U.N. Bureaucrats Need a Boss, Not a Dreamer

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This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 10, 2016. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
October 10, 2016

Surprisingly to many, the ninth United Nations secretary-general will be António Guterres, a former socialist prime minister of Portugal.

One surprise is that the winning candidate is not from the Eastern European regional group, which has never had a secretary-general, while Western Europe gets its fourth. Another surprise is that the winner isn’t a woman, which will be disappointing to proponents of gender-identity politics. Mr. Guterres did serve 10 years as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and was previously active in the Socialist International, with both positions serving as springboards for his current candidacy.

What should Mr. Guterres know to perform his new job, and how should we judge his performance over the next five (and perhaps 10) years?

First, he must recognize that he owes his position to the Security Council’s five permanent members. This political reality causes gnashing of teeth in the missions of other U.N. members, and it sometimes raises the blood pressure of a secretary-general. But to be effective, Mr. Guterres will have to live in the rickety house the “perm five” have built, not align himself in opposition to it.

These five nations will often be divided, reflecting their national interests in global affairs, and thereby gridlocking the Security Council, as during the Cold War. So be it—Mr. Guterres must adjust. While there are other powerful, rising countries in the U.N., unless they persuade one or more of the perm five to turn on Mr. Guterres, they inevitably are lesser factors.

Second, across the sprawling U.N. agencies and programs more broadly, Mr. Guterres should recognize that member governments set policy, and the multiple U.N. bureaucracies must implement it. Neither the secretary-general nor U.N. secretariats have any independent policy-making roles, although long years of acting as if they do have created a troublesome institutional culture.

Mr. Guterres will be more productive if he concentrates on his limited turf, such as by reforming the U.N. secretariat’s bureaucratic morass. As Article 97 of the U.N. Charter says, the secretary-general is merely the organization’s “chief administrative officer.” If Mr. Gutteres fancies being this century’s Dag Hammarskjold, floating above the mundane world of nation-states, this may earn him points among the world’s high-minded, but he will accomplish little.

This is where Mr. Guterres’s European Union experience is worrying. Just as they have become accustomed to ceding national sovereignty to EU institutions in Brussels, many European diplomats in New York are perfectly comfortable doing the same with the U.N. Such an attitude regarding already too-independent-minded U.N. staffs is definitely something Washington should oppose. (A reminder for Mr. Guterres: With Britain exiting the EU, that organization will soon have only one Security Council permanent member.)

If member governments cannot agree on policy, then the U.N. should do nothing. Disagreement among the members isn’t an excuse for either the secretary-general (or the secretariat) to freelance, as former Secretary-General Kofi Annan was wont to do throughout his tenure. So doing will invariably lead to conflict with significant U.N. voting blocs and distract from other urgent tasks. Joe Biden likes to quote his mother saying disapprovingly of people who act beyond their bounds: “Who died and made you king?” Mr. Guterres should listen to Mr. Biden’s mother.

Third, when the U.N. does act, especially in matters of international peace and security, the secretary-general must focus diligently on the problem at hand. In particular, U.N. peacekeeping needs urgent attention. These efforts now total (according to current U.N. statistics) 16 operations, nearly 119,000 deployed personnel and a $7.87 billion annual budget. Allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, spreading cholera in Haiti and mismanagement dog U.N. peacekeeping forces, whose halos have slipped since they received their collective Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

U.N. peacekeeping history is packed with operations that were launched to end conflicts (or at least bring cease-fires) but never actually resolved them. In effect, U.N. military or political involvement becomes part of the conflict battle space, not a catalyst for ending it. Some disputes, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, are insoluble under existing circumstances. In such cases, withdrawing or substantially downsizing U.N. involvement until conditions are more propitious may, with the U.N. crutch removed, force the parties to take greater responsibility.

But where conflicts are resolvable, an international player of Mr. Guterres’s experience can make a difference, if he puts in the time and effort. It is not his job to appoint special representatives for peacekeeping or political missions, and then sit back and watch how they do. Active management and involvement by the secretary-general—which was the style of early secretaries general—is more likely to achieve concrete results, assuming the secretary-general carefully follows Security Council direction.

Given the problems endemic in the U.N. bureaucracy, and a world in flames—although many of the world’s problems are beyond the U.N.’s competence to solve—Mr. Guterres has more managerial work before him than his predecessors have been willing to undertake. If he sticks to that and whatever else U.N. members assign him in coming years, he will be fully occupied. If he strays beyond his remit, there is trouble ahead.