In early January, new United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made his first formal address to the Security Council. The topic—conflict prevention and sustaining peace—was fitting. Guterres had campaigned for the job emphasizing that the UN needed to get serious about preventing conflict, moving away from the organization’s typically reactive stance. After discussing a series of changes he had already made within the UN secretariat to strengthen the bureaucracy’s preventive activities, Guterres noted, “The primary work of conflict prevention lies with member states.”
Delivering those remarks, the secretary-general faced a different set of Security Council bosses than he might have expected when he set out to lead the world body. The UN leadership transition this year has taken place in the shadow of Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House. The new United States president campaigned on a platform of disentangling the US from international obligations and has expressed antipathy toward the UN itself. Early signs of the administration’s approach, including a leaked draft executive order to slash UN funding (which was quickly walked back) and early interest in cost-cutting on the part of Trump’s UN envoy Nikki Haley, suggest that the new administration may yet deliver on its campaign pledges.
The Security Council’s other permanent members are also undergoing major shifts in their positions in the world. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union upended its domestic politics, and the process by which it will depart is likely to take up considerable focus in the coming years. France is also in the midst of an election campaign in which Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate critical of multilateralism and international institutions, could prevail. Sensing the global vacuum, China’s leader Xi Jinping has recently become the defender of free trade and globalization. Russia, meanwhile, continues to advocate for a “post-West” world order.
Taken together, these changes point to an inflection point in the interactions of great powers that will have meaningful implications for their engagement with international institutions. The UN has for years been dogged by charges of irrelevance, and struggles to respond to today’s challenges. The prolonged stalemate in the Security Council over the conflict in Syria has particularly paralyzed the organization. The institution’s belated response to incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers also drew significant condemnation outside the confines of the UN community in New York, though the world body has since taken important steps to address the issue.
In selecting Guterres, member states also endorsed a plan to breathe new life into the institution. Picking up on the central findings of three seminal reviews on the UN’s peace and security architecture in 2015—on peace operations, peacebuilding, and women, peace, and security—the new secretary-general centered his campaign platform on reorienting the institution to be better positioned on prevention. Now in office, the question is whether member states will work with him to do so. Though Guterres’s appointment generated palpable excitement, the new secretary-general faces political, financial, and bureaucratic obstacles to achieving the required culture for change.
The new constellation in the Security Council may have meaningful implications for how it approaches conflict prevention. Its five permanent members have historically split on their interpretation of the breadth of its role in preventing conflicts. The US, along with France and the UK (known together as the P3), has a history of favoring a more expansive preventive role. The Council’s other two permanent members, China and Russia, typically express a more restrictive interpretation of its remit. Though the Council’s interest in acting in a preventive capacity was already limited in cases when a powerful member was involved in a looming conflict, this new body, if it does indeed express a more narrowly defined self-interest, may find itself generally more skeptical of acting preventively.
And, it is not only Security Council members who have reservations about moving from words to action on prevention: Many states in the UN’s wider membership have their own concerns about operationalizing the principle, including on tricky considerations of sovereignty. In particular, leaders of countries that may attract more attention under a prevention-centered UN may be concerned that such a shift may “internationalize” their own domestic affairs or threaten their leadership.
There are also more practical concerns, including the fact that the Security Council’s agenda is already overburdened by managing ongoing conflicts. This makes it functionally difficult for stretched diplomats to devote time to crises bubbling below the surface. The result, as Security Council Report notes, is a paradox: The council could in theory reduce the time and financial resources it devotes to crises if it were able to focus on prevention, but its agenda is already overextended with managing conflicts that were not prevented in the first place.
Given the political sensitivities, it is unsurprising that member states have allowed the UN’s prevention activities to go underfunded. The issue is not confined to the structural limits on the budget of the Department of Political Affairs. Even as member states coalesced around the selection of a strong secretary-general in the fall of 2016, a funding appeal for the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund fell far short of its $300 million goal, generating only half of the needed pledges.
In his short tenure, Guterres has already made some specific requests of his member state bosses, not least his request that the Security Council make more use of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, on peaceful means of resolving disputes, including negotiation and mediation. He has also offered his “good offices” to support the council’s preventive work and to engage with member states to build trust in preventive action. Two activities this year offer the opportunity to ask for more: an internal peace and security review that Guterres personally initiated shortly after taking office, which will include recommendations to member states, and a report requested by the Security Council on the UN’s “sustaining peace” activities. As the International Peace Institute’s Youssef Mahmoud argues, the latter provides an ideal opportunity to advocate for changes in how the UN allocates prevention resources.
Clearing Red Tape
Transformational change is not easy in any large organization, let alone a global body with nearly 200 masters. Guterres himself has acknowledged that the UN’s bureaucracy gets in the way of its ability to operate, but previous UN officials have gone further in describing the extent of the problem. In 2016, departing assistant-secretary-general Anthony Banbury lamented, “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result.” This bureaucracy, which has not kept pace with the expansion and growing complexity of UN operations, is in part to blame for a history of “siloed” responses to complex problems, an issue identified in the 2015 reviews as hampering the institution’s effectiveness. As Guterres noted in a memo circulated to senior UN officials, “The conclusion in all cases has been that the United Nations secretariat is under-performing in conflict prevention, in peace operations and in its efforts to sustain peace, and that some of the solutions to this problem lie within our control.”
Nonetheless, the new secretary-general has experience in moving bureaucratic mountains. In the 10 years that he led the UN’s refugee agency, Guterres oversaw a sweeping reform package that delivered administrative cost savings. In his short tenure at the helm of the UN, he has moved swiftly on this front, announcing several immediate steps to change how the organization operates, to strengthen its decision making, improve coordination across the various conflict prevention capacities, and bolster the strategic analysis that the secretariat provides to the Security Council. Guterres has also brought a sense of urgency to the task, casting aside diplomatic protocol to make rapid changes in the areas under his control.
An area that remains a serious problem is human resources. Despite considerable work during Ban Ki-moon’s time in office, the UN is still unable to get the right people into the right places at the right time. Indeed, it still takes over 200 days on average to hire a staff member. This is particularly an issue for preventive action, where deep expertise is needed, often with little notice. Guterres has identified staffing as a key element of his reform agenda. Unfortunately, this is an area where member states may foil his best efforts. Guterres has already drawn public ire from the US on his proposed nomination of Salam Fayyad, former Palestinian prime minister, to lead the UN’s mission in Libya. As the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Gowan argues, the incident raises questions about how the new secretary-general will manage major powers as he staffs the rest of his team, let alone how he manages the dysfunctions of the UN’s sprawling human resources systems.
The good news is that staff and diplomats appear genuinely excited about Guterres and the change that his selection represents. The 2015 peace and security reviews laid bare major challenges and prompted member states to adopt a new framework for thinking about conflict prevention and peace. Guterres was selected, in part, to achieve this vision. Though he will now need to spend more time and political capital convincing powerful states of the value of the UN, the new secretary-general is well-placed to show the US and other members that a world body centralized around prevention is more effective and efficient, and most importantly, more relevant, than one repeatedly responding to costly conflicts.
The timeline to deliver, however, is short. Guterres’s mandate is strongest now, but his honeymoon may be brief. In September 2017 the UN will hold a high-level meeting on sustaining peace. In the lead up to the meeting, Guterres must translate the good will generated by his selection into support for a practical reform agenda that reorients toward prevention. It represents his best chance to position the UN to realize its founding principle to prevent war, but perhaps also his biggest challenge.
Megan M. Roberts is Associate Director, International Institutions and Global Governance, at the Council on Foreign Relations.