Academic journal article Global Governance

The Secretary-General We Deserve?

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Secretary-General We Deserve?

Article excerpt

The Charter of the United Nations frequently maps out a chasm between its aspirations and the means to achieve them. War is to be renounced, human rights are to be advanced, and development is to be a priority. Yet peace is beholden to the Permanent Five (P5) of the Security Council, human rights obligations remain limited to voluntary commitments taken on by states, and development is the paradigm example of an unfunded mandate.

It would be tempting to put the office of Secretary-General in this category. The "world's diplomat" has few powers, minimal staff, and his or her influence is greatest in orphaned conflicts and marginal causes. The first Secretary-General, the Norwegian Trygve Lie who served from 1946 to 1952, memorably welcomed his successor to New York's Idlewild Airport with the words: "You are about to enter the most impossible job on this earth." Within the UN organization, the position is routinely abbreviated to "SG"; Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General (1997-2006), joked that this sometimes might as well stand for "scapegoat.

Yet the Charter is more honest about the Secretary-General than some of its other aspirations. Article 97 defines the role as being that of chief administrative officer" of the organization. He or she is to be appointed by the General Assembly "upon the recommendation of the Security Council, giving the most powerful countries an effective veto over the selection process. Powers are limited to carrying out the functions ascribed to him or her, with what appears on paper to be only a modest addition: the ability to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." Since the Secretary-General has never enjoyed the support of an intelligence service, that opinion has rarely been better informed than the members of the Council. The power has been invoked in terms only twice. (1)

As the United Nations prepares to select its ninth Secretary-General, who will succeed Ban Ki-moon after his term concludes on 31 December 2016, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the nature of the office, the eight men who have held it, and the manner in which the ninth occupant of the thirty-eighth floor of UN headquarters in New York will be chosen. Encouraged by social media and a series of campaigns for greater transparency and diversity in the selection process, there has been much optimism that this time will be different. Most of that optimism--but not all--is misplaced.

Supply and Demand

Despite the limitations of the office, the Secretary-General remains an important part of the international system. This typically has been more a function of demand than of supply.

On the demand side, there is a clear need for a voice at the international level that can transcend national interest. That need is most obvious in collective action problems like climate change where the benefits of reducing carbon emissions by one state are insignificant without comparable commitments from other states. In the short-term political calculus of national leaders, there is little to be gained by being the first mover if that entails economic costs that are not borne by one's peers. In addition to being a voice or a catalyst for change, the coordination effort required to manage those diverse interests--or to combat other threats that do not respect national borders such as the pandemics caused by Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is facilitated if the coordinator is a person who does not him- or herself have obvious vested interests.

Demand can also be seen in the convening role that the United Nations often plays, with the Secretary-General occupying a position of political influence without being partisan. In the front-page news stories of the day, that role may be severely constrained--limited perhaps to that of a shuttle diplomat. …

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