António Guterres quietly graduated as the best student of his country. Now, some hope his huge brain could take on Trump. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

Is this the man who could stand up to Trump?

UN Secretary General António Guterres is everything the American president is not. But is he ready to lead?
September 13, 2017

“The city that never sleeps”? Sinatra was clearly never in New York for the speeches during leaders’ week at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The global foreign policy elites’ annual jamboree, held every September, can feel pretty low-octane. More podium than purpose. Airy words in airless rooms. The bleary eyes of the jet-lagged entourages and the perma-tanned swagger—even after 2016—of the Davosphere.

Sometimes there is a celebrity leader—last September it was Justin Trudeau, this year it is Emmanuel Macron. They turn heads, amid the cast of leaders who were the future once. Sometimes a rogue speech—Muammar Gaddafi ripping up the United Nations Charter, or Hugo Chávez smelling the sulphur after George W Bush had spoken. But mainly there is monotony, as another leader ticks off a platitude for each conflict. “Turning now to Chad, we must remain concerned and engaged.” This is, after all, the world’s talking shop.

Away from the podium however, it is frenetic: statecraft speed dating, or what diplomats call the plenaries, pull asides and pool sprays; the bilaterals and brush-bys; the grip and grins. Most are carefully choreographed, but not all. At one UNGA, I organised the physical ambush of South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki, who was avoiding a difficult meeting with Gordon Brown. At another, I had to shoulder charge David Cameron into a side room to avoid an unwanted encounter with Robert Mugabe. Promising careers can be broken by a graveyard speaker slot or uncomfortable placement. It is the Congress of Vienna, but without—in most cases—the mistresses, banquets and wigs.

Yet all this matters. While the UN is far from perfect, no one has yet come up with a better lubricant for global coexistence. Despite the protocol and preening, the tedium and tantrums, this is the only forum the world has got for grappling with the conflicts which so remorselessly demonstrate that history has not ended. And perhaps the single most important meeting of 2017 will be taking place there in late September.

Two men, both born in the late 1940s. Both finally elected to their dream jobs in the autumn of 2016. In the blue corner, the ninth United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres. In the orange corner, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.

*** It is impossible to overstate the contrast between the two men. One quietly graduated as the best student in his country, and winds down in bookshops. The other has a self-proclaimed “huge brain,” and winds up in front of cable television. One has a career dedicated to public service, and led his country for seven years, before emerging as a bridge-building humanitarian internationalist. The other has a career dedicated to making money and self-publicity, and has now led his country down an increasingly narrow economic nationalist path over just seven months. One is a Hispanic who earned his international spurs as the voice of the world’s 65m refugees. The other fires up his rallies by reading a poem equating Hispanics and migrants with poisonous snakes. One is trying to prove his few critics wrong. The other can seem determined to prove his many critics right.

The young Guterres campaigned against the dictatorship in Portugal that collapsed in 1974. At his core, he is about social justice, compassion and empathy, particularly to the vulnerable: when he quit as Portuguese prime minister, he gave free maths classes to slum kids, but refused to let the media cover it. He is an optimist about human nature and looks to the future with more hope than fear. Trump, by contrast, plays on America’s fears to encourage it to withdraw from the world, a real threat to the internationalist foundations that have supported the UN since its birth.

The differences are not just of outlook. One close adviser says that “Guterres knows the detail, sometimes to the point of micro-management.” He surrounds himself with a diverse group, and is seen by a senior UN ambassador as “honest, intellectual and serious—though he tells a great story.” He is a deft operator who has worked hard to build up relationships with the US Congress. He believes to his core in compromise and dialogue. He is a back-room operator, who doesn’t crave the limelight—“more Brussels than Vegas,” as one UN communications adviser puts it. He is pragmatic, multilingual, articulate.

But Guterres has a problem: his power is limited. The UN’s most influential decision-making body is the 15-nation-strong Security Council, where five permanent members (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) each wield a veto. Guterres attends the Security Council in the same way that the Cabinet Secretary attends cabinet—as a top-level functionary, not a voting member. Friends say he often feels isolated there—not least because there are wreckers in the room. While a US president has much in the way of executive power, a UN Secretary General has to rely far more on moral suasion and good old-fashioned diplomacy.

