On Jan. 1, António Guterres, a former Portuguese Prime Minister, became the 9th Secretary-General of the United Nations. He is tasked to prevent the world organization from fading away into irrelevance in the face of a new US administration likely to weaken the organization from inside out.
Guterres takes over the UN reins from Ban Ki-moon after leading the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015. During his years as refugee chief, the Portuguese built a reputation as an efficient manager able to respond to displacement crises in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and Sudan, many times simultaneously.
Guterres is all too aware of the internal challenges that weaken the UN. The obsolete post-World War II configuration of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the excessive bureaucracy that makes the UN sluggish in many areas and the gender imbalance in UN senior positions are some of the overarching issues the Portuguese will have to focus on.
Yet if Guterres is to really overhaul the United Nations, he will have to work particularly hard in the following three fronts:
In spite of the ceasefire brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran that the Security Council endorsed on New Year's Eve, the UN's failure to stop the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, along with its showdown during the siege of Aleppo, have laid open the dysfunctionality of the organization’s architecture to help restore peace in intrastate conflicts – other cases in point are Libya, South Sudan or Yemen.
When and if the incoming US President Trump materializes his enthusiasm to work with Russia on Syria, Guterres’ role will boil down to ensure that the UN plays a prominent role in monitoring the ceasefire on the ground and guaranteeing that the millions of Syrians in need of humanitarian aid receive appropriate and continued assistance.
The Trump administration
Arguably, the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the November US presidential election was nothing short of a blow for Guterres. Trump’s — as well as several UN-averse Republican senators’ — outrage over the recent UN resolution on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has laid bare the incoming US President’s disdain towards the world organization when it does not suit his geopolitical interests or world vision.
The fact that Trump has chosen Nikki Haley as the next US Representative to the UN, a US governor with no foreign policy experience, also points to the President-elect’s contempt for conducting foreign affairs through the United Nations.
The rise of Trump to the White House will come just after the international community (led by Ban Ki-moon, Guterres’ predecessor) agreed on the Paris Treaty, a global scheme to tackle climate change. If Trump translates to policy his climate-skeptic campaign rhetoric ("It is a Chinese hoax" was one of his electoral mantras) the United States could withdraw from this accord as soon as the new administration settles in Washington.
Even if the US, the world’s second biggest polluter, does not withdraw from the agreement, it could well ignore key commitments, including cuts in carbon emissions and billions of dollars in contributions to help poor countries deal with the damage caused by climate change.
And it does not end here. An America reluctant to act on global warming would encourage other countries to rethink their own climate pledges.
The United States is the UN’s largest funder providing about 22 percent of its regular budget. "The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!"Trump tweeted on Dec. 26.
As some key Republicans have suggested, the new US President will certainly use his enormous leverage to pressure Guterres to spearhead the UN into the deep reforms required to make it, in Trump’s eyes, a good money and diplomatic "investment" to the US, what would probably imply slimming down the organization.
The United States is also the biggest donor to UN aid programs. An inward-looking Trump administration could have a major impact on the financing of both the UN efforts on poverty reduction (like the Development Sustainable Goals) and on its relief assistance — the UN has recently launched its largest ever humanitarian appeal with $22.2 billion needed for 2017.
A flawed peacekeeping
UN Peacekeeping suffers from inefficiency and a tarnished reputation following accusations of sexual abuse in countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), the acrimony caused by the deadly 2014 cholera outbreak in Haiti brought by blue helmets, and the inability of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) to prevent civilian casualties during this summer’s outbreak of violence.
To regain the trust of the international community in UN peace operations, Guterres should encourage enhanced pre-deployment training for peacekeepers as he pushes for operations to be better equipped and mandated to enforce order in the face of violence.
Yet even if Guterres hits the ground running, he may face another Trump wall in this front given that the US contributes 28 percent of the UN Peacekeeping budget.
To secure the same level of financial support from Washington, the Portuguese will have to follow the advice given by Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General until last December: "You could make the case that [supporting UN] peacekeeping operations saves the US from being involved in a number of critical areas where they might have otherwise had to send troops.”
When it comes to tackle the big problems of our era, the UN Secretary-General is a powerful figure despite the fact his authority derives more from a moral, consensus-seeking drive rather than from an institutional muscle.
The UN chief cannot do away with the evils of today’s world, yet lots of hopes are placed in António Guterres to strengthen the UN’s ability to put the lives of hundreds of millions of people out of misery. As the saying goes, it is indeed the toughest job in the world.
Javier Delgado Rivera is a New York-based freelance journalist covering the United Nations. His articles have appeared in over twenty global media outlets including Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, openDemocracy and Middle East Eye. Javier also runs @TheUNTimes, a leading Twitter feed on UN affairs.