Antonio Guterres became United Nations Secretary General January 1, 2017 at a time of unprecedented global challenges.
He took over from the quiet-spoken South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon, who had served unbruised for 10 years. His two predecessors, Kofi Annan (Ghana) and Boutros Boutros Ghali (Egypt) had had a rough ride following squabbles with the US administrations of George W Bush and Bill Clinton respectively.
The US vetoed Boutros Ghali’s second-term bid and worked relentlessly to bring down Kofi Annan in his second term, though without success. Both Secretaries General clashed with Washington by living up to their mandates without being in the pockets of the US.
Mr Guterres comes in with greater strength than his recent predecessors. He is both familiar with the UN system and the expectations of member states, having headed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and been Portuguese prime minister. He also excelled in competitive interviews for the job, hitherto thought to have been reserved this time around for women candidates, preferably from Eastern Europe.
But for various reasons, the new UN Secretary General’s post is now a trying assignment. During the Cold war, a major global crisis could be resolved through agreements between the USSR and US foreign secretaries speaking on behalf of the Eastern and Western blocs respectively.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower, Washington had great leverage on global decisions, especially at the UN. This eased the work of the Secretary General.
However, the world is now composed of various dominant powers. Whereas in the past global political power was concentrated in the five permanent members of the Security Council; with economic and financial issues handled with the G7 plus Russia (G8), we now have the G20, with its sub-sets of the emerging markets of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
China, the dominant economic and military power after the US, has established global and regional banks to challenge the Western-dominated, US-led Bretton Woods institutions.
UN policy co-ordination at global and country level is facing new development paradigms and the emergence of new power players. The less developed countries that hitherto relied on UN financial and technical support are increasingly finding UN resources too meagre compared to financial accruals from natural resources exploitation and new funding mechanisms such as infrastructure development bonds.
Globalisation, which was pushed forward by the big Western powers, especially the US and UK under president Ronald Reagan and premier Margaret Thatcher respectively, is now perceived to have de-industrialised major industrial belts, resulting in trade deficits and job losses.
This has created a widespread distaste for the international trading system and trade agreements, particularly by the incoming Trump administration, with threats to cancel or review some existing and proposed new ones such at the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).
This should make new world trade agreements such as the proposed Doha Development Round and the work of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) itself almost impossible.
Whether this will adversely affect the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa) time will tell. Related to this is heightened nationalism anchored in anti-immigration platforms – a major reason for UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU and the shutting of European borders against the influx of refugees. This should complicate the work of Mr Guterres’s former agency, the UNHCR.
Worse still, forthcoming elections and referenda in key European countries with the discourse centred on inward looking protectionist policies could further weaken the European Union, a key and valuable partner of the UN.
UN clout had of late been boosted by the Millennium Development Goals that had been accepted globally and seen as a measuring rod of progress towards poverty reduction and sustainable human development. No government could find fault with or dare ignore the MDGs, which came in with a big pang in the new millennium.
Their successor, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, although like the MDGs they were endorsed by a Summit of Heads of State and Government, do not seem to have the same driving force for change.
The new Secretary General should sell the SDGs, help with their rollout and the weaving of government programmes therein. Given limited financial and technical capacity in the UN, Mr Guterres should strengthen collaboration with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to maximise synergies for the benefit of member states.
The UN has limited financial and person power. This is worsened by inter-agency competition, limiting the impact of UN interventions, to the distaste of donors who have to justify financial support for the world body to sceptical and fatigued constituents eager to witness concrete results on the ground.
Fortunately, since the days of Kofi Annan, the drive for in-country inter-agency collaboration through the “One UN” agenda, later crystallised in the “Delivering as One” approach, with agencies delivering what they are best suited to do (“fit –for-purpose”) has taken hold.
The new UN boss could work with the UN’s specialised agencies and the UN resident co-ordinators to streamline the work of the agencies and help achieve economies of scale, minimise wasteful duplication and the spreading thin of resources.
This would please governments and development partners eager to work together under nationally driven policies and programmes, with the UN speaking with one voice. Even more important is for increased efficiency and value-for-money in UN operations.
Hostile Trump attitude
But the greatest headache for the new UN boss will be the incoming US Republican administration and its leader, Donald Trump, with his somewhat hostile attitude towards the UN, even though the UN Security Council resolution criticising new Israel settlements on Palestinian land was carried by government representatives rather than UN officials. Already there are threats of cutting of UN funding.
Even more worrying is Mr Trump’s intention to turn against agreements endorsed by previous US administrations, which could have a domino effect, turning international relations upside down. With a few exceptions, countries are expected to honour international agreements reached on behalf of their countries by previous administrations.
But the most problematic issue facing the new Secretary General is the foreign policy agenda of the incoming US resident. His planned recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and his questioning of the “One China” policy are cases in point. This could lead to more wars especially in the Middle East; complicating the work of Mr Guterres.
Prof Ngila Mwase is a student of international relations. He can be reached at [email protected]