UN Geneva.JPGElections & Institutions 

A Woman to Lead the UN?

By Jonathan Power

Will a woman become the next secretary-general of the United Nations? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are other criteria in play—there is an unwritten rule that the regions of the world should take turns occupying the U.N.’s top job. The Eastern Europeans are saying it is their turn. Ironically, since Eastern Europe is now more integrated with Western Europe through the EU, the would-be candidates are in effect appealing to Russia to vote for them, since only through their states’ positions in the old Soviet alliance can the region be regarded as an entity separate from Western Europe.

How about a South Asian for secretary-general? That would make sense, since there has never been a secretary-general from this region before, and the subcontinent contains 1.7 billion people. Yet no one has been put forward.

Or an Australasian? Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has cast her hat into the ring.

I would argue that it is time to forget gender or place of origin. Character should be the critical element by which a candidate is judged.

We need a leader who knows how to transcend the world’s divisions, to counter our most primitive instincts, and to enhance our nobler ones. This leader must have a personality that inspires the best in us, taking us beyond our currently insufficient actions to what could be possible if human energies were liberated from the confines of too simple and narrow a perspective. We need to move much further than we have so far, beyond country, race, religion, culture, language, and lifestyle, to become what Martin Luther King called the beloved community. “We seek only,” he said, “to make possible a world where men can live as brothers.”

Leadership, we know, is an intangible quality that can only be described as it is observed. Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Pope Francis, and Vladimir Putin have it, but who else today shares this characteristic?

What we can do is describe some of the qualifications the next secretary-general will need if the U.N. is to have any chance of working in today’s world. This leader must understand the need to preempt crises, as well as have ability to stick with the U.N.’s resolution once a crisis occurs. The secretary-general must believe that the application of force is the signature of defeat and that true peace comes from careful compromise in which no one is asked to abase themselves before their opponent—even the leaders of Syria, North Korea, or Sudan.

A U.N. leader must be inspirational and bring out our best performance. He or she must be practical and down to earth, identifying the essentials and concentrating on these priorities. This leader must be moral, selfless and yet convinced of its own audacity. In the end courage is immensely important, for the problems the U.N. faces at times can appear daunting or even overwhelming.

The need for the world community to find powerful leadership for the U.N. is of first importance. The U.N. is everyone’s punching bag, but it’s interesting how in a crisis the big powers run to it for assistance. When major powers have talked or acted themselves into a corner, they can, as a last resort, let the smaller powers at the U.N. find an exit for them.

Recall the Yom Kippur war in 1973 between Israel and Egypt, supported by other Arab nations. Eventually, the U.S. and Russia agreed to impose a cease-fire on their acolytes. But there seemed no way of implementing it. The situation looked exceedingly dangerous. Egypt was calling for Soviet help, and President Richard Nixon put U.S. nuclear forces on alert. It was fast footwork at the U.N., principally by a group of nonaligned countries, that helped break the impasse. They pushed for a U.N. force to go in. Unbelievably, by today’s slow moving standards, U.N. representatives were on the ground the next day.

The U.N. is easy to kick around but impossible to recreate. Would the U.S. Senate ratify the U.N. Charter in 2016? Fortunately, under President Obama, the U.S. has done much to repair the frayed relationship that developed during the early years of the presidency of George W. Bush. (Interestingly, during his last two years in office, he found, like Ronald Reagan before him, that he shouldn’t kick it but work with it.)

A new secretary-general has to win the trust of the big powers so they look up, not down, at him or her. Who can do this? Looking at the list of announced candidates, none of those from Eastern Europe, male or female, seem good enough. Helen Clark is not strong enough, either. In my mind, Angela Merkel would be the best choice.



Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.

[Photo courtesy of Henry Mühlpfordt]

Related posts