How many people around the world know there will soon be a new U.N. Secretary-General? How many care? Perhaps public interest is low because the announced candidates are all thoughtful, experienced women and men with grand ideas. None of them have held a campaign rally to ignite the faithful to build border fences. None have promised to flush the heads of criminals down the toilet or tweeted unflattering photos of an opponent’s wife. Or maybe it’s because many people, far more aware of the U.N.’s failures than its crucial successes, think the U.N. is irrelevant.
Nor is this an ordinary vote. Secretaries-General are not popularly elected. Formally, it’s not an election at all. The U.N. calls it a “selection” process—though candidates are actively seeking the office, and there is certainly competition. The candidates audition before the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, known as the P5: the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France. The 10 non-permanent Security Council members also have their say. The choice is “discussed and decided at a private meeting,” according to Rule 48 of the Security Council Provisional Rules of Procedure. Any of the P5 can blacklist any candidate for any reason. Once the five settle on a candidate that none of them want to block, they present their selection’s name to the 193-member General Assembly for a ratification that is a fait accompli. Traditionally, all other candidates withdraw their names to clear a path.
For most of us, this is an opaque process with a predictable result: one more vaguely known U.N. chief, offering a vision of the future best compared to elevator music. Given this process, and the reality that Secretaries-General can’t really do anything without support from the P5, it’s amazing that some of them have actually accomplished important things. The U.N. has faced criticism for decades, some of it justified. It’s been called a corruption-plagued bureaucratic labyrinth, an organization led by five powerful countries interested mainly in thwarting one another’s plans, and administered by functionaries obsessed with protocol and lacking in common sense. Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is most often accused of timidity and an eagerness to please the permanent members—the U.S. in particular. At times, he has shown enough independence to criticize the governments of Russia, Israel and Saudi Arabia, but he tends to back off when his words draw angry responses.
Here’s why the race to succeed him matters. No, the U.N. will not solve all the world’s current problems. There is little reason to be optimistic that the U.N. can broker peace in Syria, end the migrant crisis, resolve tensions in the South China Sea or solve any of our most pressing problems. But in a world where the most powerful countries are deeply distracted, where international cooperation so often falls short and where millions of innocents pay the heaviest price for the world’s turmoil, the U.N. has never been more important. If the U.N. can’t move mountains, it can improve the lives of millions by helping to create the kind of world in which as many people as possible can seize the opportunity to realize their human potential.
There is a distinguished field of candidates looking to replace Ban when he retires on Dec. 31, and there is new pressure on the U.N. this year to make the election process more transparent. To understand why the choice is so important, let’s start with a look at the current state of the world.
There is no greater wellspring of trouble in today’s world than Syria’s civil war. This killing field has drawn limited involvement from the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and others. The vacuum of power created within Syria’s borders has pulled in ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions have been forced from their homes but remain within Syria or neighboring countries. Many more desperate people have headed for Europe, shifting the politics of every member of the European Union.
U.N.-brokered peace talks have stalled, mainly because participating governments can’t agree on what a future Syria should look like. The need for stability brings outsiders to the table, but their competing interests keep agreement beyond reach. And none of them are willing and able to accept the high costs and many risks that come with direct military intervention to end the war.
As talks break down, the U.N. shares public blame. But the failure of talks is not the fault of the U.N., which has no power to force member states to agree on anything. More important, it is in minimizing the resulting human misery—and in investing in the future of other developing countries to minimize the risk of future conflicts—that the U.N. plays its crucial role. And it is through the U.N. that the most powerful can do most to help.
The U.N. will have its hands full in coming years, because none of the world’s most powerful governments are looking to expand their international role. After long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington will avoid any long-term commitment of troops and taxpayer dollars for the foreseeable future. E.U. leaders, faced with a cresting wave of challenges inside Europe, are not looking abroad for new adventures. China’s leaders, fully occupied with a complex, high-stakes domestic economic-reform process, have no interest in taking on unnecessary risk. Russia will act forcefully only where Vladimir Putin believes his country’s interests and national prestige are at stake. Nor are these and other countries more likely to cooperate with one another, because cooperation requires domestically unpopular compromise and sacrifice—and there are few issues on which their near-term interests obviously converge.
