Who Should be the Next UN Leader? PART 7 FINAL

By Felix Dodds and Chris Spence 
first published by Inter Press Service here.

With current UN Secretary-General António Guterres set to step down in 2026, who is in the running to replace him? In this seven-part series, Felix Dodds and Chris Spence reveal who might be in the running and assess their chances.

APEX, North Carolina / DUBLIN, Ireland, Apr 23 2024 (IPS) - What makes an effective UN Secretary-General?

In our previous posts, we highlighted six possible candidates: Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Rebeca Grynspan (Costa Rica), Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), Alicia Bárcena (Mexico), Mia Mottley (Barbados), and Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria).

These are names that have come up in conversations with UN insiders and other experts. All six would offer skills and experiences we believe would be valuable in these fast-paced, uncertain times.

With two years to go until the selection process takes place, some might feel it is too early to start this conversation. We disagree. By raising the question of António Guterres’ successor sooner rather than later, we hope to place on record the qualities we believe are needed. Here are the key skills and attributes we hope the next Secretary-General will bring.

A Bridge Builder

First, we believe the UN will need someone who can bridge a fragmented and polarized international landscape. Political divides have become all too evident, not just in the tragedies playing out in Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and elsewhere, but in the wider geopolitical sense.

A multipolar world is emerging from the previous global order. Add to this the growth of political populism, the triple planetary threat of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, and rapid technological change—including AI—and we are without doubt in unprecedented times.

A future Secretary-General will need to find ways to bring the fractured international community back to the table in a meaningful way. In this respect, one of the first tests for any prospective candidate will also be one of the hardest: persuading all five permanent members of the UN Security Council not to veto their candidacy while at the same time presenting a compelling vision that the General Assembly will find inspiring enough to support.

In fact, some are already wondering how the “Big Five” countries on the UN Security Council will find common ground on whom to nominate as their next UN leader when tensions remain so high between Russia and China on the one hand, and the US, UK and France on the other?

One question the Security Council will need to resolve in 2026 is whether it wants more of a “Secretary” than a “General”? Our sense is that they may prefer the former—that is, someone who is more pliable and less strident in their approach.

However, we believe a leader who can move seamlessly between the two roles—letting others lead when needed but stepping up when the time is right—would ultimately be better for the world at large.

In this respect, we may get more clarity on the perspectives of UN member states in the months to come. This year, 64 countries and the European Union are holding elections. This means around 50% of the world’s population is heading to the ballot boxes.

By the end of 2024, with many new leaders elected—or old leaders re-elected—we will have a better idea of how difficult it is going to be to build consensus and trust, both within the Security Council and in the General Assembly.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

When António Guterres was appointed Secretary-General, many commentators voiced disappointment that the glass ceiling had still not been broken and a first female UN leader had not emerged. We agree. In 2026, the UN will be more than 80 years’ old. It is high time a woman was running the organization.

If our earlier posts show anything at all, it is that there is an abundance of talent waiting to unleashed. If the UN is ever to fully deliver on its vision as a force for global good, it needs to lead the way and shatter its own glass ceiling.

A Leader from the South

As we have already noted, some insiders expect the UN to revert to a rotation system where different regions each have a “turn” at holding the Secretary-Generalship. This system was interrupted last time around, when a Portuguese national was appointed when most expected an Eastern European.

This time, some are saying it is Latin America and the Caribbean’s turn. While we would welcome this, we do not think this should be an absolute rule. Instead, we would like to see the strongest candidate appointed from the widest possible pool.

What we do believe, though, is that a leader from the Global South would be appropriate this time around. With three-quarters of the world’s population living in the South and the last two UN leaders coming from the Global North (Portugal and South Korea), we believe the time is ripe for this change. With six billion people to choose from in the developing world, there is a wealth of talent to choose from.

Other Possible Candidates

While our posts have profiled six candidates we believe could do the job well, there are likely to be many other names arise in the conversation over the next two years. Below are shorter profiles on a few we have already come across.

Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgaria): An economist and current head of the International Monetary Fund, Georgieva has also served as Chief Executive at the World Bank and Vice-President of the European Commission. Those who believe the next Secretary-General should come from Eastern Europe would point to her reputation as a highly competent and effective administrator at the highest international level.

Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand): One of the world’s youngest heads of government when she was elected Prime Minister, Ardern served from 2017 to 2023. Her government was noteworthy for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which contained the virus more successfully than many other countries, with the result that relatively few lives were lost.

Ardern was also praised for her response to a terrorist attack early on in her tenure, which led to rapid reform of her country’s gun laws. Known for her focus on governing with compassion and with a focus on human wellbeing, Ardern left office in 2023.

Since then, she has taken on several projects with an international dimension, including fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School and Center for Public Leadership.

Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia): The former Colombian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner worked hard to end his country’s ongoing civil war. His “peace dividend” may appeal to those looking for a leader with a strong track record on peace and reconciliation. However, he would not be viewed as a change agent for those seeking to break the glass ceiling on women’s leadership (see above).

Achim Steiner (Brazil/Germany): The current head of UNDP can boast a long track record in the UN, the German government, non-profits and academia, although recent allegations of financial irregularities at UNDP may need to be resolved in order for his candidacy to gain traction.

Rafael Grossi (Argentina): The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and former Argentine diplomat has impressed many, although some wonder if his focus on nuclear issues and disarmament, which dates back more than two decades, may be too narrow in scope given the broad demands of the UN Secretary-General’s role?

Prof. Felix Dodds and Chris Spence have participated in United Nations conferences and negotiations since the 1990s. They co-edited Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022), which examines the roles of individuals in inspiring change.

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-1/ Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria).

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-2/  Mia Mottley (Barbados)

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-3/  Alicia Bárcena (Mexico)

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-4/ Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador)

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/lead-united-nationspart-5/ Rebeca Grynspan (Costa Rica)

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-6/ Michelle Bachelet (Chile)


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