Lady in Waiting

Helen Clark’s chances of becoming the next UN Secretary-General

by Gordon Campbell

Even before Helen Clark left New Zealand to take up her post in New York as chief of the United Nations’ development programme, there has been speculation that this would be only a career stepping stone, and that Clark is a serious contender to succeed Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who may – or may not – be only a one-term leader of the UN. Not all the speculation about Clark’s prospects has come from over-excited locals. In a notorious leaked memo 15 months ago, Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul not only trashed Ban as a ‘spineless’ and ‘charmless’ leader surrounded by mediocrities, but cited the Clark appointment as one of the few plusses in Ban’s term of office, and depicted Clark as his possible successor in these terms :

“Furthermore, [Ban] seems to prefer to be in the center himself, without competition from his colleagues, and lets it shine through pretty clearly that commenting to the media is a privilege belonging to himself….A notable exception is the selection of Helen Clark as the new leader for UNDP. She has in her short time on the job shown promise. It will be interesting to follow if she is given room to distinguish the UN’s development side. As a woman from that part of the world [Juul classifies Clark as belonging to the Western bloc, but oddly, locates New Zealand as being ‘geographically’ in Asia] Clark could quickly become a competitor for Ban’s second period….”

Since then, the critical reviews on Ban’s term in office have only intensified, at least among the NGO community. However, the odds against Clark succeeding to the top job have probably lengthened as well. Even Clark’s status as the outstanding female contender has been somewhat eclipsed this year by the appointment of the charismatic former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to the nebulous new position of Under-Secretary for UN Women in a move that prompted some UN observers to surmise Bachelet may have other goals in mind :

For months, Bachelet had indicated that she was not interested in the post and was holding out for something better, perhaps the head of an existing U.N. agency, according to senior officials familiar with her deliberations. Her decision to take the women’s equality post is fueling speculation among U.N. diplomats that she may be positioning herself for another top U.N. job, and perhaps even a run for secretary-general after Ban retires.

For both Bachelet and Clark, any aspirations they have to succeed Ban in the top job will need to be tempered by certain inconvenient realities. Namely (a) Ban is giving every sign of wanting another term in office when his first five year term expires in December 2011 (b) even if there was sufficiently strong Security Council impetus to replace Ban (which there isn’t) the UN leadership is supposed to be rotated among the organisation’s five constituent blocs –ie, the West, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Currently, Ban is the Asia bloc representative, and China would probably insist on another Asian contender (eg Jose Ramos Horta) should Ban serve for only one term. Either way, Clark could not entertain serious hopes of the top job until 2016 – and even then, the same rotation system means that Eastern Europe should have first call on the post of secretary-general.

The fact that Ban Ki-Moon can even hope for a second term of office says a lot about the current plight of the United Nations. True, any UN leader has to demonstrate an ability to work co-operatively with all of the world’s major powers. Yet in Ban’s case, it seems to have been his ineffectual leadership alone that has made him a useful tool for the heavyweights on the Security Council. The US and China in particular, appear unlikely to lament the increasing irrelevance of the United Nations that has been occurring on Ban’s watch. There is anecdotal evidence that Ban was more popular with the George W. Bush/John Bolton/Condoleeza Rice triad than he is with Hillary Clinton and the current US ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice – but not to the point of outright rejection. The mounting fury of NGOs and human rights organisations at Ban’s failures and compromises should not be confused with rank displeasure among the Security Council elite. Ban may be a glove puppet, but he’s their glove puppet.

In turn, Ban seems to have his priorities well sorted. Ban’s silence over China’s execution of five Uighur dissidents and its jailing of dissident Liu Xiabo earlier this year was shameful enough. His subsequent tepid applause at Liu being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has been widely noted here and also here as being a ‘mealy-mouthed’ statement that only indirectly praised Liu, while lavishing praise on China for alleged improvements in its human rights record. Ironically, while Ban gets weaker, the 15 nation Security Council just got a lot stronger, with the addition of heavyweights Germany, India and South Africa to two year rotating terms, alongside already feisty Brazil and Turkey.

