When the United Nations’ first secretary-general, Trygve Lie of Norway, stepped down in 1952, he told his Swedish successor, Dag Hammarskjold: “You’re about to take over the most impossible job on Earth.” Now, more than ever in the United Nations’ 71-year history, this applies to the new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, who assumed office for a five-year term on January 1st.
Guterres’s agenda is already packed with high priorities — wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the world’s swelling refugee crisis. His previous post as UN high commissioner for human rights gave him plenty of experience to deal with the refugee crisis but to do that he first needs to bring the Syrian war to an end.
That will not be easy due to crippling deadlock in the UN Security Council with France and Britain lobbying for regime change in Damascus against the will of Russia and China. A recent breakthrough was made thanks to serious cooperation between Turkey and Russia, acting independently of the United Nations, that resulted in a ceasefire in late December.
For any deal to pass, however, it needs the support of the United States. US President-elect Donald Trump has been highly critical of the United Nations, unlike Barack Obama who had an excellent working relationship with former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon of South Korea.
Obama operated through the UN framework to tighten sanctions against Iran and North Korea and to legitimize the 2011 intervention in Libya, blocking attempts by the US Congress to restrict UN funding.
If Trump lives up to his campaign promises and turns a new page with the Kremlin, a détente will likely emerge at the Security Council, because everybody in the new US administration will likely be on the good side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Trump and his picks for Secretary of State — Rex Tillerson — and for UN ambassador — Nikki Haley.
Haley, twice elected governor of South Carolina but a newcomer to the United Nations, is expected to adopt a compromising attitude towards Russia in the world body, unlike her hawkish predecessor, Samantha Powers.
None of this bodes well for the United Nations, increasingly seen as ineffective in international diplomacy.
Trump has hinted he would reduce UN funding, saying: “We get nothing out of the United Nations. They don’t respect us. They don’t do what we want and yet we fund them disproportionately.”
If he puts his money where his mouth is, this could be devastating for Guterres, because the United States provides no less than 22% of the UN annual budget.
At first glance, a US-Russian honeymoon seems a prospect to be desired but if these two powers start getting along, their arrogant and flamboyant leaders might take unilateral action on global issues, without seeking approval — or even advice — from the United Nations.
This would jeopardise UN peacekeeping efforts, along with protections for civilians and human rights. A Trump-Putin alliance might dwarf and belittle the United Nations, rather than empower it.
Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, has inherited a paralysed Security Council and a world left in shambles by six years of fearsome violence in the Middle East. The United Nations has been effectively sidelined. Russian vetoes in the Security Council have impeded UN efforts towards a political solution and aid for Syria’s millions of displaced.
On Syria, a Russia-brokered conference — to which UN officials have not been invited — is to take place in Kazakhstan in mid-January. The Russians are discussing a replacement to the hapless UN-mandated Geneva process, which was launched in late 2015 only to be suspended in April after failing to make any progress towards ending the fighting in Syria.
Moscow is lobbying to replace UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, alleging that he has not only failed to make progress but has sided with the Syrian opposition.
If he is asked to step down, de Mistura would be the third UN envoy pushed aside since 2011 — after former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and the veteran Arab negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, two of the United Nations’ most accomplished diplomats — and would be yet more dust in the eyes for a global organisation, whose reputation has sunk precipitously, especially over the carnage in Syria.
Ban, who served two terms as secretary-general, has been widely blamed for much of the United Nations’ stasis. He assumed office just two days after the execution of Saddam Hussein on December 30th, 2006, an act that triggered a vicious sectarian war in Iraq, one that the United Nations failed to prevent or curtail after UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed, along with 22 of his staff, when their Baghdad hotel was bombed in August 2003.
The terrorists succeeded in scaring Ban away and limiting the United Nations’ role in Iraq, prompting the secretary-general to focus on other pressing issues on which he could better deliver, such as climate change, combating HIV/ AIDS, and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
At the start of his second term, the “Arab spring” erupted, taking the entire region down a path of uncontrollable violence that Ban was unable to stop — or even impede.
Whether Guterres will succeed in ending the Middle Eastern bloodbath remains to be seen but it will not be easy with Trump in the White House.
The Arab Weekly, 8 January 2017