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The Peace and Security Role of the UN Secretary-General: What's Needed to Make It Effective, Gareth Evans

Commentary by Gareth Evans for NYU School of Law Conference on The Role of the UN Secretary-General, New York, 24 February 2006

The scope, limits and importance of the Secretary-General’s peace and security role have been well defined by David Malone and Teresa Whitfield, and other contributors to this conference. With its combination of external pressures from member states, internal house pressures, and relentless intellectual, physical and emotional demands, this is manifestly one of the most hair-raisingly stressful jobs in the world. So what is it that an SG most needs – in terms of both personal qualities and environmental resources – to carry it off effectively?

If one really wants a paragon of all the virtues one would no doubt have to list many more factors than those I mention here, as did Brian Urquhart and Shashi Tharoor this morning: about the only item missing from their combined checklist is dress sense. But let me offer, from my own perhaps idiosyncratic perspective - drawn substantially from my own long ministerial experience - a list of what I at least think are the seven most important .

1. Practical Intelligence

That’s not the same, I think we’d all acknowledge, as academic intelligence. Being able to engage, for example, in intelligent and sophisticated debate about the differences between functionalism and constructivism – which is something that I for one have never been able to manage - is not what the practical conduct of international relations is all about.

But it also means a lot more than being able to read in meetings from the right prompt cards. And it means, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, being more a fox than a hedgehog: it might have been good enough for an evidently much beloved US President of recent decades to know one big thing rather than many things, but it’s not enough for this job, which requires an ability to absorb, retain and mentally organise a huge amount of information across a very broad front.

It also means an ability to see patterns and shapes in that data flow; and to be able to see opportunities as they arise. You don’t have to generate good ideas, but it’s critical to be able to recognize them. And you have to know enough about people and their foibles to have a chance of making the right personnel choices.

2. Information

It’s no use being able to process information if you don’t have it. An SG, like anyone else in high office, is bombarded daily with a barrage of what passes for information – press reports, adviser’s reports and briefs, panel reports, governments’ blandishments, lobbyists’ appeals. But it’s not always the information he or she most needs, and for all the quality of the people in DPA and DPKO and elsewhere within the present Secretariat, the SG is notoriously under-resourced in-house for the kind of really detailed analysis of situations and possible strategies, that is a crucial element in effective conflict prevention and resolution. Although there has been some catch-up, and maybe will be some more with the creation of the Peacebuilding Support Unit, we are all familiar with the sad history of the Brahimi Panel’s recommendation for the creation of an Information and Strategic Analysis Secretariat (EISAS).

An effective SG has to escape from time to time from the comfortable insulation of his institutional environment and reach out for the kind of information he or she really needs. To combine my point with some shameless self-advertisement: an SG who shall remain nameless told me once that one of the things he likes about International Crisis Group reports is that he knows he is hearing in them, among other things, the real voices of his own people on the ground, giving the unvarnished reality about troubled situations, and the performance of the UN and others in responding to them - not the very often bowdlerised, gutted and filleted version of that reality that makes its way up the system after everything has been edited out that might cause offence to host governments, member states and officials higher up the organizational food chain have been edited out.

3. Thinking Time

Having information, and the practical intelligence to process it, are not much help if an SG never has time to properly think the issues through. This is an occupational problem for everyone in high office, but it is particularly acute for someone who has 191 heads of state and foreign ministers, just for a start, who feel they have an absolute right to waste his or her time whenever they feel like it.

One solution, much easier to say than apply given the number of people who want to kiss the secular-papal ring for extended periods at any given time, is to limit appointments to a few hours a day and relentlessly apply the 15 minute rule to all of them: in my long experience of these meetings there’s never very much more than one or two substantive things that need to be said on either side, and the rest is padding and politesse. No doubt a good deal of time could also be saved in not spending hours listening to set piece speeches, in the Security Council and elsewhere, that could much more quickly be read if they are worth absorbing at all.

But of course to follow any of these prescriptions too enthusiastically would be to quickly acquire a Boutros-Ghali-like reputation for aloofness or arrogance, or for machine-like inhumanity. Gossip and schmoozing, and time-wasting in formal public sessions and events, is what makes the political world go round: the SG is part of that world whether he or she like it or not, and ignores the conventions at his or her peril. So the problem of thinking time will continue. More time at home in the bath may be the only answer.

4. Friends

Teresa Whitfield did a terrific job explaining, much more systematically than I’ve seen before, the role of ‘friends’ groups of countries in cutting through some of the institutional constraints that stand in the way of effective conflict prevention and management, and post-conflict peacebuilding. Notwithstanding all the limitations and qualifications she mentions, there is no doubt that this can be a real force-multiplier for the SG in exercising his problem-solving influence.

