António Guterres, secretary-general at the United Nations. Photo by: Evan Schneider / U.N.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — António Guterres had big plans for what he hoped to achieve as secretary-general of the United Nations.

While many U.N. member states wanted to see the first woman appointed to lead the international organization in 2016, Guterres won over world leaders with a detailed reform agenda aimed at ushering the international body into a new era of greater effectiveness and efficiency.

The former prime minister of Portugal and U.N. high commissioner for refugees also envisioned himself as a political difference maker, capable of rising above narrow national interests to resolve intractable conflicts and tackle the underlying causes of global crises and forced displacement, according to those who watched his campaign.

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“Guterres, at least before taking office, wanted to be more in the [Dag] Hammarskjöld mold of the [secretary-general] as mediator and political player,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, referring to the Swedish former U.N. chief, who died while trying to broker a cease fire in Congo.

“He’s found that really there’s very, very little space to do that,” Gowan said.

When Guterres was elected secretary-general by the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 13, 2016, nearly every national opinion poll in the United States predicted that Hillary Clinton would be the next U.S. president. Less than a month later, Donald Trump’s surprise victory threw the relationship between the U.N. and its most vital member state — and largest funder — into doubt. The two men took office within three weeks of each other.

“António Guterres probably couldn’t have become secretary-general at a more difficult time.”

— Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director, Human Rights Watch

As the U.N. commemorates its 75th anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic, amid concerns about “vaccine nationalism,” Guterres is still trying to pull multilateral cooperation — and his tenure — out from under Trump’s shadow.

“It’s just such a toxic environment … The country that should be the lynchpin of the United Nations fundamentally doesn’t support multilateralism,” said Joel Charny, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA.

America’s retreat from leadership within the international organization has coincided with deepening paralysis within the U.N. Security Council. Both have laid bare the limits of what the U.N. and its secretary-general can do without the willing partnership of global powers.

“He just seems diminished in the role,” said Charny, who supported Guterres’ candidacy.

“Is that his fault? Who is going around thinking about Secretary-General Guterres and what he’s thinking and what leadership he could provide in this situation or that situation? I think the unfortunate answer is almost no one,” he said.

Now the U.N. chief faces one of his biggest tests, a global pandemic which can only be defeated through collective action.

“We are extremely fragile. And when we are fragile, we must be humble and we must understand that to overcome these fragilities, we need to unite in solidarity,” Guterres told Devex in an interview ahead of the 75th U.N. General Assembly.

“Unfortunately, we are not seeing that unity. We see the response to the pandemic being done by each country alone, sometimes with contradictory strategies,” he added.

In July’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture 2020, Guterres said that, “COVID-19 has been likened to an X-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.”

With just over one year remaining in his first term, and no guarantee the political context of a second term would be any easier, Guterres has limited time to read the X-rays of a broken world, and prove that the U.N. can do anything to fix it.

Collective action problems

The U.N.’s struggle to keep pace with the changing nature of global challenges and shifts in global power dynamics predate Trump’s election and inauguration.

The international body was created in the wake of two world wars to prevent interstate conflict, uphold international norms and obligations, and establish operational agencies that could help put those principles into action. Instead, it has seen the nature of war shift from between states to multidecade civil wars within them, challenging the U.N.’s ability to manage the constraints of national sovereignty, said Nazanin Ash, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

“Some of that is about how slow the U.N. has been to reform, but a lot of that has to do with member state engagement,” Ash said.

The countries that are meant to endow the U.N. with decision-making authority at the Security Council have proven unwilling or uninterested in setting aside narrow agendas in favor of collective action. Guterres has readily acknowledged the limits of his own authority, describing it as “a bluff, or an illusion,” in comparison to the power wielded by heads of state.

“The U.N. is what the member states make of it. If member states are coming to the table not for the purpose of collective problem solving, but for the purpose of their narrow state interests, your collective action forum isn’t going to work,” Ash said.

Guterres’ hopes of finding a pathway to peace in Syria have been stymied by Russia’s veto power in the Security Council; his special envoy’s work to resolve the crisis in Yemen frustrated by the U.S. government’s parallel diplomacy with Saudi Arabia; and his desire to find political solutions to other regional conflicts undermined by major powers’ unwillingness to pursue multilateral negotiation.

“The whole point of his tenure was supposed to be getting back to a place where the U.N. was leading around diplomacy,” Charny said.

“I don’t think he can be blamed for this, but you look out there and there’s nothing,” he added.

Trump’s election introduced a new variable into the mix — a U.S. administration that was not only willing to sidestep the U.N., but could be openly hostile to it.

