EU indecision on UN Secretary General choice plays to Russia’s advantage

The race to replace Ban Ki-moon as United Nations Secretary-General in 2017 is an awful muddle, yet it may still culminate in victory for a well-qualified European.  The current frontrunner is former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, but European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva seems poised to make a last-minute entry into the race later this month.

Both would be credible winners.  But the contest has cast a harsh light on the EU’s lack of diplomatic cohesion.  The choice of Secretary-General is no trivial matter for Europeans.  From Mali to Syria, UN peacekeepers, mediators and aid officials are struggling to manage conflicts and refugee flows on the EU’s southern flank. But while the Security Council is supposed to start a decisive round of polls to home in on the final choice for the next Secretary-General in early October, EU members remain divided over whom to support.

This is playing to the advantage of Russia which, like the other permanent members of the Security Council, holds the power to veto any candidate.  Moscow has demonstrated an impressive capacity to manipulate UN rules to get its way over the Syrian crisis since 2011, as I noted in an ECFR paper last year, and it is playing a similarly sharp game over the Secretary-Generalship.  The race may climax with President Vladimir Putin making the final choice between Guterres and Georgieva — or blocking both and forcing the Security Council to hunt for a compromise candidate.

This situation arises from two quirks of UN tradition.  One is a convention that the post of Secretary-General rotates between different regions.  The second is that “Eastern Europe”, an area consisting of former members of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, is still treated as a distinct region in UN diplomacy a quarter century after the end of the Cold War.  No Eastern European has ever been Secretary-General.  As the end of Ban’s tenure came into view, a host of politicians and diplomats from the region floated their candidacies, making it difficult for a single European champion to emerge early on.

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(Photo: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)



Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at ECFR, concentrating on United Nations affairs. He is based at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, where he works on peacekeeping and multilateral security institutions. He is the associate director of the center’s Managing Global Order programme. Before joining New York University in 2005, he worked as Europe Programme Officer at the Foreign Policy Centre in London. Between 2005 and 2006, he coordinated the development of the first Annual Review of Global Peace Operations, the most comprehensive public domain source of data and analysis on the subject of peace operations. He has acted as a consultant to the UN Secretariat and the UK Department for International Development, he writes frequently for E!Sharp, The Globalist, and other international affairs magazines, and he has broadcast widely on channels such as CNN and BBC.