New UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is the perfect compromise candidate, who won’t upset the status quo for any of the great powers – including Russia.

Antonio Guterres is a figure that satisfies everyone’s interests. Photo: EPA/Fernando Bizerra Jr.

After months of discussion, Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister and the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has been selected as the new Secretary General of the United Nations. In many ways, he is a safe, compromise figure that satisfies the interests of all stakeholders.

It is well known that the figure of the UN Secretary General doesn’t play a significant role in today’s global politics. Even within the United Nations, he is just a figurehead, with all power in the hands of the UN Security Council and, specifically, its permanent members.     

However, as any other leader of a global organization, the new head of the UN has an opportunity to become a real power player. By acting within his authority and honoring prior commitments, he could still launch new initiatives and win the sympathies of more stakeholders. This could be enough to boost the heft of his figure within the organization.  

Yet, does Guterres really have any chance to leave his mark on the history of the UN as a reformist Secretary General, who implemented the UN Security Council’s long-nurtured plans? On the other hand, could he create new mechanisms to prevent and resolve international conflicts? Could he be the author of new breakthrough initiatives of how to deal with global challenges?

One always wants to hope for the best, but has to be ready for the worst, taking into account the current international reality. Both the characteristics of Guterres and the environment that preceded his election indicate that the new Secretary General is hardly likely to be able to make any breakthroughs and turn the UN into a prominent international decision-maker. Here are several reasons for such pessimism.

1. The UN in its current state is a relic of the past era

The UN as an organization was created in 1945 to be one of the institutional cornerstones of the so-called Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations [In accordance with such a system, two superpowers — the U.S. and the Soviet Union — were the dominant geopolitical players. — Editor’s note]. However, the UN failed to fulfill the tasks, which it should have implemented in accordance with the plans of its founders, who sought to turn the UN into a sort of international police force or a global government.

During the Cold War, the UN became one of the tools of maintaining the bipolar balance, but after the end of the Cold War, it could not become even an international cop. It just became a kind of janitor, who swept the rubbish out the corners of the planet — the rubbish that resulted from numerous local conflicts and wars. 

With a budget of $10 billion, however, this universal organization did become a conspicuous presence among the poor countries of the world, where the UN humanitarian projects did matter and contributed to alleviating their sufferings.

Regarding the UN Security Council, instead of being a platform for resolving conflicts, it has turned into an arena for rhetorical battles between its members. Far from alleviating tensions, it fuels them to a great deal. If the key stakeholders fail to come up with a reform of the UN Security Council, Guterres won’t be a game-changer at all.

Also read: "How does Russia view the next UN Secretary General?"

2. Guterres is working during a period of severe international crisis

After the Cold War, international tensions significantly decreased, which created a favorable environment for the UN to expend its activity. The great powers didn’t pay much attention to the events that took place in the remote regions of the world and rhetorically shied away from the concept of global influence and military rivalry.

However, currently, this situation is once again changing and returning to the confrontational model. UN officers, who try to balance between different stakeholders, are seen only as obstacles by conflicting sides. While the humanitarian projects could be relevant in such a situation, UN peacemaking initiatives are hardly likely to be in demand.

If great powers compete for spheres of influence in the world and divide other stakeholders into their allies or opponents, who will allow the UN to balance between the competing interests of those at the helm? 

3. Guterres is a figure that satisfies everyone’s interests, but is not a leader

Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Russian and American UN representatives Vitaly Churkin and Samantha Power have for the first time seen eye-to-eye when they approved the appointment of Guterres to the position of UN Secretary General.

However, it hardly happened because Moscow and Washington identified him as a strong and independent leader, who could be a mediator between them and launch a series of reforms. On the country, the Portuguese candidate is seen as a figure that satisfies the interests of all stakeholders, someone who will not be a troublemaker for both Moscow and Washington while fulfilling his technical commitments, including the implementation of the UN humanitarian aid projects for refugees.         

Remarkably, until recently, Russia and the U.S. had obviously supported different candidates. While Russia placed its support behind Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova, a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), the U.S. supported the candidacy of Helen Clark, the prime minister of New Zealand. After all, politicians and UN officials were seeking to appoint a woman to the position of the UN Secretary General, but with the increasing U.S.-Russia confrontation, the penchant for political experiments faded away.

In fact, Guterres meets three criteria: He is not politically affiliated, he is moderate and he is effective. Although he represents a country (Portugal) that is a NATO member, he prefers to be reticent about expressing his likes and dislikes toward global leaders. His calm, non-charismatic style was salient in 1999-2005, when he was the president of the Socialist International, a worldwide association of political parties, most of which seek to establish democratic socialism. When he headed the UN High Commission for Refugees, he proved to be a very effective manager, who was able to streamline the UN bureaucracy in the necessary direction.        

All these characteristics are good for the image of Guterres. Probably, the great powers have finally found an excellent candidate for the position of the UN Secretary General. However, the problem is that he might be an excellent head of a very weak organization and, thus, extend its agony for another 10 years. And this is what Russia does need now: After all, Moscow values it membership in the UN Security Council and seeks to save the status quo in the UN for as long as possible.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.