However, in one respect, the identity of the next Secretary General (SG) is more important than that of the American President: in an era where alliances are fluid and partnerships are formed and dissolved on an almost daily basis, the UN will either move to center stage or will be completely sidelined.
The first clue about the future direction of the organization will be the identity of the next SG.
There are several traditions that govern the selection of the SG.
First, none of the permanent member states, the so-called P5, i.e., the US, UK, France, China and Russia can field a candidate. This is not an official rule, just a gentleman's agreement.
Secondly, the P5 generally prefer someone from a smaller country. Between Brazil and Burma, they always opt for the latter. That is partly due to the fact that they do not want an SG with the clout of a regional power behind him.
Thirdly, the Security Council tends to avoid ex-Presidents or Prime Ministers. Again, partly because they do not want a strong personality with a solid political constituency at home. If you look at the eight previous Secretaries, there is not a single Prime Minister or President among them.
The fourth informal rule is some type of geographical rotation. Members of the UN are divided into five regional groups. They are:
So far, there have been 3 SGs from the WEOG, 2 from the Asia Pacific group, 2 from Africa group (one being Boutros-Ghali, who belonged to the Arab sub-group) and one from GRULAC.
- the African Group, with 54 member states
- the Asia-Pacific Group, with 53 member states
- the Eastern European Group, with 23 member states
- the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), with 33 member states
- the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), with 28 member states, plus 1 member state as observer.
As you can see, there has never been an SG from the Eastern European group. And of course, no woman has ever served as SG. Consequently, early speculations were directed towards women candidate from Eastern Europe.
But geographical rotation is not an iron-clad rule (otherwise, 3 out of 8 SGs would not have come from WEOG) and it was and will be put aside whenever the P5 feel like it.
There are eight declared candidates.
Top row (from left):
- Irina Bokova, 63 - Bulgarian politician and director general of Unesco
- Helen Clark, 66 - former prime minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) and current head of the UN development programme
- Natalia Gherman, 47 - Moldovan politician who was deputy prime minister and minister of European integration from 2013-2016
- Vesna Pusic, 62 - Leader of the liberal Croatian People's Party. Served as a first deputy prime minister and minister of foreign and European affairs until January this year
- Antonio Guterres, 66 - Former prime minister of Portugal (1995-2002) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015)
- Srgjan Kerim, 67 - Macedonian economist and diplomat. Served as Macedonia's foreign minister from 2000-2001 and was president of the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly from 2007-2008
- Danilo Turk, 64 - Former president of Slovenia (2007-2012). Served as an ambassador to the UN from 1992-2000 and as the UN assistant secretary general for political affairs from 2000-2005
- Igor Luksic, 39 - Former prime minister of Montenegro (2010-2012) and current minister of foreign affairs
Starting from that end of the list, in the last year or so there were rumors about Merkel being the perfect candidate and in recent weeks, these speculations intensified quite a bit.
But I can categorically rule her out by using my own list.
Germany is practically a member of the P5 since 2006, as the permanent members wanted to include Germany in their dealing with Iran (the moniker is P5+1). A German SG would go against the spirit of the P5 gentleman's agreement.
Secondly, Germany is a world power and certainly more important than two or three current members of the P5, depending on how you count. No P5 state would want to see the leader of such a powerful nation at the helm of the UN. At least one of them would veto Merkel.
Then there is the principle of choosing someone not quite as high as a Chancellor but rather stick with a former minister or a senior diplomat.
Finally, regardless of the fact that Merkel was born in East Germany, from a geographical rotation perspective, Germany is still part of WEOG. A German SG would mean the 4th SG for that group.
I can also add that Merkel would probably see this as a demotion for herself and never apply for it in a million years.
And to finish off, I doubt that she has the diplomatic skills and patience needed for the job.
Kevin Rudd, check list: important regional power, former PM and wrong geographical membership. And probably zero push from his own country.
If you look at the official male candidates, three of them are ex-Presidents and PM and one is from the wrong group.
And of course, they are not women. As Justin Trudeau said, it is 2016.
For the women candidates, let's go through the list.
Vesna Pusic is a Croat. Croatia has a tainted history with other Eastern European states due to their Ustashe regime, which was a bloody mixture of Roman Catholicism, fascism and Croation ultra-nationalism and they were responsible for the murder of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anybody they didn't like, including fellow Croats.
I don't see a Croat representing Eastern Europe.
Moldovan Natalia Gherman may fit the bill in all respects except for her country's turbulent relations with Russia. As it was part of the Soviet Empire (wedged between Russia and Ukraine) Russia is not happy with its efforts to move closer to the West. A Moldovan as SG of UN would mean a green light to Moldova'a membership to the EU.
Unlikely to succeed and very probably to be vetoed if she climbs up after the first round.
Helen Clark has two problems: one is being a former PM (three-term) and two, belonging to the wrong group. Besides these negatives, she has a fearsome reputation as a dogged and stubborn politician and as such, she might not be ideally suited to facilitate dialogue and diplomacy. Her resume is that of a doer and go-getter.
In fact I can say this: if the P5 powers want someone who will turn the UN into a powerful presence that can vigorously push its principles, she would make a great Secretary General.
The problem is that I doubt that the P5 want a strong UN.
That brings us to Irina Bokova. If you go through my list, she ticks every box.
Most importantly, her tenure at UNESCO was marked by her willingness to listen to member states and to act like their emissary. Upon their urging, she reformed the organization and turned it into a much smaller entity.
If the P5 is interested in a weaker UN that is willing to work for them (rather than standing up to them) then she is clearly the best candidate from any regional group, regardless of gender.
I should also add that she is dialogue-oriented and highly diplomatic and self-effacing. And she is the only candidate who speaks fluently four of the six official UN languages. (English, French, Russian and Spanish)
Apparently, China, Russia and France look warmly on her candidacy and the US and the UK are said to be on the sideline. If you ask me too much has been made of her decision to allow the Palestinian vote (which granted them UNESCO membership) and the American opposition to it.
If you are one of my long time readers you might remember that, at the time, I maintained that the US was aware of the UNESCO membership bid and they encouraged it behind closed doors as a way to further their own plans for the region. So, I am not convinced by the idea that the US might be opposed to her candidacy for that reason.
Consequently, if, as I believe, the P5 is interested in keeping UN as a docile organization that will not make life difficult for them, Irina Bokova has a better shot at this than the rest.
But there are still many things that can go wrong between now and September, such as the resurgence of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine.
In any case, if Mrs. Bokova is selected, you will know what the P5 are thinking about the future direction of the UN.
To bolster my checklist:
Brian Urquhart, one of the first U.N. employees ever hired, wrote in his memoir, “A Life in Peace and War,” that the secretive selection process resulted in “a candidate who will not exert any troubling degree of leadership, commitment, originality, or independence.” John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in his own memoir that his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, confided to him that the U.S. preferred a weak U.N. leader. “I am not sure we want a strong secretary-general,” he recounted of her private comments.