Five Questions for the Next SG

7 min readApr 8, 2016

Megan Roberts

Next week the United Nations General Assembly will begin a series of informal meetings with candidates for the next secretary-general (SG). The official list of those seeking the United Nations’ top spot is beginning to take shape. Though still far from a truly open and competitive process, this year’s race to succeed current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is already very different from the past.

Ban and his predecessors were selected in closed-door Security Council meetings dominated by the five permanent members, or P5. The General Assembly was limited to a rubber stamp role: it simply approved the Council’s preferred candidate. Ban Ki-Moon’s successor will be chosen in a more consultative and transparent manner, and the prospect has already generated attention from member states, civil society, and the media. This month the General Assembly will for the first time conduct informal interviews with each candidate for what has been called “the most impossible job in the world.”

While the veto-wielding P5 will retain their outsized voice in the selection process, the interviews will give other UN member states a more meaningful role in choosing who will occupy the United Nations’ top post. And if they manage to coalesce around a single candidate — an admittedly distant prospect — they could make it more difficult for the Security Council to select an alternative applicant.

To make the most of this opportunity, UN member states should avoid posing lofty, open-ended questions or discredited Google-type brain teasers. Instead, the General Assembly should stick with five tried and true job interview questions.

Why are you the right person for the job?

Last December the presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council outlined their criteria for a successful candidate: “proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.”

This year’s crop of candidates includes several with significant UN management experience. Antonio Guterres recently stepped down from a ten-year run as head of the UN’s refugee agency. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria heads the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Danilo Turk served both within the United Nations and as his country’s UN ambassador, before being elected president of his native Slovenia. Helen Clark of New Zealand, who recently announced her candidacy after months of speculation, leads the UN Development Group. Several candidates boast impressive linguistic skills. The leader in this regard, though a long shot for the post, is Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia, who speaks nine languages.

Beyond the official criteria, there is increasing pressure both within and outside the United Nations to appoint the first female secretary-general, after eight male predecessors. There is also an informal consensus that Eastern Europe, the only region that has not filled the post, deserves the slot. Three of the eight official candidates — Bokova, Natalia Gherman of Moldova, and Vesna Pusic of Croatia — meet these two additional criteria. (Three more candidates — Turk, Kerim, and Igor Luksic — are Eastern European men).

For the P5, the attribute that matters most is an individual willing to be, as the saying goes, “more of a secretary, less of a general.” As Anne Marie Goetz explains “virtue and command power are not, in practice, the qualities chiefly valued. Inoffensiveness is.” In a recent review of Eastern European candidates, Bokova received high marks for acceptability among P5 members, including Russia. However she was the leader of UNESCO when it voted to admit Palestine into the organization, drawing the ire of many in the United States which may affect whether the United States will support her candidacy.

To be sure, this year’s selection process could tempt member states to seek quid pro quos — demanding top spots in the secretariat, for instance, in exchange for vocal political support. That inherent danger, however, is outweighed by the benefits of a transparent consultative process, which enhances the likelihood that support will flow to the candidate promising to do the most for the entire membership, rather than making dispensations to individual countries to secure the position.

Why do you want this job?

Ban Ki-Moon’s successor will assume the position at a time of mounting crises, both global and institutional. The United Nations confronts the largest humanitarian and migration crisis since World War II, even as it reels from a growing sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by UN peacekeepers. These and other failings have exposed rampant dysfunctionality within the UN system, outlined in a scathing critique by departing senior UN official Anthony Banbury: “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. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again.”

So who would even want this job, particularly since its occupant wields little real power? The secretary-general can express disappointment, concern, and alarm — but getting real action typically depends on whether the secretariat’s goals align with the interests of member states — particularly the major powers. And the multi-billion dollar budget that the SG manages? Every dollar is scrutinized and apportioned by the General Assembly in all-night negotiations. The candidates who really want the job must believe that they can not only make a difference to the burning crises of the day but also improve the United Nations’ creaking bureaucracy. As Jim Della-Giacoma notes, “only optimists need apply.”

What would you look to accomplish in your first one hundred days?

The next SG must hit the ground running. If the fragile cease-fire in Syria unravels, she will need to adjust on the fly. And even if the cease-fire holds, as Richard Gowan notes, the next SG will find herself in the unenviable position of consolidating a peace whose terms have been heavily influenced by the Syrian regime and its allies.

Still, the arrival of a new UN leader, particularly if chosen through a more transparent process, will generate a honeymoon period. The next SG should have a window of opportunity to breathe new life into the organization — though it will close quickly.

The General Assembly should ask candidates how they plan to best exploit this brief window to tackle a host of institutional reforms. New thinking is urgently needed on the United Nations’ bread and butter issue: peacekeeping. A recent review of this $8 billion per year endeavor identified a host of urgently needed reforms. One free suggestion for SG aspirants from the review: propose the creation of a second UN deputy secretary-general, focused solely on peace and security issues.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

All previous secretaries-general have served a five-year renewable term. But there is pressure both from within and outside the United Nations to appoint the next SG for a single, but longer, term of perhaps seven years. This argument has been made most forcefully by the Elders, a group of eminent retired statesmen and women, chaired by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They contend that a single term would help free the SG from Turtle Bay politics — allowing him or her to focus on the real issues, without feeling beholden to member states, particularly the P5, for reelection.

Whether the SG is eligible for a second term or not, the General Assembly should give preference to a candidate prepared to focus on the job through the full mandate, and who has the temperament and leadership to drive the agenda, rather than constantly reacting to crises. It should also favor the candidate prepared to make tough calls to the end, even if they are eyeing top spots within their home country (Ban Ki-Moon is widely rumored to be considering a presidential run in South Korea) or elsewhere when their term expires.

Tell us about a time when you disagreed with your boss.

This will be a tricky question for candidates. The secretary-general has 193 bosses, and much of any SG’s time is spent navigating their competing concerns and interests. Traditionally, SGs have paid more attention to the Security Council (especially the P5), which even under amended procedures will have disproportionate weight in the SG selection process. Members of the General Assembly will want an SG that represents the full membership.

History suggests that the United Nations needs an SG who can stand up to the Security Council when necessary. The dynamics of peacekeeping are instructive in this regard. Back in 2000, the Brahimi report on UN peace operations insisted that the UN Secretariat must learn to tell the Security Council “what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” Yet SGs still struggle with delivering honest, if unwelcome news to the Council.

And yet, an SG without a good relationship with the Council, especially the P5, will find often find him- or herself sidelined. The GA should thus look for a candidate able to speak honestly to his or her bosses without irreparably damaging the relationship. Two candidates have particularly relevant experience on this front: Bokova and Gutteres.

During Bokova’s tenure at UNESCO, the organization voted to include Palestine as a member state, angering the United States, which pulled its financial support in response. Bokova expressed concern about this loss of funds, not only for UNESCO but also for U.S. security interests, expressing hope that the departure would be temporary. During his time as head of the UN refugee agency, Antonio Guterres warned that the increasing number of conflicts and escalating risks of climate change had driven the humanitarian system to “a breaking point,” and he criticized the international community’s fragmented approach to humanitarian assistance. In the end, both leaders proved willing to speak truth to power, without rupturing relationships.

The General Assembly, previously limited to approving the Security Council’s choice, has an unprecedented opportunity to influence the selection of the next secretary-general. The candidate interviews next week will give the United Nations’ full membership its first real chance to influence the historically closed process. If the General Assembly wants to make the most of this chance, it should stick to these five questions, asked in interviews throughout the world every day.

This posting originally appeared on The Internationalist blog of the Council on Foreign Relations on 7 April 2016.