Our shared objective is a 21st century UN focused more on people and less on process. (1) The United Nations will need to continue to innovate and adapt to changing challenges. (2) ANTONIO GUTERRES 1 Introduction
Secretaries-General have always had to navigate the shark-infested waters of realpolitik, while drawing inspiration, to the extent possible, from the idealism of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not unlike some of his predecessors, Antonio Guterres finds himself as Secretary-General in a delicate realpolitik moment--a time of Chinese resurgence, American stridency, Russian reassertiveness, European Union instability, and little discernible third world leadership from emerging powers such as India, Brazil, and South Africa.
How, then, can the Secretary-General help define the contemporary role of the world body and help shape it for the challenges of the future? A Secretary-General should always have his mind's eye on core concepts for the organization in the areas of peace and security, development, human rights, and the role of the international civil service. Such strategic vision is required to define the contemporary UN. Two years into his five-year term, can one discern such shaping ideas from Guterres's leadership? My review of his key reports and statements to date--including the latest Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization (hereafter "2018 Report")--suggests a negative response to this question. (3) While Guterres deserves credit for his initial steps to build confidence in his leadership, especially among the Permanent Five (P5), his main achievements so far comprise efforts at organizational restructuring. But beyond such tinkering, the UN badly needs a conceptual leader. Today's complex world of realpolitik may appear to constrain the elaboration of a strategic vision by the Secretary-General. However, those same conditions rather underscore the importance of such a vision, to guide the organization in its day-to-day work and, despite the contentious politics of the present, continue to strive toward the organization's founding values.
2 Building Confidence, Pursuing Reform
As Guterres took office, The Guardian newspaper described him as "intellectual, affable, progressive... made for the job." (4) Without a doubt, the Secretary-General has many talents and is a superb leader who has passionate beliefs. Guterres is a seasoned practitioner of consensual international diplomacy, first as prime minister of Portugal then, later, as secretary-general of the Socialist International. He understands the need for, and practices, confidence building, both among governments and peoples. As a highly respected UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade, he advanced the cause of humanitarianism in the midst of brutal conflicts and weary donors. He carried out his responsibilities with dignity and feeling, which helped in his selection as Secretary-General.
These diplomatic talents are no doubt needed. Guterres became Secretary-General at a time when the United States, the principal contributor to the UN budget, practices, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, "philosophy with a hammer." (5) At the same time, China, one of the largest contributors of peacekeepers, is seeking to shape the United Nations in its image and has published a position paper on UN reform. (6) Further, present-day Russia is particularly jealous of its status and sovereignty. Against this background, the Secretary-General wisely speaks with a careful voice and has so far succeeded in winning the confidence of the major, veto-wielding powers--no small achievement.
To what extent, then, has Guterres been willing and able to translate this relative success into substantive policy? In this regard, the Secretary-General embarked, from the outset, on a pronounced program of reforms and modernization. His agenda has been broad, covering the areas of peace, development, and management. But there have been a few notable absences, especially in the area of human rights.
This theme--reform and modernization of the UN--is central in Guterres's 2018 Report, which itemizes a wide range of measures. But these cluster around familiar kinds...