The next UN Secretary-General: administrator, figurehead, or leader?

Public interviews for the job of the next UN Secretary-General are continuing in New York. Female candidates are speaking of leadership, while male candidates speak more of administration and management.

Ourania S. Yancopoulos
21 June 2016

Sphere Within Sphere by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Comodoro.

On the same day that Hillary Clinton made history, becoming the first female presumptive nominee of a major U.S. political party, another electoral competition with the potential to deliver its first female winner remained undecided. On Tuesday,  7 June, two new candidates for next UN Secretary-General took to the world stage for the second round of public discussions and dialogues with the UN’s Member States and the world’s civil society. 

For the first time in the UN’s history, the global public is having the chance to hear about the individual agendas and visions of all nominees for next UN Secretary-General. Famously described by Trygve Lie, the organization’s first SG, as “the most difficult job in the world,” the role has grown impossibly complex and ever more scrutinized. The Economist recently referred to it as a “poisoned chalice.”

Candidates interviews are revealing when it comes to understanding what it means to fill the position of the “world’s top diplomat


Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, signed 26 June 1945, San Francisco, USA. Photo: UN

The UN Charter is frustratingly ambiguous on what the Secretary-General’s role really is.

Chapter XV specifies simply that “he” (for the Charter uses the language of 1945) should be the “chief administrative officer of the Organization,” and perform any other functions entrusted to “him” by the intergovernmental bodies of the United Nations, such as its Security Council, General Assembly, and so on. Additionally, the Secretary-General is responsible for all staff appointments of the Secretariat, and according to Article 99, “may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Thus, having very few guidelines on the exact details of the role, most of the SG’s duties are assigned by interpretation: each Secretary-General defines and adapts the role to respond to the political landscape of her time.

The Charter’s ambiguity in defining the exact role of UN Secretary-General, the unprecedented opening up of the current selection process and subsequent media coverage, and an atmosphere of global instability, have all led people to look to the United Nations, and its top leader, for, well, leadership.

However, this human desire to find solutions to contemporary global crises such as growing trends of forced human migration and global terrorism, in one individual, allows for a growing, popular misconception. In her public interview on June 7th, the latest next SG nominee, Argentina’s Susana Malcorra, addressed these outsized expectations, stating that the role of UN Secretary-General is not “President of the World.” Unlike a head of state, the UNSG is not a legislative leader, commander-in-chief, or chief of a party. In short, she does not have the power to direct change or push people around.

Member States, and in particular the most powerful among them, often profoundly constrain the SG and limit scope for decisive and innovative actions. But given the democratization of the current selection process, and the opportunities that have been created to allow the candidates to distinguish themselves from one another, the incoming Secretary-General may have more scope than ever before to define the role, and even to craft a mandate for courage and integrity. She or he will bring new interpretations, new meanings, and as we saw from the first round of interviews in April, new agendas and directions to the post of next UNSG.


Public dialogues with the Secretary General candidates, UN June 7th.

What the candidates are saying

In public discussions and interviews with UNSG candidates held between 12-14 April, and on 7 June, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, each of the eleven candidates was asked what the role of SG means to them, and what kind of SG she or he would be.

While it is difficult to read any concrete patterns in their statements, as evidenced in the responses, the candidates appear to be of three major camps: those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Charter and think the role of UN Secretary-General should be purely managerial, those who believe the SG should take on more responsibility as the face of the UN’s work, and those who demonstrate a commitment to more effective leadership, using deliberately stronger rhetoric.

 UNSG - chief administrative officer and manager

For Miroslav Lajcak of the Slovak Republic, the SG is a “chief administrative officer” whose main function is to delegate and appoint the right people to the right places: “People are moralized when they know their role, why they’re there, and what they are expected to do…They have to feel a part of the orchestra.” According to Lajcak it is the SG’s role to be an effective manager and to be this, Lacjak feels the next SG should have more flexibility: “The current role is very limited…I need more managerial flexibility to be the SG you want me to be. And it doesn’t require changing the Charter for this.”

Portugal’s Antonio Guterres agrees with this more progressive, but still managerial role. When asked what type of Secretary-General he would be, Guterres answered, “I won’t be a Secretary and I won’t be a General. I won’t be a Secretary, because a Secretary is a bureaucrat, and I don’t like bureaucracy. I will not be a General, because a General is in command, and I am not. I am not a C.E.O, but a C.A.O.”

