Guterres: A new post-Western UN Secretary-General By Álvaro de Vasconcelos Senior research associate
Atualizado: 25 de Out de 2019
The election of António Guterres as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations is good news for the international community. It is good news because of his clear vision of the complexities of the current international situation, and of its evolution towards a polycentric, post-Western world. The West, after all, is in decline as the confusion in America’s current foreign policy options demonstrates – and with the European Union, the confusion is even more acute. Yet, as Guterres has pointed out in a recent interview : ”Nothing can be done without the US, but the US cannot do anything alone”.
The new polycentric world
He is also acutely aware of the inequalities in the international system as it is constituted today. India, for example, with over one billion people, is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, neither are Brazil or Japan. Yet as major world economies rapidly approaching significant roles within the global economy, their lack of permanent membership of the world’s most important political forum weakens the idea that the UN Security Council should be the body to ensure world peace and stability. The problems of the world in this new polycentric environment need commitment not only from Europeans and Americans, but also from Russia, China and the other emerging global and regional actors.
In essence, for multilateralism to be effective it has to be inclusive. This is not properly appreciated in the West, where too many commentators think that the West can regain the dominance that it enjoyed during the unipolar moment of the immediate post-Cold War era. This is certainly what emerges from Donald Trump’s bombastic claims, and is a view that is also shared by many supporters of Hillary Clinton. They do not want the West to lose its hegemonic position in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF, where existing structures have not yet taken into account the changing power balance in the wider world.
The task ahead
António Guterres, however, is recognized for his world view that allows for the promotion of inclusive multilateralism. That was the reason why he had the support of all the permanent members of the Security Council when they considered the candidates put forward for the post of Secretary-General. Yet there is a gentle irony here in that António Guterres, who was previously prime minister of Portugal, a NATO member country, will need to be a post-Western Secretary-General in order to succeed.
He will also need to be the symbol of a global moral conscience in response to ongoing and future crimes against humanity committed by member-states, their leaders or by non-state actors. Indeed, during his campaign, Guterres criticised members of the UN Security Council for their inaction in Syria, criticisms that seemed to suggest that he had abandoned the idea of becoming Secretary-General. Yet, in the end, the exact opposite proved to be the case, as he laid down the moral markers by which he intends to be judged in his new post.
The United Nations now has a Secretary-General who can remind the UN Security Council, particularly its permanent members, of their responsibilities towards the wider world. Guterres can be a voice for common humanity, as was Kofi Annan in the wake of the Rwandan and Bosnian massacres in the 1990s. What the United Nations must be able to do, he argues, is to protect “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable”.
“Responsibility to Protect – R2P”
Ban Ki-moon made the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” – first introduced into the UN lexicon by his predecessor, Kofi Annan – into one of the major priorities of his mandate. He ensured, for example, that the UN Security Council adopted a resolution recognizing the need for Libyans to be protected from the forces of the Qadhafi regime. Unfortunately, he then saw all his efforts destroyed by the arrogant and disrespectful use of the resolution that had been passed as an excuse for a coalition led by Western states to brusquely remove the regime from power. As a result, R2P has not been applied in Syria, and Ban Ki-moon is forced to leave the United Nations just as it allows a new Rwanda-style crisis to occur.
Yet the situation today is incomparably more complex than it was during the 1994 Rwandan massacres, when a new multilateral international order first seemed possible. A serious rift between Russia and the US, as a result of Russian bombing in Aleppo, has created a diplomatic confrontation, leading to enormous tensions in the UN Security Council and the freezing of Syrian peace negotiations. According to Richard Gowan, a researcher at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and an expert on UN issues, today we are witnessing the largest UN crisis since the Iraq war in 2003. It means that “The U.N.’s next chief will take charge of an organization close to political bankruptcy.”
In this context, the task facing António Guterres will be anything but easy, especially given the urgency of a consensus to end the humanitarian tragedy in Syria and the need to restore the prestige, reputation and competence of UN peacekeeping operations, after the failures in South Sudan. The list of crises in need of diplomatic or humanitarian intervention, and even of the physical intervention of the United Nations’ ‘blue helmets’, is very long, stretching from Yemen to Libya, passing through Palestine, and reaching Afghanistan and Iraq, all crises in which the UN has hardly displayed high-capacity performance. For these, and other similar situations which will occur in the future, peace missions will need to be increasingly robust, as will certainly be the case in Syria when a peace deal eventually emerges.
The fact that António Guterres was unanimously appointed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and praised by the representatives of the United States and Russia, is a good omen. However, it will be in Syria that the success of UN action and its new Secretary-General will be determined. It could not be a more difficult challenge with which to begin his term of office so, as the English say, keep your fingers crossed for his eventual success!
 Richard Gowan, “Why the Next U.N. Secretary-General May End Up Regretting Winning the Job,” World Politics Review, Oct 3 2016, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/20081/why-the-next-u-n-secretary-general-may-end-up-regretting-winning-the-job