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Is UN secretary-general the most difficult job in the world?

Some American historians have long maintained that being US president is the most demanding position in the world. Overseeing the world’s biggest economy and military is an enormous undertaking. The officeholder’s decisions impact the lives of over 330 million Americans and potentially millions of others worldwide. However, the US presidency comes with great power and prestige.

Although some argue that the office of UN secretary-general is just as much of a pressure cooker, in many ways it is a thankless job. The UN, with its near-universal membership, is the international organization that most closely represents the international community in its entirety. Yet while the number of member states is impressive — 193 nations — it is the UN’s mandate as outlined in its Charter that is truly notable.

More than any other international institution, in the minds of millions worldwide it is the UN that is entrusted to maintain global peace and security. It also puts a high premium on promoting economic prosperity among the world’s 7.5 billion people. The one person who oversees this sprawling bureaucracy — the UN Secretariat alone employs some 9,000 people — with its many programs, offices and missions worldwide is the secretary-general.

Antonio Guterres became the ninth secretary-general in January this year. A former prime minister of Portugal and head of the UN’s agency responsible for protecting refugees for 10 years, he is well respected both inside and outside the organization. Whether it is his professional experience or natural temperament, Guterres seems to have already developed a comfort level in his new position, which some of his predecessors arguably never achieved. 

He was in Saudi Arabia last week, where he met with senior leaders and held a press conference with Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, during which it was evident that Guterres was well-versed on the crises and issues confronting the Middle East, and comfortable addressing the press.

Perhaps just as importantly, he appears to possess a naturally positive disposition, a much-needed quality when many others seem to have abandoned all hope in restoring peace to several regions around the world.

The role of secretary-general is outlined in the UN Charter. A large component of the position is administrative, and includes overseeing personnel at the Secretariat and various programs. The secretary-general is also expected to function as the world’s foremost diplomat, and to use his “good offices” to mediate disputes between countries.

Guterres appears to possess a naturally positive disposition, a much-needed quality when many others seem to have abandoned all hope in restoring peace to several regions around the world.

Fahad Nazer

Over the years, some secretaries-general were considered to have adopted a more “activist” approach than others. The late Swede Dag Hamerskjold is considered the best example of this, and according to many observers was the best person to occupy that position. His tragic death in 1961 in a plane crash, while he was attempting to mediate Congo’s first civil war after independence, added to his lure. South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, by contrast, is considered to have adhered more closely to the UN Charter’s literal description of the secretary-general as “chief administrative officer.”

While many credit the UN for making real progress toward promoting peace and prosperity worldwide, it has more than its fair share of detractors, many of whom say it has failed to promote peace and prosperity beyond a certain geographic area, mainly North America and Western Europe.

Others have criticized it for corruption-related scandals such as Iraq’s oil-for-food program, and for controversies surrounding some peacekeeping missions, such as the recent one in Central African Republic. The secretary-general often gets more than his fair share of the blame for these shortcomings.

To further complicate things, the secretary-general, unlike the US president, does not have nearly as much power. His ability to force member states to take measures they do not want to take, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, is extremely limited. While the UN is certainly not beyond reproach, it cannot operate independently of the will of its members. It is not a supranational organization that is autonomous from its membership.

Over the years, the relationship between the Security Council and the secretary-general has been a subject of much debate. The selection process for secretary-general is not specified in the Charter, but it has become more transparent in recent years, with the selection of Guterres by far the most open process. Nevertheless, the Security Council’s permanent members have often clashed with the secretary-general, and have vetoed nominations and additional terms.

I interned at the Secretariat many years ago when I was attending graduate school in New York. Walking the hallways of the building and attending the world-famous General Assembly, I quickly developed a sense that the UN was of immense importance for global peace and prosperity, and that I had a moral responsibility to help it achieve its objective. I can only imagine how the secretary-general feels.

• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.