By Bharat Karnad
It is that time in the international calendar again when a new person has to be elected to the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations Organization.
Shashi Tharoor, the Congress Party MP from Kerala, may ruefully recall, no doubt with some heartburn, this underway process, considering how wrong it went for him the last time this happened in the summer of 2006 and the way his attempt to secure a promotion from the UN Under-Secretary General for Communications to the Secretary-General, bombed. Tharoor’s candidacy was undermined by four factors. First, his relatively thin credentials (in contrast to most candidates who are usually Ministers, if not Foreign Ministers or even Prime Ministers). Second, Tharoor was only a UN apparatchik—the former SG Kofi Annan’s public relations manager, first in Geneva at the UN High Commission for Refugees headed by Annan, and later in New York when his UNHCR boss made it, almost at the 11th hour, as Africa’s candidate in 1997.
Third, his ambition outpacing his support among the (s)electors—the members of the Security Council; the feeble, almost non-existent, canvassing on his behalf by the Indian Permanent Mission, New York (in this respect, he mistook Sonia Gandhi’s approval that fetched him Manmohan Singh’s formal support for MEA/Indian diplomats in the field going all out to campaign for him). Fourth, the balance of influence that tilted on the side of the self-effacing South Korean minister for foreign trade and civil servant, Ban Ki-moon.
Interestingly, along with Tharoor, Abdul Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, was candidate.
There’s the curious mechanism of successive “straw polls” (among the member states of the Security Council) that winnow the field until only one person is left, when he/she is installed by consensus to head the UN. Of the top five finishers in the first straw poll held on 21st July 2016, in which the male candidates overshadowed the female candidates and the former Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Guterres topped it, four were Eastern European: Slovenian President and the UN Official Danilo Türk, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria (came in 3rd); former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić, and former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim. Of the others in the running, Argentinian Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra and Ban Ki-moon’s ex-UN Deputy came in 8th, and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, and Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić, didn’t fare well. In fact, Pusic, who came in last, has quit the race.
This is around the time in the game when the old Great Power politics kicks in. Everybody agrees that it is time for a woman to take charge, a secondary concern is also that the candidate be from East Europe. Russia has covered both these bets with its preferred candidate, Bokova, a Russia-educated Bulgarian who formerly served as a deputy minister in Sofia. The US however thinks Malcorra is the better choice, to coordinate whose campaign, Secretary of State John Kerry betook himself to Buenos Aires for consultations.
Moscow can reasonably expect China to back Bokova, and among states doing two-year stints as non-permanent members, Ukraine, Angola, Senegal, and the Leftist regime-run Venezuela, to do so as well. The US will have UK and France on the side of Malcorra besides, possibly Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Uruguay.
India has no say in this selection, but will likely be approached by both Russia and the US to do what it can to push their respective candidate by building up a bit of head steam in the UN, and it can get dirty as Moscow and Washington up their stakes. It is best that New Delhi keeps out of this tangle altogether as India has nothing whatsoever riding on the outcome.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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