A woman to lead the UN? If so, Angela Merkel

By Jonathan Power

April 26th 2016.

A woman for the next secretary-general of the United Nations? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are other criteria in play – there is an unwritten rule that the regions of the world should take it in turns to occupy the UN’s top job.

The east Europeans are saying it is their turn. Ironically, since eastern Europe is now part of western Europe, the EU, the would-be candidates are in effect appealing to Russia to vote for them, since only as geographically part of the old Soviet alliance can they be regarded as an entity separate from western Europe.

How about a South Asian? Now that would make sense, since there has never been a secretary-general from there before and the subcontinent contains 1.7 billion people. However, no-one has put themselves forward.

Or an Australasian? The former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, has cast her hat into the ring.

I would argue that it is time to forget gender or place of origin. It is character that should be the critical element by which the candidate is judged.

We need a leadership that knows how to transcend mankind’s divisions, to diminish our most primitive instincts and to enhance our nobler ones.

It must have the power of personality that inspires the best of us and takes us onward and beyond what we do now, so often unsatisfactorily and insufficiently, to what we could do if human energies were liberated from the confines of too simple and narrow a perspective.

We need to move much further than we have so far, beyond country, race, religion, culture, language and life-style to being part of what Martin Luther King called the beloved community. “We seek only”, he said, “to make possible a world where men can live as brothers”.

Leadership, we know, is an intangible quality that can only be described as it is observed. Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin have it today, but who else?

But we can describe some of the ingredients it will need at the UN if it is to have any chance of working in today’s world.

It must understand the need to preempt crises as well as the ability to persist with their resolution once they occur. It must believe that the application of force is the signature of defeat and that true peace comes from careful compromise where no-one is asked to abase themselves before their opponent – even if they are the leaders of Syria, North Korea or Sudan.

It must be inspirational and take us into the reaches of our best performance, even enabling us to move far beyond what we have achieved before. It must be practical and down to earth, sifting the essentials and concentrating on what really are the priorities of living. It must be moral, selfless and yet convinced of its own audacity. In the end it must be immensely courageous, for the problems it faces can appear at times quite daunting and near to overwhelming.

The need for the world community to find powerful leadership for the UN is of first importance. The UN is everyone’s kicking boy, but it’s interesting how in a crisis the big powers run to it.

When the big powers have talked or acted themselves into a corner they can, as a last resort, let the smaller powers at the UN find an exit for them.

Recall the Yom Kippur war in 1973 between Israel and Egypt, supported by other Arab nations. Eventually, the US and Russia agreed to impose a cease-fire on their acolytes. But there seemed no way of implementing it. The situation looked exceedingly dangerous. Egypt was calling for Soviet help. President Richard Nixon put US nuclear forces on alert. It was fast footwork at the UN, principally by a group of Third World countries, that helped break the impasse. They pushed for a UN force to go in and hold the ring. Unbelievably, by today’s slow moving standards, they were on the ground the next day.

The UN is easy to kick around but impossible to recreate. Would the US Senate ratify the Charter in 2016? Fortunately, under Obama, the US had done much to repair the frayed relationship that developed during the early years of the presidency of George W. Bush. (Interestingly, during his last two years in office, he found, like Ronald Reagan before him, that he shouldn’t kick it but work with it.)

To sum up: A new secretary-general has to win the trust of the big powers so they look up, not down, at him or her. Who can do this? Looking at the list of announced candidates I don’t think any of those from eastern Europe, male or female, are good enough. Helen Clark is not strong enough.

In my mind, Angela Merkel should be the one.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

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