”WELCOME to the most impossible job on this earth,” the first United Nations secretary-general, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, said as he handed over to his successor in 1953. His post as the world’s top diplomat had been bedevilled by constant tensions between its two biggest members, the Americans and the Russians, as the Cold War reached its chilly nadir.
Things must look eerily reminiscent to the UN’s ninth secretary-general, António Guterres, who was elected last week just as relations between Washington and Moscow are steadily deteriorating once again. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has accused Russia of trying to manipulate the US election by hacking the emails of leading Democrats. President Putin has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, the part of Russia that was the most heavily militarised in the Soviet era. And then there is the Russian bombing of Aleppo. In response to Washington’s impotent condemnation, the Russians accuse the US of hypocrisy for backing Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen.
The optimists among us will hope that Mr Guterres is the best of the 13 candidates for the top UN job to deal with all this. As a former Prime Minister of Portugal, he should have more authority than previous secretaries-general, who came to the post from more junior ministerial or diplomatic positions. The big powers tended to prefer it that way; they wanted a secretary rather than a general, to quote the old diplomat gag.
Mr Guterres has already shown considerable diplomatic ability simply in getting elected. Both the Russians and the Americans did not want him in the job. But this was the first time that the position was not appointed by backroom dealing among great-power members of the Security Council. Instead, Mr Guterres was elected after a hustings before the entire UN membership. There he outlined the main challenges facing the world as rising inequality, terrorism and organised crime, climate change, and an increasing global militarisation.
Mr Guterres has a reputation as a consensus-builder. As the Portuguese PM, he managed to keep a minority government in office for a full four-year term, with a party that was four seats short of a majority.
The new secretary-general is also a devout Roman Catholic. Conservative Christian commentators note his “anti-abortion” voting record in Portugal. But what seems more significant is his background in Catholic social action: in his youth, he worked in shanty towns in Lisbon. Some years ago, he turned down the job of leading the European Commission, and became UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a post he held for a decade. There he cut its bureaucracy by a third, sent more staff into the field, and held an early private meeting with Pope Francis in defence of refugees and migrants.
Describing his new job, Mr Guterres says that it requires of him “acting with humility, without arrogance, without giving lessons to anybody, but working as a convener, as a facilitator, as a catalyst, and behaving like an honest broker, a bridge-builder, and a messenger for peace”. He surely has the good will of all of us for the attempt.