UN Secretary General António Guterres is everything the American president is not. But is he ready to lead?by Tom Fletcher / September 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“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.