“What you’re seeing is, in some ways, a secretary-general in an atmosphere where there’s a cratering of U.S. global leadership, and we haven’t seen that before,” said Sarah Mendelson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

Where the Trump administration has engaged with the U.N., it has been to advance a narrow set of domestic priorities, Charny said.

“What are the key issues for the U.S. at the U.N.? It’s basically stripping out reproductive health from every resolution or every action that the Security Council or the General Assembly wants to take, and then it’s basically Iran and Palestine,” he said.

“If those are your only issues, the U.S. is not truly engaging with the secretary-general in a way that would bolster his leadership,” Charny added.

The Trump administration has backed up its narrow priorities with the constant threat of funding cuts, or even withdrawal, from U.N. agencies, as it has grown more antagonistic to other permanent members of the Security Council, particularly China.

“António Guterres probably couldn’t have become secretary-general at a more difficult time,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

‘A particularly dangerous tiger’

On his fourth day in office, Guterres called president-elect Trump to introduce himself and discuss “a number of avenues for participation and cooperation,” according to the secretary-general’s spokesman, who reported that the call “went quite well.”

In April 2017, in the wake of the Trump administration’s release of a plan to cut America’s foreign aid budget by nearly a third, Guterres paid a visit to the White House.

“It’s just such a toxic environment … The country that should be the lynchpin of the United Nations fundamentally doesn’t support multilateralism.” 

— Joel Charny, director, Norwegian Refugee Council USA

The U.S. Department of State had already announced it would stop funding the U.N. Population Fund and there were worries the administration would also “take a scythe to the peacekeeping budget,” one of the biggest-ticket items in terms of U.S. funding, ICG’s Gowan said.

The U.S. government provides 22% of the U.N.’s $5.4 billion core budget and 25% of the $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget — which the Trump administration cut back from 28.5%.

In October 2017, the two men met again, this time at the U.N. headquarters in New York, to discuss the secretary-general’s plans for reforming the international body. Trump raised concerns about the U.N.’s increasing budget and staff size, and complained that these had not translated into better results due to mismanagement and too much bureaucracy.

Guterres’ observers credit him, early on, with successfully translating the Trump administration’s desire for budget cuts into support for internal reforms.

“He’s extremely smart, and he’s got a very acute political intelligence,” Gowan said, adding that Guterres has “had to devote a very large part of his brain power to working out how to cohabit with the Trump administration for the last four years.”

The secretary-general benefited from the fact that peacekeeping budgets were declining anyway, due to missions such as Haiti coming to an end, Gowan said, and then, “he pulled off the old trick of saying, ‘well, can you limit the cuts, but we will do reforms and we’ll be able to say that you’re making the U.N. more efficient.’”

“Guterres came in with a great deal of goodwill because of his very public acknowledgement of the need for reform,” Mark Green, Trump’s former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote to Devex.

“While there have been some positive moves, that need is still there,” he added.

The most significant piece of Guterres’ reform plan was to put the U.N.’s role as the world’s global development leader front and center, said Stefano Manserviri, the former director-general for international cooperation and development at the European Commission.

“It was obvious that confronted with a global agenda like the [Sustainable Development Goals],  a decrease of the availability of funds, and a question mark on the functioning of the multilateral system, on this he has put a heavy weight,” Manserviri said.

That centered on an effort to boost the status of “resident coordinators” within U.N. country teams, tasked with serving as the highest-ranking development representative of the U.N. system.

“It is a step forward, because in itself the system today doesn’t cost less than before,” Manserviri said.

Most U.N. watchers say it is too early to judge whether the internal reforms Guterres initiated have significantly improved the institution’s efficiency and effectiveness. Many of them only came into effect in early 2019, and “it takes a long time for reforms to really shake out in the U.N. system,” Gowan said.

While many agree that prioritizing internal reforms might have bought Guterres some leeway from the Trump administration and kept some of the worst case scenarios at bay — like wholescale U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. — they also note that those victories were short lived, and did not succeed in turning the Trump administration into a productive partner.

“Trying to contain Trump’s anti-multilateral instincts, in the long term, you’re riding a particularly dangerous tiger.”

— Richard Gowan, U.N. director, International Crisis Group

“It didn’t sweeten the deal for the Trump administration,” Mendelson said. “They don’t seem to see the value of allies, they don’t see the value of alliances, they don’t see the value of multilateralism. They are entirely about going it alone.”

“Trying to contain Trump’s anti-multilateral instincts, in the long term, you’re riding a particularly dangerous tiger,” Gowan said.

In the last year, Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic and his administration’s efforts to turn its fire on China within the U.N. have made it “harder and harder for Guterres to keep up the balancing act that he’s been trying to perform since 2017,” Gowan said.