This, then, will be a meeting of two men with two very different worldviews and two very different tools of influence. This will not (quite) be their first encounter. Trump very fleetingly dropped by a Guterres session in April with his National Security adviser. But the White House readout did not disguise the fact that Trump’s “huge brain” was elsewhere. In diplomatic terms, it was a chance for the two leaders to get to know each other. In undiplomatic terms, it was a snub. In contrast, Macron invited Guterres for a long and chummy Paris meeting within days of his election.

Diplomats are often accused of caring more about relationships than substance, focusing on personal chemistry and “atmospherics” rather than outcomes. “Stuff your diplomatic relations,” Churchill told one of his foreign secretaries, “what do you think they are for?” Yet the dynamics often do matter. Think of Reagan and Gorbachev, Thatcher and Mitterrand or Kerry and Zarif.

The dynamics of the Trump and Guterres meeting will define how the UN, and what is left of global governance, functions in the current era. They could also shape how the world marshals a response to what the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has called “the great unravelling” of the early 21st century—a time of mass migration, climate change, faltering diplomatic trust and declining American power.

Despite Guterres’s profound differences with Trump, he will need to forge some kind of personal connection. What might this be? Both men enjoy standing out clearly as the top dog—Guterres has replaced most of the heavyweight political leaders at the top of the UN machine with technocrats, much to the dismay of several recently-serving Under-Secretary-Generals. Both see the world in a top-down way, as men of action who believe that they can get things done, make deals, shape history. And both like to talk—in Portugal, Guterres had the nickname “the talking pickaxe.”

Neither cares much for protocol, and both speak often of their devotion to their children and grandchildren. Both, incidentally, were widely expected to miss out on the job they now hold—a year ago, it looked a surefire bet that the US and UN would both get their first female leaders in 2017. Both believe they have inherited institutions in dire need of reform, but both have underestimated how hard this is to deliver—not least because of vicious, factional competition between the departments they notionally control. Both demand a lot from their teams—but neither is a great delegator, or indeed manager. The internal chaos of the Trump administration has almost ceased to shock, and heading the UN is always a bumpy ride. But one ambassador who has stalked the UN corridors for over a decade complains that it has taken Guterres longer than most to get functioning systems in place.

*** How then can Guterres handle Trump? As with all diplomatic encounters, the key will be to divide the agenda into areas where they can find some common interests and those where they must diverge.

In the former category is North Korea. Privately, one senior adviser says that Guterres is “as alarmed as anyone” by the US president’s belligerent rhetoric, but they now share an urgent interest in de-escalation, and in building pressure on China to restrain North Korea. To avoid catastrophe in Southeast Asia, Guterres must persuade both Trump and Kim Jong-un to act in a rational way. Easier said than done.

The same goes for the raft of simmering and potential conflicts that are at the top of Guterres’s in-tray—Syria, Sudan, Cyprus, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Iran. All issues that Trump wants off his radar, and the UN can, with a bit of deft diplomacy from the top man, help him with that. Guterres can also provide crucial diplomatic cover for the discussions between the US and Russia which will continue on all sorts of issues, but are increasingly hard to conduct because of the growing questions about links between Moscow and the Trump team.

Maybe they can even find some common ground on UN reform, on which they will hold a joint meeting. It is too soon to judge if Guterres’s ambitions for overdue change will succeed. But, with some neat footwork, he and Nikki Haley, America’s UN Ambassador, should be able to use the threats of stringent American funding cuts to force the pace. The pair have worked hard to build a solid personal working relationship and close colleagues on both sides say that there is genuine rapport. The Trump administration is no friend of multilateralism, but through Haley there is at least an investment in the UN as a platform for explaining US policy. Perhaps, hopes one senior UN humanitarian chief privately, there will come a point where Trump sees a use for an international agenda that shows him in a different light—akin to Bush’s Aids fund. For now this is wishful thinking.

For much of the rest of the agenda, though, Guterres will have little choice but to stand up against Trump. Most UN insiders already feel that he has been too slow to do so. It took, for example, several days to condemn the Muslim travel ban, and the eloquent and respected UN Commissioner of Human Rights, Zaid Ra’ad, has too often been left out on a limb. Guterres has ducked directly taking on Trump’s dismissal of climate change, choosing instead to work quietly to moderate the impact through Congress, Ivanka Trump and Haley. He has told his core team to exercise “maximum public restraint” on Trump in the run-up to their September meeting.

