By coincidence, the UN and the USA came to ‘elect’ their respective leaders, Antonio Guterres and Donald Trump, at the same time. In both cases, there was not much of an election if the term is meant to designate the selection of a political person through the means of fair competition and general elections in which the will of all the people is properly translated into votes. In the USA, many voters, especially African Americans and from minorities, were disenfranchised on more than hollow grounds before the elections with the effect of low voter turnout in poor areas, and the popular vote was, to say the least, in blatant contradiction to the electoral college vote. The problem with the popular vs. electoral college vote is not so much that there are two electoral mechanisms, for this is, actually, quite common in many democracies; the problem is that these two institutions are not linked to each other or even coordinated in any way. The electoral college vote does not reflect the demographics of present-day USA and its demographic bias reduces particularly the vote of African Americans, and there is no obligation whatsoever for Great Electors to take the popular vote into account. Additionally, the election took place in a highly loaded atmosphere with incessant threats of violence from the Trump side, and a continuous flow of fake news, propaganda and extremely aggressive trolling. The US elections did not only reflect the deep divisions running through the country but also the fragility of institutions that rely heavily on unwritten norms of civility, respect and dialogue.
Compared to the spectacle of the US elections, Antonio Guterres’ appointment as Secretary-General of the United Nations appeared as a rather civilized yet highly staged, hypocritical and fundamentally undemocratic process. But then, the UN does not pretend to be the oldest modern democracy. It actually not even pretends to be democratic, at least not in the modern sense of the word. The Secretary-General is chosen by a mixture of backroom bargaining and ballot by the Security Council members. It effectively represents the smallest common denominator of the preferences of the five permanent members of the Council because preferences, choices and rankings of all selectors will never match up, and it is mathematically impossible that any candidate would ever get a clear majority (especially not if there are more candidates than selectors; this is called the Condorcet voting paradox and is also behind the IOC’s absurd choices of Olympic cities).
The Secretary-General is also not the leader of a world government despite conspiracy theories that claim the contrary. The Secretary General of the United Nations is the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the UN yet with large leeway for advocacy and the potential of an important diplomatic role in the world. Whether the Secretary-General really takes up this later role, for instance by independently bringing matters of world peace onto the agenda of the Security Council, depends entirely on his stature. Secretary-Generals like Dag Hammarskjöld, Xavier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali or Kofi Annan interpreted their role largely and widely and engaged in numerous initiatives to bolster the role of the UN as peacemaker in the world; others like U Thant, Kurt Waldheim or Ban Ki-Moon made the UN almost entirely disappear from the world political scene.
It remains to be seen in whose footsteps Guterres will step, Moon’s or Annan’s.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that the Trump administration will prepare an extremely rocky road for him. Even though Mr. Trump’s foreign policy plans remain highly obscure, erratic, nervous and, let’s say, spontaneous in a Doberman kind of way, his bigotry, racism and utter ignorance of the world does not augur well. Barbara Crossett even asks whether the UN will survive Trump at all. In the past couple of weeks, Trump’s stumbling onto the world political stage has given plenty of reasons to worry, indeed: First of all, it is good Republican tradition to bash the UN and to blame it for everything from the landing of aliens to the hole in the doughnut. Second, the person nominated to be US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley currently governor of South Carolina, has as much experience of diplomatic service, foreign policy and global governance, as a toad of riding a bicycle. Third, the little that Mr. Trump has said about global governance and international institutions is that he doesn’t like ‘em; he also has neither in practice nor in words shown that he likes any of the ideas at the foundation of the United Nations: peace, human dignity, or respect. He has also, fourth, shown in very short time an impressively high degree of incompetence and ignorance in foreign policy matters. Fifth, he is surrounded by an exceptional selection of political debutants, military hawks, fascists, conspirationists and loonies. Sixth, he has an endless trail of stories about him breaching contracts, thwarting laws, coning, and deception. Finally, the only thing that has up to now transpired as consistent thread of his political rummaging is his interest in self-enrichment; he seems to see himself as the lead part in a new reality TV show ‘The Kleptocrats’.
On paper, Guterres should be well prepared to deal with tiny fingers’ manipulations. Guteress was born and grew up under Portugal’s fascist ‘New State’ of General Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar’s regime was not very dissimilar to Trump’s, and even more Mark Pence’s visions for America: authoritarian, military, religious to the point of obscurantism, misogynist, racist (Portugal was the last European country to decolonize) and enriching a handful of families while the rest of the population had to emigrate massively to escape economic hardship. Guterres did not engage in resistance to the regime before 1974, yet he quickly became an active supporter of the revolutionary changes of ‘Carnation Revolution’ when Portuguese students and workers, and eventually soldiers, joined forces to overthrow the authoritarian regime of Salazar’s successor, Marcello Caetano. He moved on to become first the president of the Socialist Party of Portugal (which had been prohibited and prosecuted under the New State regime) and then, in 1995, Socialist Prime Minister. There is good reason to hope that Guterres knows the ropes and tricks of fascists and will not give in to the tendency to normalize Trump.
