NOTE: This column was written by Professor Martin Edwards.
We’re nearing the end of Secretary-General Guterres first 100 days. How is he doing? He took office under daunting circumstances. With the many challenges the UN faces, he surely feels like a relative who inherited a leaky boat and now has to fight with his family members to keep it. He was dealt a bad hand even before the US election with the deepening humanitarian crisis and conflicts spiraling out of control in the Middle East and Africa. However, he has done four notable things in his first 100 days:
- He has sought to minimize major power meddling. Many observers thought that Guterres would have to immediately offer cabinet positions to Russia and China in exchange for their support, but that has not yet happened. While he did lose with the US veto of Salam Fayyad as Libya envoy (though this seems that the screw-up is of the US’ doing), he only gave the US and France one year appointments at DPKO and DPA, allowing himself freedom of action moving forward. He has formed a constructive relationship with Nikki Haley, focusing on nurturing the shared priorities of the US-UN relationship and overlooking Haley’s bombast. Perhaps one of the smartest things that he has done is to stay away from the White House and focus on working with Haley rather than step over her to engage her intemperate boss directly.
- He has kept his own focus on making 2017 a year of peace. His travel schedule tells you about his priorities, as he has already made multiple trips to both Africa and the Middle East. He has continued to keep the priority on Syria, and the pledging conference was a notable success. Guterres’ ability to keep the focus on peace and security is a notable contrast to the Trump White House, which is frequently incoherent. He needs to continue this focus in the coming months, mindful that breakthroughs on these issues are well out of his control.
- He is playing the long game with UN reform. The more that Guterres can reform the UN system, the more his relationship with the US will improve. The proposed organizational reforms to the counterterrorism program and the Peace and Security Review will help improve his relationship with the US, and embracing, rather than combatting US concerns over peacekeeping bodes well for this relationship. Keeping the Trump administration engaged with the UN, given its rhetoric and lack of direction, is a major diplomatic coup.
- He has made a break with the past. Many were looking forward to Guterres injecting some excitement into the UN, and he has delivered in small but important ways. He has continued to press for gender equality in multiple fora, most notably in addressing the NGO community at the CSW meeting. Finally, he’s been more embracing of social media, as he’s now the first Secretary General with a twitter account. The more that he gets past the staid days of canned statements, the more that he can reach and motivate civil society to support the UN.