In this leaderless world, the U.N. and its agencies have never been more important. The World Food Programme (WFP) has helped feed millions of hungry people and sharply increased its emergency-response speed and efficiency in recent years. In 2015, WFP provided food for more than 6 million refugees and more than 16 million people on the move inside their own countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is probably best known for its work on the front lines of health crises like outbreaks of the Ebola and Zika viruses. But its most important accomplishments are contributions to achievement of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. Just a few signs of progress: The percentage of underweight children less than 5 years old in developing countries fell from 28% in 1990 to 17% in 2013. The number of children who died before their fifth birthday fell from 12.7 million in 1990 to 6.3 million in 2013, in part because the WHO has made unprecedented investment in immunizations in poorer countries. The number of women who died from pregnancy or childbirth fell from 532,000 in 1990 to more than 300,000 in 2015. The number of people who died from HIV fell by 43% between 2003 and 2015. Malaria deaths fell 48% between 2000 and 2015, in part because the WHO helps provide access to medicine and clean drinking water.
UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, helps treat malnourished children and provides needed vaccines, access to safe water, access to education and mental-health care for millions of kids who need them. At a time when there are more displaced people on the move worldwide than at any time in history, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) assisted 12.3 million refugees in 2015 and 37.4 million more who were internally displaced. The World Bank provides grants, credits and low-interest loans to developing countries to help them finance the infrastructure products—roads, bridges, ports, schools and hospitals—on which economies and citizens depend. In the process, it creates jobs and promotes good health, good nutrition, and access to education and training. It helps people in these countries connect with one another and the outside world by investing in modern communication tools. The International Labor Organization (ILO) promotes the rights of workers around the world by pressing governments to comply with international standards for safety and fairness.
Peacekeeping will be even more critical in the years ahead. U.N. peacekeeping operations have generated controversy in recent years, with the failure to prevent the murder of civilians in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and allegations of sexual abuse committed by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa in 2014 and 2015. But the nearly 120,000 peacekeepers serving in danger zones in Africa, South Asia, southeastern Europe and elsewhere provide a crucial stopgap in places where the governments of member states are deeply reluctant to become directly involved.
The next Secretary-General will take his or her seat at an especially interesting moment in the history of the Security Council. The U.K. has voted its way out of the European Union, leaving questions about whether it makes any sense that Britain should have a vote while Germany, India and others do not—or that France will be the European Union’s only voice among the P5. Reform of the Security Council—the admission of new permanent members, in particular—has been discussed for years. The current members have a clear interest in blocking any demands that they share their veto privileges, but the Brexit vote has pushed the Security Council further out of date.
U.N. failures have made headlines for many years. Rightly so. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the U.N.’s value in an increasingly volatile and violent world or of achievements that don’t make front-page news. Nor should we ignore the need for a Secretary-General who can provide quality leadership for the entire organization.
The choice of Secretary-General matters, even if the man or woman who holds this position remains in many ways a servant of the P5, because effective leadership of any organization begins at the top. Transparency, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness are not sexy attributes. But where the U.N. is concerned, these qualities save and improve large numbers of lives in a world where emergency relief is both necessary and in short supply. It matters that a number of the current candidates already have important leadership experience inside the organization.
The candidates are an impressive group. Listed alphabetically, they are:
It is expected that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will soon join this list of candidates as well. Each candidate has a patron. Bulgaria’s Bokova is thought to be Russia’s first choice. New Zealand’s Clark is said to be Britain’s favorite. Washington apparently favors Argentina’s Malcorra. What’s almost certain, though, is that there will be change with the new Secretary-General. The previous eight leaders of the U.N. have all been men, and none have come from Eastern Europe. That’s partially why so many of these candidates are women, East European or both.
But far more important than their gender or native country is the experience each can bring to the job. Bokova is the current Director-General of UNESCO. Clark runs the U.N. Development Programme. Guterres is a former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Jeremic and Kerim are former presidents of the General Assembly. Malcorra has served as current Secretary-General Ban’s chief of staff. While being a former head of state might look more impressive, deep experience with a complex bureaucracy is crucial for any bid to make the U.N. run more efficiently and effectively. That may not sound like a grand aspiration, but U.N. effectiveness truly matters for the world.
The job of U.N. Secretary-General is becoming more important, and we can hope that the permanent members of the Security Council will base their choice not on regional background, gender or a lowest-common-denominator approach to bargaining but on strong leadership skills. The U.N. deserves a leader who will help the organization better provide the essential services and protections the world so badly needs while investing wisely in human potential around the world to make them much less necessary.