Meet the Next UN Secretary General: Antonio Guterres

Antonio Guterres will be the next UN Secretary General. After six straw polls, the Security Council has unified around his candidacy. A formal vote will be taken tomorrow to seal the deal.

Guterres is a former Prime Minister of Portugal. He lead the UN Refugee Agency from from 2005 to 2015 and earned high marks in that role for being both a capable steward of a large UN agency and for his outspoken advocacy on behalf the world’s most vulnerable people.

Here are 3 things you should know about the next Secretary General of the UN

1) From the perspective of the relationship between the US and the United Nations, Guterres is a solid choice.

First, he’s the former prime minister of a NATO country. Second, he served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees during both the administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama. This is key, because the USA is the single largest funder of the UN Refugee Agency, and accordingly holds a great deal of influence over who leads the agency. He clearly passed muster with both a Republican and Democratic administration, who approved of his ability to stretch their donor dollars to the fullest extent possible.

2) While key global donors like the US approve of his managerial skills, the NGO community also supported his candidacy. 

This is mostly for the fact that he consistently positioned himself as the voice of world refugees; a sort of moral center who would put his own career prospects on the line by calling out powerful countries. A couple years ago I attended an event at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, DC in which Guterres delivered an address about the Syrian refugee crisis. And in a way that would be uncharacteristic of someone who needed Washington’s support to become the next Secretary General, he stood before US government officials at a US government institution and sharply criticized the Obama administration for its (then) paltry commitment to resettling Syrian refugees.

He’s also been critical of notions put forth by Donald Trump that one’s religion should be used to determine refugee status. A week after Donald Trump issued his ban on Muslims entering the USA, Guterres briefed the Security Council for the last time as High Commissioner for Refugees. He had this to say. 

…we must not forget that – despite the rhetoric we are hearing these days – refugees are the first victims of such terror, not its source. They cannot be blamed for a threat which they’re risking their lives to escape. Yes, of course, there is a possibility that terrorists could try to infiltrate refugee movements. But this possibility exists for all communities – and homegrown radicalism is by far the biggest threat, as all the recent incidents have shown. Those that reject Syrian refugees because they are Muslims are the best allies in the recruitment propaganda of extremist groups.


3) Stylistically, he is a clean break from Ban Ki Moon.

The current Secretary General has many positive qualities. Among other accomplishments, Ban’s quiet diplomatic style helped advance the global climate agenda over the last ten years. But Ban Ki Moon was not an effective communicator, and lacked much charisma.

Guterres, on the other hand, oozes charisma. He’s a nimble, eloquent polyglot who has an ability to connect to an audience as you would expect of any skilled politician. He eschews jargon — indeed he semi-jokingly told the UN General Assembly that as secretary general he would ban the use of acronyms at the UN. Guterres is also direct. He rarely circumscribes, which is odd for a diplomat. But then again, unlike Secretaries General who came before him, Guterres never really was a diplomat. Indeed, he is the first former Prime Minister to assume the role of Secretary General.  That’s significant because we can expect him to bring a politician’s charm to this job.

Guterres will likely address the press in the near future–possibly tomorrow after the formal vote concludes.