For her part, Clark’s track record in New Zealand could hardly have done more to enhance the hopes she may entertain to succeed Ban. On defence and foreign affairs, her early embrace of the Defence Beyond 2000 strategic document steered New Zealand away from its subservience to our traditional allies, and towards a defence posture where – in effect – the deployment of New Zealand forces would occur only under the umbrella of UN resolutions and peacekeeping activities. Even our post 9/11 involvement in Afghanistan has been rationalized by Clark via the 2002 UN resolutions – and the lack of any such similar and credible UN mandate meant that Clark resolutely kept this country out of the Iraq war, despite pressure from Washington, Canberra and London for New Zealand to join the coalition of the willing. That track record of deference to the UN, her related stance of relative neutrality and New Zealand’s prior commitment to the anti-apartheid movement and indigenous rights issues would all combine to stand her in good stead in New York.

Similarly, Clark’s recent track record with China will do nothing to harm her future chances. On her watch, New Zealand negotiated a free trade agreement that was China’s first such pact with Western nations, and was regarded as a useful template for China’s subsequent trade deals. For such a firm human rights advocate, Clark was also remarkably resistant to receiving the Dalai Lama officially, during the Tibetan leader’s 2007 visit to this country.

There is now a general consensus that Ban is floundering in the job. In July, Inga-Britt Ahlenius the outgoing head of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (the UN department that investigates wrong-doing by other UN agencies) delivered a damning 50 page “End of Assignment” report on Ban’s failings, though only the summary note available here seems to have surfaced publicly. Some critics have also wondered that if conditions were as chronically bad under Ban Ki-Moon as Ahlenius claims, why she waited until the end of her five year term of office to let anyone know about it.

So far, the most balanced and thorough critique of the beleagured Korean’s term in office came earlier this year from the political analyst and historian Stephen Schlesinger, formerly one of Ban’s dwindling band of apologists. That is, until the Copenhagen summit on climate change which – although a pet project of Ban’s – is seen by Schlesinger as having been ‘an abject failure.’ In a widely circulated article published in World Policy Journal and available here Schlesinger remorselessly listed Ban’s many failures, and the polite disdain with which he is viewed by the Obama administration. Bill Clinton may have worked in tandem on many issues with the dynamic Kofi Annan at the UN, but Ban is simply up to playing an equivalent double act with Obama :

….American disenchantment with the United Nations seems to stem from a more general feeling that the body is simply not acting as forcefully as it should be in the global arena. Obama clearly desires a UN leadership he can work with, along the lines of President Clinton’s close relationship with the United Nations during the Kofi Annan years.

But, according to some Obama Administration sources, the body has become a very different place under its new leader, Ban Ki-moon. The organization appears to have grown weaker. Like all former UN chief executives, Ban possesses only moral power, not economic, military, or political authority. Still, moral power alone, in the proper hands, can be remarkably persuasive. But Ban’s tenure thus far, three years into a five-year term, has been viewed as both lackluster and ineffectual.

As mentioned though, Ban’s mediocrity may ultimately prove to be his best hope for keeping his job. Certainly, Schlesinger ends up promoting that view. Having listed the man’s shortcomings, Schlesinger finds in that very weakness a rationale for keeping him on in the job :

All these factors have combined to cause enough concern among America’s foreign policy officialdom that they have privately contemplated opposing Ban’s expected bid for a second term. This could prove to be a politically costly decision, however…. More important is the question of whether Washington really needs or wants a strong chieftain in the spirit of Kofi Annan or the UN’s greatest leader, Dag Hammarskjold. It is true that charismatic overseers can help rally the United Nations behind America’s policies far more reliably than weak ones. But the downside is that these same individuals can sometimes act as more independent operatives who challenge U.S. interests and stymie American aims.

In any case, from Ban’s point of view, staying on good terms with America—still the most powerful country on the planet, the UN’s largest donor, and home to the world’s most popular leader—is a given, not just for his re-election prospects, but to assure that the United Nations continues to play a central role in matters of war and peace. In this sense, his weakness may also be his strength.