The price of peace

The harshest criticism of the U.N. chief has centered on his reluctance to call out bad actors, to name the countries and leaders obstructing cooperation, or violating human rights — presumably for fear of losing whatever support from them he has.

In April 2019, the executive director at Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, took to the editorial pages of the Washington Post to decry Guterres’ silence on human rights.

“For more than two years, Guterres offered excuses for not publicly defending human rights. He wanted to focus on internal reforms. He needed to stabilize relations with Trump. But today’s crises are too acute, the civilian victims too numerous, for Guterres to reduce his job to mediator in chief,” Roth wrote.

Activists were particularly critical of Guterres’ hesitation in criticizing Trump’s executive order banning foreign nationals from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., his reluctance to condemn China for its persecution of Uighurs, and his decision to allow Saudi Arabia’s removal from a “list of shame” that identifies countries failing to prevent grave wartime violations against children.

Failing to speak out about these kinds of abuses opens the door for governments to undermine the very institutional integrity of the U.N., Charbonneau said.

“We’re going to create a whole set of expectations that the secretary-general is a secretary, and not a general, ever,” he said.

But in the last year there has been a shift, Charbonneau said. In February, Guterres launched a “call to action for human rights,” describing them as under assault. He also accepted the conclusions of an independent review of the U.N.’s operations in Myanmar prior to the mass exodus of the persecuted Rohingya, which found the international body “relatively impotent,” and he partially revived his predecessor Ban ki-Moon’s Human Rights Up Front initiative, which Charbonneau said had previously been “in a coma.”

While Guterres has received criticism for not calling out bad actors on the international stage, he has also taken some heat for not reaching out to his own staff at a particularly difficult time for the organization.

“A lot of U.N. staff find him very remote,” Gowan said.

Those working on peacekeeping, which has been a target of Guterres’ cost-cutting ambitions and an issue “he doesn’t instinctively warm to,” have viewed him with some misgivings, Gowan said.

“In a period which I think has been really tough for a lot of people at a lot of levels in the U.N., he hasn’t reached down to lift the spirit of the staff,” he added.

‘A man standing in a room’

Experts who have observed Guterres struggle when asked to evaluate his performance, because of the constraints of his operating environment, and because of the sheer number of challenges and priorities he is expected to address.

In 2019, Guterres focused on climate change, hosting a climate summit during the General Assembly meetings in September, standing alongside youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, and calling on world leaders to take “concrete action,” instead of issuing “a beautiful speech.”

Just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt, while simultaneously opening up a new battleground for international rivalry and blame. This time, the U.N. saw one of its vital organs, WHO, pulled into the middle of the fray, making it even more difficult for Guterres to offer a vision of global cooperation to combat the pandemic.

For many observers, one of the most telling experiences of Guterres’ tenure so far was his effort, which began in March, to get the Security Council to approve a resolution calling for a cease fire to allow COVID-19 response efforts to move forward unhindered by armed conflict.

“Would a U.N. resolution backing that have made much difference on the ground? Probably not, but it was an important symbolic initiative,” Charny said.

Instead, for more than three months, the resolution stalled over an argument between the U.S. and China over whether or not it could mention WHO.

“They couldn’t do it, because of this insane argument over who was to blame for COVID. That’s the environment that we’re in,” Charny said.

“That was, for me, a very disheartening moment — not that I expected all of a sudden peace to break out everywhere,” Mendelson said. “It’s almost like he literally is a man standing in a room by himself speaking.”

The U.N.’s global appeal for humanitarian aid to assist the COVID-19 reponse has also gone largely unheeded. The $10.3 billion request has been met with only $2.65 billion from global donors.

“I've been saying since the beginning that a massive rescue package was necessary,” Guterres told Devex.

“The truth is that the developed world is doing that … but the [global] south is in trouble. There has been very little solidarity with the south,” he added.

There are two questions hanging over Guterres, said Gowan — what might have been, and what might lie ahead. “What would he have been able to do working with a more sympathetic U.S. administration had the elections turned out differently in 2016?”

“If [Democratic nominee Joe] Biden were to win in November, would Guterres, in a sense, get a second lease of life?” Gowan asked.

But experts acknowledge that the U.N.’s paralysis runs much deeper than the course of a single nation’s politics. A change in U.S. administrations will not solve the U.N.’s problems.

What’s needed, Charny said, is a major course correction. “Some coalition of forces needs to band together to say, ‘we have to recalibrate. We just can’t continue like this,’” he said.

In the meantime, the U.N. celebrates its 75th anniversary from a distance, barred from human interaction by the failure to mount an organized, collective response to a virus with no regard for national borders.

“It really is the perfect symbol of where we are right now,” Charny said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.