-General’s strategic options are still few.  He must simply navigate the chaos in Washington and the crises on the world stage as best he can.  A strategic shock like a war on the Korean peninsula, which would plunge the Security Council into a crisis as bad or worse as that over Iraq in 2003, may blow him and the UN even further off course.  As Guterres’ moves to help the UN slim down and grow more focused suggest, he is under no illusions about how difficult it will be to sustain the multilateral system in the years ahead.  If all he can achieve in the years ahead is a masterly retreat, that may still be a sort of 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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