That being the case, if Helen Clark has any higher ambitions, she will almost certainly have to wait until late 2016 for them to come to fruition. By then, the political landscape for the Security Council members will have changed in unpredictable ways. Clark (and any other S-G aspirant ) could well by then be facing centre left governments in France and (perhaps) the UK, and a Republican administration in Washington – in which case, her non-participation in the Iraq war ( not to mention her disparaging remark that the Iraq war wouldn’t have happened if Al Gore had become President) may well be held against her by US hawks with long memories.

By 2016, the main yardstick for Clark’s own performance at the UN will be the extent to which she can cajole the global community into meeting the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. Few would blame her entirely if the MSG goals are not met. The more realistic judgement will be based on how abject that failure has proved to be. Currently, and in the wake of the global recession, the war on global poverty is going badly – China excepted.

As a result, Clark could praise China in all honesty at the MDG summit held in New York last month, for its efforts to combat poverty. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the success of China and India in lifting the living standards of millions of their citizens, the average rate of global progress towards meeting the MDG goals would be looking far, far worse than it already is. Africa, in particular, is losing ground steadily in the battle against poverty.

Beyond the MDG process and her own UNDP turf at the UN, Clark has been doing a reasonable job at making herself useful to Ban. Never shy about touting his own accomplishments, Ban trumpeted his achievement in early August at getting Israel and Turkey to jointly participate in an inquiry into the Gaza aid flotilla attack – but this belated and limited effort has Clark’s fingerprints all over it, and will be headed by her old Cabinet colleague, Sir Geoffrey Palmer. As I reported at the time :

As Palmer also said, the process may not necessarily require him to go to the Middle East at all – so a wide ranging investigation is almost certainly not on the cards. Inevitably, the selection of Palmer raises the possibility that Helen Clark may have played a behind the scenes role – especially if it is to be an inquiry carried out in a room at the United Nations building. That’s depressing. Surely, if Palmer wanted to know if the Israeli commandos were defending a valid blockade he might need – at the very least – to go and have a look at the conditions behind the blockade wall?

Lastly, there is the vexed issue of the rotation system between the blocs supposed to provide the secretary-general. This system is not sacrosanct. It has not been rigidly adhered to in the past. Last year for instance, some were arguing that China’s support for a Ban second term could be traded away for a leadership role at the World Bank. However, assuming the rotation system is given more than lip service, is there a strong contender from Eastern Europe who is likely to confront Clark in 2016?

For pointers, I emailed Colum Lynch, the Washington Post staff writer whose Turtle Bay blog on the Foreign Policy site is the best informed newsbreaker on UN related issues. In his reply, Lynch indicated that he hadn’t yet started to handicap the 2016 contest, but advised me not to overlook the current Slovenian president Danilo Turk. By 2016, Turk would be nearing the end of his permissible time in the largely ceremonial post as president.

More to the point, Turk has been a UN heavyweight. He was a UN Special Rapporteur between 1986-1992 before serving as his country’s UN ambassador, then became President of the Security Council in the late 1990s, and was an Assistant Secretary-General under Kofi Annan between 2000 and 2005. It was only when he was passed over to head the UN’s political department – in favour of the Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, a lightweight much criticized since for his ‘soft’ diplomacy towards the generals in Burma – that Turk left the UN, and returned to Slovenia.

As Lynch says, Turk would need to secure the support of the Russians. Given Russian sensitivity over independence issues in the Balkans and the Caucasus there will be always be plenty of opportunity for Turk to screw up that particular relationship. (For that matter, Russia still nurses a grudge against Ban for the UN’s limp acceptance of Kosovo’s independence.) Even so, Turk would seem to have strong credentials to succeed Ban Ki-Moon in 2016.

By then, Helen Clark will be 66 years old – which would not necessarily disqualify her. It is, after all, Ban’s age right now. No one who has ever entered the force field of Clark’s determination would count her out, or under-estimate her ability to do whatever is necessary – to and for, anyone – to achieve her goal. Even by her standards though, any hopes she may entertain of being the next Secretary-General do look somewhat remote.