Locking In Obama's Global Leadership Legacy

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the third night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvani
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the third night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

It is the rarest of celestial conjunctions in earthly politics. Within the same ten-day period, under a blazing spotlight, the choices for leadership of the most influential country on the planet have been officially winnowed to two. Simultaneously the choices for leadership of the one global institution that purports to speak collectively for the planet have been winnowed in an unofficial vote in a back room in New York.

What makes the conjunction so rare is that, for the first time, both leadership posts are being vacated at the same time--and a departing American administration is deeply engaged in choosing the next United Nations secretary-general with whom the next United States president will have to work for at least the next four years.

Never before has a U.S. president foisted on his successor a U.N. secretary-general with whom he himself would not have to work. And while you wouldn't know it from the NATO focus of the parties' convention rhetoric and platforms, the United Nations is surely the most consequential international organization, with the greatest impact on the largest number of people, on the planet.

By all accounts, Barack Obama wants to bequeath to his successor a new secretary-general strong enough to stand up to any rogue national leader. "It could not be a more important time to choose the best possible leader for this organization on which so much depends and so many depend," U.S. ambassador Samantha Power told reporters as she went into the U.N. Security Council's closed-door voting conclave on July 21. "We're looking for somebody with great leadership skills, great management skills, someone who has a commitment to fairness and accountability and who stays true to the founding principles of the United Nations."

Power's predecessors during the 1996 and 2006 secretary-general selections very publicly wanted someone "more of a secretary and less of a general." For Obama's team, as the multilateral affairs director at the National Security Council, Joshua Black, emphasized to delegates from the United Nations Association-USA in June, "We want someone who is a leader."

A leader is what Kofi Annan became, if ultimately to his peril. He found himself on a collision course with president George W. Bush over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Annan could only brand "illegal" under the U.N. Charter. As rightist circles in Washington bayed for Annan's head, Bush sent John Bolton as his envoy to torment Annan for his last two years and to ensure that a successor be incapable of challenging Washington. Ban Ki-moon, the Korean with no U.N. experience whom the Security Council ultimately agreed to nominate in 2006, would prove much more discreet.

As Ban's time draws to a close, almost as many candidates have presented themselves as competed in this year's Republican presidential primaries in the United States. Obviously much more attention, passion, and money have been invested in the presidential race, where the power is. With just 193 electors rather than the 135 million, the secretary-general selection process can be more subdued and diplomatically correct.

As in this year's U.S. presidential election, women's groups have very publicly clamored for election of a woman to the secretary-general's office. But an even more rigid rule reigns in international organization politics, that of regional rotation, ensuring that heads of U.N. organizations would, over the years, come from every region of the world. Regional rotation has been honored at the United Nations since the 1962 selection of U Thant, and this year the East European regional group has staked its claim to providing the U.N.'s chief.

Many are privately skeptical of an East European "turn." The Cold War rationale for separating Europe into two regions, communist and non-communist, is unpersuasive when most former Soviet dependencies have joined the European Union and NATO. They cling to a separate U.N. group only to avoid competing for seats on U.N. bodies with more electorally appealing western countries. The majority of the twelve announced candidates hail, improbably, from the Balkans, epicenter of Europe's post-Soviet violent conflicts. Half are women.

The first straw poll was conducted just hours before Donald Trump assured the Republican national convention that "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo." The top-ranked candidate, with 12 votes of "encouragement," was neither a woman nor Eastern European: Antonio Guterres, former socialist prime minister of Portugal and U.N. high commissioner for refugees. (None of the previous U.N. secretaries-general from Europe has been from its southern or "Latin" tier.) In second place, with 11 favorable votes, was Danilo Türk, former U.N. ambassador, secretariat official, and president of Slovenia, raised in communist Yugoslavia.

Tied for third place with nine encouragements each were three Balkan candidates, one of them a woman: Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, currently the head of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Vuk Jeremić, past General Assembly president and former Serbian foreign minister; and vowel-challenged Srgjan Kerim, Macedonia's former U.N. ambassador and foreign minister.

This year's U.N. process seems set, like the U.S. presidential contest, to upend traditional assumptions about U.N. politics. The East Europeans' insistence on the top post may end up torpedoing the rule of regional rotation altogether. The more transparent process seems unlikely to engage broader public participation or create a groundswell for a woman. With the selection due well before the U.S. election, Barack Obama--widely considered the most pro-U.N. president of the past half-century--can lock in a legacy through global leadership lasting into at least two U.S. administrations.