Be bold, Mr Guterres

23 Nov 2016


While the world and its political pundits and commentators analyse and discuss the results of the US presidential election, it is worth remembering that Donald Trump is not the only world leader to be taking office this January. A twenty-minute drive away from Trump Tower, diplomats, government ministers and mandarins are preparing for the term of office of António Guterres, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations.


A decade as UN Commissioner for refugees, seven years at the head of a NATO country and unanimously voted in by the United Nations, Guterres has a solid bedrock of political experience and credibility. That political capital will be essential as he heads the largest forum of global dialogue but, furthermore, will be a key asset as he faces the challenges 2017 looks to provide. Upon his appointment, Mr Guterres outlined his own priorities: to combat terrorism and political populism, to promote gender equality, and to end the Syrian conflict. Immediately this puts him at odds with an incoming US President whose election campaign - widely described as a populist uprising against the political elite - involved highly controversial comments on women, terrorism, Islam and many other issues. The two men will need to work together, but Messrs Guterres and Trump have incredibly divergent political ideals. Whilst Mr Trump's brand of populism involves standing up for US interests and, if his campaign policies are to be taken as-read, cutting much of the USA's international responsibilities. Meanwhile, Mr Guterres' core political instinct is socialist, statist and collaborative in character.


Mr Guterres has built a reputation at the UN for being able to hammer-out challenging agreements, of being able to reach consensus quickly, and for being interested in helping the vulnerable, something that went hand-in-hand with his role coordinating global efforts to help refugees. He is an articulate, multilingual and cooperative statesman who was able to very quickly unite a divided Security Council to back him. Indeed, there is a strong consensus that Mr Guterres' is perceived by both the West and Russia as the ultimate ‘safe pair of hands.’


Mr Guterres' appointment has been largely overshadowed by the election result but the key issues on today’s agenda - the war in Syria, conflicts in South Sudan, Yemen and Libya and seemingly never-ending rise of global terrorism – are arguably the responsibility of Mr Guterres as much as they are of Mr Trump. The role of the Secretary-General is not of a politician but of firstly a civil servant appointed to coordinate global efforts, and secondly as an accountant managing the budgets of dozens of massive bureaucratic structures and agencies who will be operating in the aforementioned conflicts. Mr Guterres will therefore need to have an excellent grasp of both the diplomatic intricacies of these arenas and the political instincts of nearly two hundred world leaders.


To face up to these challenges within the bounds of this complex role, Mr Guterres will need to be sensible and steady, but will also need to be bold. A great amount of self-confidence will be required to deal with and potentially stand-up to Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the prospect of John Bolton having a key role in the new US administration will make many in New York fear a combative and uncooperative delegation.  That boldness should not reflect the worrying rise of political populism, which Mr Guterres has openly criticised and vowed to tackle, but should consist of a confidence in the potential of the UN and its ability to rise above its past failures to tackle modern conflicts head-on. Previous failures of the UN came as a direct result of its lack of military assets to back its policies and its bloated bureaucracy. Yet in the modern world, where conflicts are deeply complex and frequently spill over the borders of nations, the UN can serve as a beacon of optimism while providing a credible mechanism for a new style of international conflict resolution, one defined by cooperation, coordination and steady-handed leadership. Step forward Mr Guterres. 


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