A Bold Second-Term Agenda Is Still Guterres’ Best Bet

World Politics Review, 03.01.2022
Richard Gowan, director para la ONU del International Crisis Group

Antonio Guterres starts his second five-year term as United Nations secretary-general this week. He spent much of his first term navigating very difficult relations with the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump. He would like to spend the coming years overhauling the U.N. system to respond to challenges like climate change and inequality. Geopolitics may get in the way.

Diplomats in New York rate Guterres as an extremely intelligent but instinctively cautious politician. He has had good reasons for caution. In addition to dealing with the mercurial Trump, Guterres has had to accommodate an increasingly influential China in the U.N. system. He has so far managed to avoid offending either Washington or Beijing, the latter in part due to his general wariness of making strong statements on human rights issues, which he thinks often have no real impact. Western officials hope that he will be more outspoken on these issues in his new term.

Guterres has also been frustrated by the U.N.’s waning role as an international peacemaker. When he won office, he promised a “surge of diplomacy” to resolve conflicts, but he has found that many governments and rebel groups are unresponsive. Major power tensions have left the Security Council persistently divided during his tenure, reducing the secretary-general’s room to engage creatively in either long-running wars—like the one in Syria—or fresh conflicts, such as the Ethiopian crisis. Guterres has pleaded for the big powers to get along better, but he is known to think that regional bodies like the African Union will need to lead on peacemaking in future.

The secretary-general has instead looked for other areas where his leadership can make a greater difference. Like his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, he has invested heavily in climate change diplomacy and invited activist Greta Thunberg to address leaders at the General Assembly in 2019. He is said to like the fact that this is one multilateral topic that inspires genuine passion among young people. Guterres expressed disappointment at the limited outcomes of November’s U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, but promised to keep on fighting to limit global warming.

In the meantime, freed from the limitations of living with Trump, Guterres has sketched out a broader critique of what’s wrong with multilateralism. In a sweeping and—at least by U.N. standards—unusually well-written report titled “Our Common Agenda”  released in September, he outlined the global system’s failure to deal with challenges like natural disasters, poverty and violence. Humanity, he says, now faces a choice between “a breakdown or a breakthrough.”

To get to a “breakthrough,” the secretary-general believes that U.N. member states need to invest more in serving their citizens better at home and to cooperate more abroad. The report sets out numerous ideas on how to achieve that. Some, such as a proposal for a new raft of coordination mechanisms for leaders to use in future pandemics and other global catastrophes, draw on lessons from COVID-19. Others, like ideas for a Digital Compact on spreading the benefits of the internet, address gaps in the existing architecture for global governance. It is a bold to-do list, and parts of it—like naming a “special envoy for future generations” to help envisage the distant future—feel simultaneously utopian and bureaucratic. The report has rather less to say about issues that Guterres has found difficult to tackle so far, like conflict resolution.

While this may not seem like the best moment to try to revitalize multilateralism, Guterres has nothing to gain by waiting in the hope that conditions will improve.

Nonetheless, “Our Common Agenda” offers a useful framework for the next phase of his time in office, including convening a Summit for the Future in 2023 to agree on a package of reforms to the international system. Guterres will need to spend a good deal of this year and next year lobbying governments to take up some of his ideas. The timeline leading toward the summit will help focus minds, and he has promised to appoint senior international figures to add extra policy ideas to the process. But Guterres will face a challenging international scene.

His second term could well be overshadowed by a further deterioration in major power relations. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has improved the tone of diplomacy at the U.N. after the ructions of the Trump era, and it worked with China on climate change in Glasgow. But U.S. relations with both Russia and China at the U.N. remain fractious. Chinese and Russian officials seem skeptical about Our Common Agenda’s level of ambition, while Biden’s team does not seem inclined to invest in complex reforms to international institutions. Guterres’ efforts to bolster the U.N. may get frozen in the major power chill.

Guterres will also have to tend to more immediate humanitarian crises. In Afghanistan, U.N. agencies are now on the frontline in efforts to avert a massive humanitarian disaster as the economy collapses in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power last year. The secretary-general has said that it is a “fantasy” to imagine that the U.N. can solve Afghanistan’s problems alone, but he will need to devote time and political capital to coordinating efforts to address the country’s woes. A host of other conflicts, from Ethiopia to Myanmar, are also likely to weigh heavily on his agenda too.

Yet for all the obstacles ahead, Guterres should not shy away from challenging U.N. member states to address the flaws and gaps in the multilateral system. Time is running out for intergovernmental talks to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, if it has not run out already. As Guterres has repeatedly warned, the U.N. lacks the capacity to regulate emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that are set to reshape the global economy and interstate competition in the years ahead.

Politically, diplomats in New York worry that Trump could return to the White House in 2025 and start undermining the U.N. system again, possibly with a greater determination than he did in his first presidency. So while this may not seem like the best moment to try to revitalize multilateralism, Guterres and U.N. members have nothing to gain by waiting in the hope that conditions will improve. The secretary-general is a realist who knows that not everything he tabled in “Our Common Agenda” will come to fruition. But he still has time to reinforce the U.N. as best he can.

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