For Slovenia’s Danilo Turk, this managerial focus allows the SG to be an “expert agenda-setter.” He said, “The synthesis of SG is a special kind of product. He is not one or the other, but a servant of the organization – a humble servant, capable of saying to bodies and organs what they need to hear and what they need to know.”

UNSG – the face of UN work

In addition to being an administrator, Croatia’s Vesna Pusić strongly believes that the SG needs to be a stronger leader: “Very often [the SG] is seen as the face of the organization and is responsible for the image that the organization has internationally.” Focusing on one central quality she said, “The Secretary-General has to care…without being mushy or over sentimental, [the SG] has to care about people.”

Claiming to be the “candidate for change,” Serbia’s Vuk Jeremic said the next SG must also be a “person with spine.” As next SG, he would work “hands on” with Member States and regional organizations, and remain in direct, consistent dialogue with the global media.

For Srgjan Kerim too, of Macedonia, the SG is the face of the United Nations: “The next SG,” he said, “Needs to be more visible and demonstrate leadership in terms of engaging in mediation.” Montenegro’s Igor Lukšić, expanded on this interpretation of the role saying that the post is about “being an honest broker.” He promised to be “engaged, but not very noisy.” Emphasizing the role of communication he said: “I would remain in constant consultation with all groups so all feel responsibility for – and ownership in – our world and our world organization.”

Article 99 – UNSG as advocate and leader

For Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova the next SG must have “the highest standards, integrity, and compassion” to “shape the organization and assist in the guarantee of Human Rights and dignity for all.” Moldova’s Natalia Gherman hopes that these traits, as well as the SG’s leadership, will have a “trickle down effect.” The SG should, “lead by proper example and be transparent.” As next SG she would implement a zero tolerance policy on mismanagement, fraud, abuse, corruption, and unethical behavior. She said the SG “should be the point person” and should “promote an organization of the UN that values innovation and remains open to reform.”

For Argentina’s Susana Malcorra, while the Secretary-General is not the “President of the World,” she is everything else. She is instead expected to be everything from “visionary statesman” to the organization’s “early-warner,” from advocate to bridge-builder. Overall, the SG is a “leader…coordinator, and…manager who tells the organization what is working and what is not.”

New Zealand’s Helen Clark sees the SG’s leadership as even more progressive. She sees the SG “as leading the whole organization, its funds and agencies” and wants to see the next SG be the “champion” of the organization’s “great strengths,” and to support efforts and works of Member States “where it matters most.” For Clark, “The role is about soft power: the power to advocate, to convene, to uphold the Charter, treaties, and conventions. [It is] especially the upholding of rights of the marginalized and the voiceless and being a voice for them.”

Moving forward, candidates may choose to refine their arguments on this position. It may be valuable to watch the gender difference in the rhetoric used by the candidates in describing the role and expectations for next SG. On the whole it seems that the women candidates are pushing for stronger leadership, under the auspices of Article 99, while the men are pushing for a more visible, but still purely administrative and managerial Secretary-General.

Corridor discussions at the United Nations indicate that there will be a third round of interviews with more SG nominees. Possible names include Australia’s Kevin Rudd and Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva. President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, is committed to ensuring each official nominee has a two-hour interview with all Member States, and these are expected to take place in mid-July.

Today’s problems may be harder to solve than anything the UN was built to address. And the interviews and public discussions  with UNSG candidates have revealed a shared thirst for a renewal of the UN’s capacity to deliver. Adaptation to make the UN “fit for purpose” in today’s political landscape will have to start with the vision and determination of its next leader – the next Secretary-General.

Perhaps, the role of Secretary-General could be described as an effective captain of a sports team – she may not be the most valuable player, the most talented player, or the person who calls the shots – but she is the person who can inspire, motivate, and coordinate her teammates best.

In order for the UN to be the UN – the guardian and champion of peace and security, human rights, and development – so too must be its leader.  Helen Clark, in her public interview on April 14th, said: “Around our world so many people look to us [the UN] with hope and expectations that we will strive to overcome conflict, reduce inequality, and build a better, fairer, and safer world.”

This is the time for a real leader to be chosen as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.

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