The point about friends has a more immediate and personal application. There’s a familiar saying in Australia that “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog”. The SG, as I have just said, is in the politics business, whether he likes it or not; and in the international politics business, perhaps even more than in the domestic variety, friendship with the key political players is a pretty transient issue-by- issue business – at least if you’re doing your job properly and calling every issue on its merits.

But anyone in high office does need people around, in his or her private office and wider professional and personal environment, who can give not only efficient technical and professional support, but a significant degree of emotional support: the essential loneliness of these offices is not just a cliche. Non-oleaginous expressions of encouragement when you’ve performed well or done the right thing are important to even the most apparently nerveless characters; and even more so are the words of quiet consolation when, as tends to happen more often, you have screwed something up.

The trick is to have people around you in your immediate personal sphere, and your private office in particular, who can play that supportive role without at the same time insulating you from reality: blind loyalty can be a terrible liability. The most useful staffer I ever had as a Minister – and she stayed until just about the end of my term to tell the tale – was the assistant who took it upon herself to whisper in my ear on those numerous occasions when I was about to do something, let us say, over-adventurous: “Remember Caesar that thou art mortal”. Every SG should have one.

5. Moral Courage

Where personal support becomes most important is when one goes right out on a limb, saying or doing what is absolutely the right thing, because it’s the right thing, but knowing that you will generate a firestorm in the process. The really first-rate SGs are those who have been prepared to put themselves and their reputations absolutely on the line in this respect: moral authority doesn’t come from preaching bland nostrums that will offend nobody, but from taking real risks.

The present SG has given some outstanding examples of just this kind of moral courage. I’m thinking in particular of his General Assembly speech in 1999 challenging not only the whole international community to confront the challenge of genocide, atrocity crimes, and humanitarian intervention, but the developing countries in particular to recognize that their sovereignty was not absolute in this respect; and then later-on, to spread the outrage even handedly, his clear-eyed statement (albeit first uttered somewhat accidentally) that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal as a matter of international law, and his determination to open up the issue of Security Council permanent membership, knowing the chances of change were slight, and that this was absolutely no way to win the affection of any member of the P5.

That’s moral courage on the high ground issues, but there is plenty of scope for it as well on more run of the mill peace and security issues. There may not be all that much scope for an SG saying an outright ‘no’ when member states seem determined to follow some unpalatable or undeliverable course, but there is certainly scope for push-back, rather than timid reflex acquiescence, and the best SGs have always been willing and able to do that.

6. Resilience

In any high office of the kind we are talking about things are bound to often go wrong: we’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law, but I’ve always been most moved by what is known in the Antipodes as O’Toole’s Corollary: “If you’re feeling good, don’t worry: you’ll get over it”. Of all the characteristics that enable one to survive, and continue to perform effectively in high office for years on end, I think the critical one is resilience: the ability to bounce back from these situations - not mindlessly and empty-headedly, learning nothing from the experience and having every prospect of repeating it, but in a way that enables you to move on constructively.

Another way of putting this is to say that you have to have a thick skin, but that’s a little crude. Another is to say that you should have a sense of humour, including a real capacity to laugh at yourself. But a sense of humour can actually be quite dangerous in any political context: my conclusion after witnessing government and politics in Australia for 21 years was that the secret of ministerial success was to be a dead bore, and I suspect that’s something that crosses cultures.

The real point I’m making, I guess, is that if you want an SG to be effective in all the high risk activity that is part and parcel of the discharge of his peace and security role in particular, it’s best to choose someone who really has been tempered in the rough and tumble of public life, and knows how to take the falls without going to pieces or retreating totally into an impotent shell thereafter. And if your choice doesn’t have that kind of background – and its worth remembering that very good, and courageous, SGs like Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan himself had essentially fairly non-exposed bureaucratic careers - at least try and make the judgment they will be capable of that kind of resilience.

7. A Single Seven-Year Term

The final ingredient in my wish-list echoes a theme already raised by others: what an SG needs to be effective in peace and security issues, as elsewhere, is a single seven-year term. Although some would argue that this is exaggerated, in my view the stresses and tensions and pressures that are associated with a reappointment process, particularly after Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s experience showed that there is nothing automatic about it – are just not conducive to the kind of consistent, clear-sighted, courageous leadership that an SG needs to be able to show. The pressures upon the office, and office-holder, from multiple directions are likely to be enough to ensure that an SG freed from the anxiety of reappointment wont be a loose cannon: those pressures of course are what work now to constrain SGs in their (assumed to be not further extendable) second terms from going completely off the rails. (And the reality of that second term discipline now is the answer to those who say a single term limit means no discipline at all.)

In a world where a rule-based international order is constantly at risk, the virtues of cooperative internationalism have to be constantly asserted and the effectiveness of multilateralism needs to be constantly demonstrated, the real worry is not that an SG will be too loose a cannon, but that he or she will too uptight a one to play the strong leadership role that is needed from this great office.