In picking his battles, it is of course important for Guterres to avoid painting Trump as a pantomime villain, and to zone in on those particular issues where his agenda could make the world less safe. The problem is there are quite a few of them—including migration, climate, global co-operation, the rule of law and especially human rights.

Guterres is a bureaucrat constrained by diplomatic niceties, and without any direct electoral mandate. There is no getting away from that. But in the absence of national leaders ready to take up the world’s biggest challenges, he is duty-bound to try.

*** Before 1914, statecraft was about divide and conquer. Between the wars, it was despair and conference. Post-1945 it was deter and convene. For states like Russia in the Trump age, the opportunity now is to disrupt and confuse. Meanwhile the Security Council’s most passionate defenders, the UK and France—both big backers of the Guterres candidacy—are distracted by Brexit. When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate change accords, Guterres warned US senators privately that America risked creating a “geo-strategic vacuum” by giving up its global role, adding, “I guarantee that someone else will occupy it.” China is still thinking about whether it fancies that.

Guterres well understands that diplomacy is always more testing in periods of economic and political tumult. Sure enough, in the shadow of the Great Recession, the 20th-century global order is being tested by a new nationalism, maybe to destruction. Technology should be shaking everything up, but is somehow passing diplomacy by. As Madeleine Albright puts it, “Citizens are talking to their governments using 21st-century technology. Governments are listening using 20th-century institutions. And delivering 19th-century responses.”

But it is not all bad news. The UN emerged from the devastating conflict of the two world wars, and it has survived for over 70 years without any full-on repeat. Take a very long view, and the world has got less violent, and extreme poverty has halved in the last 15 years alone. This is little consolation to a civilian in Syria, Gaza or Congo, but it is remarkable. And the US-manufactured post-1945 international system, with the UN at its heart, should take more credit for this.

With a divided and disruptive Security Council, Guterres has no choice but to make the argument himself, appealing over the heads of member states. As one UN chief puts it: “We all need him to find his voice.”

More than any other organisation, the UN sees the worst of humanity. But it also sees the best. Guterres needs to marshal the best instincts of humanity against the worst. The great dividing line of the 21st century is between two basic human instincts—to fight for resources, or to negotiate for them, to separate or to coexist. There is no clearer way to define the difference between Trump and Guterres.

So, as he approaches the end of his first year, friends of Guterres hope that he will be the figure to build networks in a time of institutional failure; consensus in a time of arguments; and bridges in a time of walls. He must make the UN a place of expertise, patience and perspective in a time of outrage, intolerance and the echo chamber. He can speak for migrants and refugees, and explain to the world that it needs to offer the dispossessed a better choice than that between a Mediterranean life jacket or a suicide vest.

Guterres must also counter the growing threats of the digital age, which he can only do by embracing its opportunities—technology and innovation. For the first time, we can imagine the whole world’s population enjoying instant and unfiltered means of communicating, consuming information and building communities, a real paradigm shift. We have not begun to adapt our global institutions to the new realities. If we are in the foothills of a truly connected, global civilisation, surely the UN should be the place to debate how that new civilisation can be made to work.

Guterres can show he understands the scope for that change. Technology can and must be used to keep safe those we send in to keep the peace in the toughest places. Drones can help us get vital help to those hit by disaster. We need a new Geneva Convention for cyber-security. We need to harness the power of technology to help the poorest, by getting millions more people online. The UN can drive equal access to educational opportunity for a generation of global migrants. It can develop new ways to crowdfund compassion, filling the growing gap in what governments can do for the poorest. It can marshal artificial intelligence to eradicate disease and improve disaster relief. The UN must innovate with urgency, or face a slow slide into under-resourced irrelevance.

*** With ambition, nous and technology, Guterres could take real strides to deliver on the goals set out so powerfully in the UN Charter seven decades ago. From refugees and beneficiaries of UN help, to policy makers and curious global citizens, the UN has a more powerful constituency than it realises. They need the UN. And the UN now needs them. Guterres can find his voice by giving it to them.

Trump’s election did indeed create a vacancy for leader of the free world. When they meet in September, Guterres should ask himself if he is the last, best candidate to fill it.

But first he needs to win three battles—to find a way of working with Trump on the issues where they can make common cause; to manage the impact his nemesis is having on the architecture of global co-operation; and to make the UN Great Again. His final act of public service can take him back to his first heady battles—for social justice and equality of opportunity, and against authoritarianism. If he pulls it all off, this can be the Guterres era rather than the Trump age.