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Antonio Guterres and the world as it is

The role of the UN Secretary-General is the most difficult job in the world. But it gets worse when the President of the United States represents a threat to the values enshrined in the Charter. 

Donald Trump and António Guterres at the United Nations General Assembly .Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead. Public Domain.

“It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral.”

- Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Antonio Guterres was sworn in as the ninth United Nations Secretary-General a year ago. After taking the oath of office before the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Guterres promised a nimble, efficient and effective organization capable of working for peace, supporting sustainable development and reforming its internal management. An organization that focuses more on people, and less on bureaucracy. With the Sustainable Development Goals as its agenda and the values of the UN Charter as its moral compass. The threats to our values, defended Mr. Guterres a few weeks after Donald Trump´s elections as President, are based on fear of each other, which can only be defeated by upholding what brings us together. Reading Mr. Guterres speech a year after, there is no doubt that he was aware of the dimension of the challenge ahead. He recognized that despite being better connected than ever, fragmentation within our societies has never been greater. Solidarity and tolerance, he hinted, seem to have lost their meaning.

Reading Mr. Guterres speech a year after, there is no doubt that he was aware of the dimension of the challenge ahead. 

Navigating the restless waters of diplomacy and international affairs is something Mr. Guterres is used to after his ten-year mandate as High Commissioner for the Refugees. But the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations is the most difficult job in the world. And it gets worse when the President of the most powerful country loathes multilateralism and the United Nations itself. The importance of consensus and mediation in a world always five minutes away from disaster it´s lost on Mr. Trump, a nativist and isolationist who threatens most of the values enshrined in the UN Charter. Few Secretary-General´s inherited such an unstable international scene while having to accommodate the tantrums of a President in love with himself.

Mr. Guterres has enjoyed relative success during his first year in office. He supervised a peaceful agreement in the Gambia, saw new sanctions implemented against North Korea and facilitated negotiations between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot sides. These are not major breakthroughs. Still, they reinforce Mr. Guterres´s position as a mediator and diplomat willing to go the distance to restore peace. It would be unfair to expect Mr. Guterres to do more, considering the relative power of his office and the largely chaotic world we live in.

The importance of consensus and mediation in a world always five minutes away from disaster it´s lost on Mr. Trump, a nativist and isolationist who threatens most of the values enshrined in the UN Charter.

There´s a wrong assumption that the United Nations Secretary-General can change the course of history by himself. He is the symbol of the United Nations and a spokesman for the interests of the world´s people. But the real power lies elsewhere. It is up to the General Assembly to vote any resolutions brought forth by sponsoring states. And it´s up to the Security Council to maintain peace and security, as well as adopting changes to the United Nations Charter.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres visited the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan on Tuesday morning, 28 March 2017. UN WomenBenoît Almeras Flick Some rights reserved.

The Secretary-General can bring to the attention of the Security Council matters that he believes might threaten international peace and security. He can also hold meetings with world leaders and attend sessions of United Nation bodies. He is also expected to use the so-called “good offices” to prevent disputes from arising or escalating. However, he cannot impose his will on states.

Convincing the President of the United States that political solutions are a better option than an indiscriminate use of force and idle threats it´s a phenomenal challenge. Convincing him that international affairs are a delicate matter seems like a lost battle. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel it´s a perfect example of Mr. Trump´s recklessness. It will only make negotiations more difficult and a two-state solution hardly achievable. It´s worth imagining what Mr. Guterres would have been able to do this year if he hadn’t had to keep an eye on the President of the United States. Fortunately, he has been able to establish a good working relationship with Mr. Trump. Unfortunately, the time invested in convincing him that he shouldn’t abandon the UN to its faith it was the time he could have spent in actively denouncing the populist wave in Europe, the rise of authoritarianism in countries like Turkey or Egypt and the attacks on civilians in Syria.

There´s a wrong assumption that the United Nations Secretary-General can change the course of history by himself. He is the symbol of the United Nations and a spokesman for the interests of the world´s people. But the real power lies elsewhere.

Mr. Guterres enshrines the moral authority of the United Nations. As such, he is expected to advocate for those who too often fail to make the headlines. But criticizing the limitation regarding the number of refugees allowed to enter Europe and the decision to establish a Muslim ban is not enough. Human rights activists and NGO´s have asked him to pay closer attention to the most vulnerable, and to denounce those who violate human rights with impunity. But the former High Commissioner for Refugees has also been praised for focusing on conflict prevention, peace and security. And opening the doors for an administrative reform that the organisation desperately needed. He also has taken important steps to address gender inequality and has been able to convince the United Nations General Assembly to agree on a reform of UN´s counterterrorism architecture. Mr. Guterres´s decision to establish a High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation was also welcomed: it will provide his office with advice and back specific mediation efforts.

Antonio Guterres addressing the European Parliament. European Union 2017 - European Parliament. All rights reserved.

It´s arguable that the UN Secretary-General could have done more during his first year in office. However, we should keep in mind that the current international waters are not easy to navigate. And that to be able to do so, Mr. Guterres must find the correct equilibrium between diplomacy and advocacy. The Secretary-General cannot antagonize member states, no matter how strongly he might feel about an issue. Mr. Trump decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Global Compact on Migration is certainly a setback for Mr. Guterres. But one that he must be able to turnaround for the benefit of the world´s people.

Mr. Guterres enshrines the moral authority of the United Nations. As such, he is expected to advocate for those who too often fail to make the headlines.

The crisis in Syria, the war in Yemen, rebuilding Afghanistan, reaching a peace agreement in South Sudan and addressing the human rights crisis in Myanmar involve dealing with internal and external actors, contradictory interests and different agendas. Finding solutions requires months of negotiations and diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, everyone wants magical solutions, but refuse to believe in magic.

Two thousand and seventeen was a difficult year. Two thousand and eighteen could be even worse if the situation in the Middle East and North Korea escalates. Still, we should trust Mr. Guterres. The Secretary-General of the United Nations knows that this is the world as it is. And as Saul Alinsky wrote, this is where you start. 

About the author

Manuel Serrano is a Portuguese journalist, social media manager and web content editor. He works as a Robert Schuman Journalism Trainee and Editor at the European Parliament and worked as a Junior Editor at DemocraciaAbierta (2015-2017). He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a Master´s degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI).

Manuel Serrano es periodista, analista político y editor. Trabaja actualmente como Robert Schuman Journalism Trainee y Editor en el Parlamento Europeo y trabajó como Editor Asistente en DemocraciaAbierta (2015-2017). Es licenciado en Derecho por la ESADE Law School y Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por el Instituto Barcelona de Estudios Internacionales (IBEI).

Manuel Serrano é jornalista, analista político e editor. Trabalha actualmente como Robert Schuman Journalism Trainee e Editor no Parlamento Europeu e trabalhou como Editor Júnior na DemocraciaAbierta (2015-2017). É licenciado em Direito pela ESADE Law School e completou o Mestrado em Relações Internacionais no Instituto Barcelona de Estudos Internacionais (IBEI).


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