The next UN Secretary-General’s nationality is irrelevant

Notions of geographical or regional solidarity do not even correlate with the promotion of national interests.

Ramesh Thakur wonders why India is not backing a promising Sri Lankan diplomat to replace Kofi Annan as UN Secretary-General later this year. Surely, he contends, regional solidarity is something.

Well, it’s not. But first let’s assume that the UN Secretary-General really matters. But a South Asian or an Asian nationality does not guarantee that he or she will be sympathetic to Indian positions. In fact, even if an Indian national were to somehow occupy that office, it is difficult to see him making a difference where India’s stakes are concerned. Apart from spoils in the UN bureaucracy — some jobs, some plum appointments, some promotions perhaps — there’s little that an Indian/South Asian/Asian Secretary-General can do for India. Notions of geographical or regional solidarity do not even correlate with the promotion of national interests. Are Africa or Ghana any better off due to Kofi Annan’s office? Certain African individuals certainly are. Kojo Annan, for example.

Gratitude does not exist in international relations, quid pro quo does. Expecting Asian governments to ignore realpolitik and back unspecified Indian foreign policy positions sometime in the future in return for New Delhi’s support for their national’s candidature now is an exercise in wishful thinking. There are few takes to be had once the gives are given. Meaningful support can only be secured by, you guessed it, realpolitik.

India should not waste its diplomatic energies over the coming international political battle over the nationality of the next UN Secretary-General. It may be more worthwhile to bother about his personal honesty.

8 thoughts on “The next UN Secretary-General’s nationality is irrelevant”

  1. Nitin,

    Fair point. I do not see how an Indian or South Asian Secy Gen can help further India’s national interest. If the point that Ramesh Thakur makes about ‘major powers’ not nominating their citizens to the UN Secy Gen’s chair traditionally is right, India might hurt its chances of being seen as a world power by nominating one.

    Similarly, the ‘major powers’ cannot beat us with the same stick twice – India not important enough to be on the UNSC, but too important to have a UN Secy Gen.

  2. Of course nationality of UN Gen Sec matters. Kofi Annan did enhance the stature of Ghana and Africa – next time there is black candidate, being an African will not be an issue (I know Boutros was from Eygpt – but Eygpt is hardly an African country). While I doubt India is jealous of Sri Lankan candidate, I think it has more to do with getting concessions from ASEAN group – like path to full membership in exchange for support for that Thai candidate or reluctance to support a candidate not supported by Washington.

    It should matter to India where the candidate is coming from. A South Asian would more likely know and understand India historic stance on issues before UN and not end up like Kofi Annan – unwanted in New Delhi (at least for most of his tenure). BTW, if the candidate is a moderate Pakistani, I bet Manmohan’s govt to put their entire weight behind him or her in the name of enhancing the apparent peace process.

  3. Chandra,

    I don’t think the capabilities of Asians in general was ever in doubt. But taking your stature argument, let’s say India’s support helps a regional country to gain in stature. The quid now quo later bargain remains a bad one.

    Trade-offs have to be immediate. The only time India can trade off its support for an ASEAN candidate in return for membership is when the latter is imminent and on the table. Then too membership will be secured based on realpolitik considerations, not on acts of ‘solidarity’. Each ASEAN country will see India’s bid for membership in the context of its own national interests. Even if one of them discards this calculus and goes by India’s support for its national at the UN, there are 9 other countries in ASEAN to consider.

    A South Asian may know more about India’s historic stance etc, but need not agree with it. Remember the proverb about familiarity. No harm done if the UN Secretary-General is unwanted in New Delhi. He has too many problems on his head anyway.

    India should stay neutral if a Pakistani candidate were to put up his name. Even if it is someone like Mr Munir Akram!

  4. Agree with Nitin, and I think, that if its a Sub-continental candidate, particularly, they’re generally going to be hostile to Indian considerations except for, maybe, a Bhutanese! And the trade-offs have to be immediate – such support can only be justified if it has immediate gains, there hardly are any nations that would keep score for a measly UN-GS position support – and repay later!

  5. Nitin, I am not so sure realpolitik is so cut and dry. And solidarity means something to most countries, especially to ASEAN. Obviously solidarity would not work with ASEAN if the Thai candidate is a Thai candidate and not an ASEAN candidate – indicates are otherwise. And why should the “take” be immediate? For India, the take can come at the later date.

    True, a Sri Lankan UN Gen Sec may not support Indian stance on, say, J&K. But if he does and takes a clear stand against Pak terror sponsorship, it would give India more elbow room, especially with Europeans heads of states and talking heads, in pursing the current utterly one-way peace process. It was the early equivocation of Kofi Annan that kept him away from New Delhi.

    Prasanna, UN Gen Sec may be measly in US. Not so elsewhere in the rest of the world – he/she still has the bully pulpit and can do lot of damage or good (less so) for a cause. One reason why we want a UNSC seat so desperately is to control the damage this bully pulpit can do.

  6. Chandra,

    Yes, the UN-GS can influence opinion, but only upto the point where the West/English press wants him to – no more, no less(unless s/he’s taking an anti-West position and there’s tremendous support in the specific country for that). Having the UN-GS on your side might help, just a bit, but if the Western Govt’s are generally ill-disposed to that, it really doesnt matter – in the larger scheme of things.

    I would think it reflects badly on us/our Govt if we need a UN-GS on our side to tell the European imbeciles to MYOB on Kashmir. For quite some time, we have had people pontificating to us on that, and yet we could and did garner support, UN-GS or no UN-GS.

  7. The UN itself is losing relevance.

    UN Secy gen is more mouthpiece with pretensions of grandeur, IMO.

    The UN either drastically reforms or risks further loss in cred and relevance.

    Having paragons like Sudan, Cuba and China occupy seats at the UN human rights council just about describes how sick the situation is.

    And yes, a south asian candidate will wanna shoot his mouth off dissing India from hus bully (bullsity) pulpit trying to prove his and his nation’s independence from thebig bro bharat. Familiar script, new stage…

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