Antonio Guterres became the next Secretary-General of the United Nations on Monday when relations between the US and Russia are probably at their grumpiest since the end of the Cold War, nationalist movements are on the rise around the world and amid what he called a loss of confidence in institutions, including the one he will take over in January.
Mr. Guterres inherits tough challenges: war, climate change, widening income inequality and unprecedented levels of global displacement which will test his ability to balance the demands of the world's most powerful countries with the needs of the world's most vulnerable people — starting, no doubt, with the wars in Syria and Yemen and the ongoing atrocities against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
An engineer by training, the former prime minster of Portugal earned a name as “a skilled negotiator,” who was credited with reaching over the aisle in getting things done. In 1974, he joined the protests that led to the overthrow of the authoritarian government. He helped found his country's Socialist Party and became its leader. But he added a red rose to the party's clenched-fist logo, in a bid to recast it as less aggressive.
Multilingual and articulate; and affable but steely, he is known as a skillful international operator; as the former head of UNHCR, he understands the inner workings of the vast and cumbersome UN bureaucracy. During his tenure, the refugee agency's budget grew significantly, though still short of what it needed to assist the record numbers of displaced people worldwide. To earn the trust of donors, he moved agency staff members around, slashing the head count at its headquarters in Geneva and adding more personnel in field offices.
Mr. Guterres “will take charge of an organisation close to political bankruptcy,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at Columbia University. The Syrian catastrophe, he said, marks “the worst institutional crisis the Security Council has seen since the Iraq war”. Yet the secretary-general is a persuader and fixer, not a global boss. He is “not a politician with an election victory under [his] belt but a civil servant with 193 stroppy masters,” said Lord Malloch-Brown, a former UK government minister who was the UN's deputy secretary-general in 2006.
As the new leader of UN, he will have to reinforce the UN's three main pillars: economic development, human rights, and peace. This last is the hardest and trickiest—case in point: Syria. However frail the UN may seem, it is still the global body with by far the widest reach and heaviest weight. With 100,000-plus blue-helmeted soldiers and police on a number of peacekeeping missions around the world, it is best equipped as a neutral authority for stopping wars.
His greatest challenge, however, will almost certainly lie in how he deals with the Trump administration. Even as he needs commitment from the United States, the single largest funder of the United Nations, he will be under pressure to call out US leaders if they defy the basic values of the UN Charter, including “respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity,” as he described them to the packed General Assembly hall on Monday.
“The threats to these values are most often based on fear,” he said. “Our duty to the people we serve is to work together to move from fear of each other to trust in each other. Trust in the values that bind us, and trust in the institutions that serve and protect us.”
Mr. Guterres has to find a way to ensure that the incoming US president does not cut US funding for the UN or undermine the institution as a solution to larger problems of the world. The third quandary is Syria, which Mr Guterres staked out as his top priority when he campaigned for the job. US President-elect Donald Trump has suggested he wants to join Russia in retreating IS from Syria, even if that means keeping Assad in power. If he does that, Mr. Guterres, a seasoned politician who has cast himself as a champion of human rights, will face the prospect of endorsing a leader who is widely accused of committing war crimes.
On Monday at the UN, he laid out his priorities while reassuring big powers that he has their interests at heart. He also said he would make the UN more “nimble” and “efficient” and promised “management reform,” another name for cost-cutting.
The UN chief will have no time to catch his breath.
The writer is a member of the Editorial Team.