Since the start of his political career, Guterres furthermore has been deeply involved in and committed to transnational politics: as president of the Socialist party he had already sought dialogue with numerous civil society actors, he was part of Portugal’s negotiation team for adhesion to the then European Communities and has ever since been a fervent supporter of the European integration process, and he has been president of the Socialist International. Guterres has also always been highly committed to civil and human rights. He was founding member the Portuguese Refugee Council and despite being privately a stout Catholic who ‘feels uncomfortable’ about homosexuality he legalized same-sex marriage in his times as Prime Minister. He has also sharply criticised Ban Ki-Moon’s (non)handling of sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
Yet, Guterres takes over a United Nations Organization that is in shatters. The fall of Aleppo and its live broadcasted humanitarian disaster, the resurgence of civil war in South Sudan, the deep divisions of the UN Security Council members and the scandals over sexual abuse by peacekeepers or their role in spreading cholera in Haiti are just the most blatant failures of the UN to be an effective and trustworthy force of peace in the world. Ironically, today’s peace building failures are in no small part due to Kofi Annan’s high-flying ambitions of expanding and institutionalizing the UN’s role through the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Instead of advancing humanity (and democracy) in international affairs, RtoP has given a shimmer of legality to the cynic hypocrisy of international law and great power interventionism by cladding it in lofty words. The gap between the UN’s rhetoric and actual capabilities has rarely been so huge, and not because UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding would not have grown in enormous proportions. Not only has the RtoP formulated unattainable goals (which is anyway a very common thing to do for international organizations), it has most cynically formulated a doctrine of intervention that is so malleable, fuzzy and undeveloped that it has allowed wrapping the most arbitrary acts of international aggression, from Georgia to Libya, into the glittery paper of the Summit Outcome Declaration of 2005.
Underneath these enormous political crises, the UN also suffers at its core from bureaucratic ossification and arthrosis that has only become worse in Ban Ki-Moon’s times. While the UN system has ever more expanded and woven itself into the tissue of transnational politics through its wide-ranging web of agencies, institutions, partners and forums, the diplomatic core of the UN at New York with its General Assembly, Security Council and Secretariat has developed into an almost parallel world whose inhabitants seek to hide from the world. Decision-making is as opaque as the selection process of the Secretary General, and it is a world that is still governed by highly outdated ideas of white, male, and ‘frequent flyer’ cosmopolitan diplomacy.
In this respect, Trump’s administration and the massive smear attacks that will most certainly be directed at the UN are an opportunity for Guterres to break up the cultures of secrecy and bureaucratic obscurantism that have characterized the New York Headquarters to this day. As all opponents of Mr. Trump, the UN and Guterres will soon become the target of spiteful trolling campaigns. US administrations have already before used public smear campaigns against UN Secretary-Generals they didn’t like (e.g. Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright against Boutros-Ghali) but the scale of viciousness and conspirationist slander that Guterres will see, will be ‘unpresidented’. If the UN should have since long invested far more in creating more transparency and public presence, such will now become a challenge of survival for the organization (it could start for example by crowding out the huge number of youtube conspiracy idiots with attractive, funny and informative videos; think John Green’s Crash Course).
As the Reagan and Bush administrations, Trump will also most certainly stall the US’s fees and contributions to the UN. At the moment, the US contributes over 20% to the functioning of the UN and peacekeeping, largely in front of China (and Russia which does not even show up in the list of top ten contributors). Although this will in the immediate future lead to a budgetary crisis of the UN, it also offers the opportunity to rebuild some of the power weighting in the organization. China and EU countries in particular will have an interest in stoking up their contributions in order to secure the backdoor of international politics (always assuming that France and Germany manage to contain the extreme right-wing parties in their countries). ‘More money, more say’ from these countries may also finally allow opening another round of discussions of reforming the UN Security Council. Of course, there will not be much coming of such a discussion in terms of a concrete reform but the debate will allow reintegrating social forces and ideas into global governance which have been discarded and alienated in the past nine years.
Furthermore, the UN can play an important role as resonance body for democratic social movements in the US. It has always been assumed to go without saying that the contemporary international system depends heavily on American democracy (for the better or the worse). Now might be the time to make the inverse come true: that American democracy depends on the good functioning of the international system.
Lastly, and this might go hand in hand with integrating more American civil society (as contrary to American military and establishment), Guterres definitively needs to open the UN to a more diverse, larger and alternatively thinking work force than the dominant liberal, Western-educated, middle class man. Promoting gender equality as he pledged to do will not be enough though, especially if ‘gender’ basically means the same ‘civil servant’ type of UN worker, but in pink. In order to become closer to the people the UN is working with on the ground, it has to fundamentally rethink the way it recruits, works and communicates.
A tall, tall order. And so, it can also, of course, all go terribly wrong with the UN ending as the League of Nations.