Europe | October 23, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Illusive Unity, Elusive Peace: Challenges for the New Secretary-General

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The selection of Antonio Guterres to be the next leader of the United Nations was a show of unprecedented unity. Mr. Guterres, Portugal’s former Prime Minister and the current head of the U.N. Refugee Agency, was chosen by an informal consensus vote. Not a single country on the Security Council, the U.N.’s highest body, opposed his nomination. The Russian representative to the United Nations announced Guterres’ selection standing alongside his American counterpart. The choice was clear, the Russian diplomat said in his statement, given Mr. Guterres’ “experience, vision and versatility.”

Taken at face value, Guterres’ selection might appear to signal newfound cooperation and consensus, both within the U.N. system and between nations of the world that rarely get along. But when he takes office on December 31st, Guterres will have to confront a host of challenges, chief among them the Syrian Civil War, the refugee crisis and the reform of the United Nation as an institution. His amicable nomination is less a bellwether of change than a reminder of just how hard that change will be. Tellingly, the Security Council returned to its usual division just three days after his nomination: Russia vetoed a resolution calling for an end to airstrikes in Aleppo, its own resolution advocating a ceasefire failed to pass, and Syria continued to burn.

The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the most serious problems facing the international community today, and will surely be near the top of Guterres’ agenda. More than 4.7 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries, while 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced in their war-torn homeland. In his nomination speech, Guterres stressed the need “to serve those who are most vulnerable: victims of conflict,” perhaps alluding to this dire crisis. Having served as High Commissioner for Refugees for ten years, reforming and streamlining the U.N.’s Refugee Agency along the way, the statesman also comes at this problem with a great deal of experience. Guterres is thus undoubtedly qualified to lead the global humanitarian response to bloodshed in Syria and elsewhere, one of the most important tasks of the Secretary-General in an increasingly conflict-prone world.

Far more contentious, however, is the role the United Nations should play in resolving the Syrian Civil War itself, not merely addressing its collateral damage. In his “vision statement” submitted to the Security Council as part of its deliberation, Guterres seemed to recognize this pressing diplomatic crisis and—in the most apolitical language possible—lay out a roadmap for the United Nations to address it. His vision calls for a “surge in diplomacy for peace,” and for the Secretary-General act as an “honest broker, bridge builder and messenger of peace.” Guterres himself is known as a tough negotiator, able to hammer out deals in a variety of circumstances; he is also the first former head of state selected by the Security Council to serve as Secretary-General. He thus brings experience, temperament, and a broad vision of leadership to his role as the world’s top diplomat.

But the Security Council has yet to achieve the same unity with regard to Syria as it did with Guterres’ nomination, a fact that complicates the viability of that lofty vision. Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, acknowledged as much in her corollary to the Russian ambassador’s speech: describing the “carnage” as “horrific,” Power drove home “the urgency” and, to date, the impossibility “of achieving that unity” with respect to the Syrian Civil War. Remaining locked in round after round of negotiations, the United States and Russia have failed to reach a workable agreement that sticks. Further compounding the problem is the fact that both nations—each wielding a veto on the Security Council—back different factions in the conflict. As Secretary-General, Guterres will have to contend with competing interests and tired history to bring hostilities to a halt, a challenge that would test any vision of diplomatic leadership.

In the long term, the United Nations faces myriad institutional challenges with which Guterres will have to grapple. U.N. missions to stabilize countries in conflict have been marred by sexual abuse by peacekeepers, a problem that the organization has dragged its feet in addressing. Though theoretically binding, the United Nations is often unable to enforce its resolutions. Some argue that the structure of the Security Council, which grants permanent membership and a veto to five nuclear powers, diminishes the U.N.’s ability to adequately represent all its members. None of these problems will be easy to solve, as they play into longstanding geopolitical tensions and have shown remarkable resistance to reform efforts.

When Antonio Guterres accepted the nomination for Secretary-General, he did so with “humility when facing the dramatic problems of today’s world.” No qualifier could be more crucial. Though he brings to the table a high-level vision and a lifetime of public service experience, the ability of Guterres—or any Secretary-General, for that matter—to solve the myriad problems facing the United Nations today remains uncertain. Guterres appears ready to lead competently and boldly. But he will be limited in his ability to alter the geopolitical landscape in which the United Nations operates. His nomination may have been a show of unity, but today’s intractable problems will remain divisive well into his tenure.

Image Source: Flickr/United States Mission Geneva

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