The United Nations needs a “well-established leader” capable of working across divisions, and able to mobilise people around the aspirations the member states themselves have expressed for a more inclusive, sustainable world, Helen Clark said in a wide-ranging interview with euractiv.com’s editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.
Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister, is currently the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. She is running for the UN Secretary General post despite a groundswell to give the role to a candidate from eastern Europe.
Have your chances of winning the UN chief role taken a hit after the late entry in the race of Bulgaria’s European Commission vice president Kristalina Georgieva?
This has always been a very tough contest. The starting point at the UN was that it was Eastern Europe’s turn, but then other candidates joined the race, including myself.
So it has always been very tough, there are good candidates in the race, but we have to go into it saying: ‘I think this is very important and here is what I can offer’.
I happen to come from a small part of the world in the South Pacific, which is not part of a big power bloc, and one which nobody really has any bad feelings towards. I am a well-known figure around the world and, frankly, I think it would have been seen as surprising if I had not come forward.
So I continue to campaign on the substance of what I think needs to be done at the UN, how the UN needs to step up and why I think my very senior leadership profile, built over years of regional and national leadership, as well as the last seven years leading what is probably the most successful arm of the UN – its development arm – and why this is highly relevant to tackling today’s challenges.
Is it acceptable that a country ditches a candidate for another at the last minute? Isn’t this politically incorrect?
There are a lot of views on that around the UN, and I am sure around Europe too, as there are a lot of EU candidates.
It is really not for me to say. The process has never had a deadline for nominations, but there has been a long public process. A number of these candidates have been running for the last couple of years.
The hearings for the General Assembly were five and a half months ago. And almost everybody had declared by then. So I think a number of the member states are starting to say, ‘hang on, this has been quite a long process’.
So coming in at the last minute, if not politically incorrect, is awkward to say the least…
The person who was president of the General Assembly for the last year, the Danish politician Mogen Lykketoft, made it a defining characteristic of his presidency to open up this contest and make it transparent with a full process that the member states could be involved in.
So that is the way it has been seen in the NY diplomatic community ever since last December, when all member states were called on to submit nominations. And then the public process was outlined and was followed.
Your position worsened in last week’s straw poll. You were seventh equal of the nine remaining candidates, attracting six “encourage” votes and nine “discourage” votes. Some might ask why continue. Other contestants have pulled out of the race. Why do you think you want to keep going until the end?
Well … there have always been a bunch of candidates in what we might call the middle of the pack. Some have seven votes, some have six votes, some have five. So it has been quite a tight middle.
Antonio Guterres has always been way up front, but second place has always been quite volatile. It just has not been a very straightforward contest.
I came in as a very senior and serious candidate. Nobody disputes that I fulfil every requirement for the job. So it comes down to how the geopolitics plays out. It is about the style of leadership that the security council members are looking for, particularly the five permanent members.
I think that the UN needs a well-established leader to take it into really effectively facing the challenges of our world and mobilising the member states to meet them.
If they prefer a lower-key, technocratic profile, that is not me. I happen to have deep policy knowledge. I have enormous amounts of practical experience of leading and managing across peace and security, development, environment, every aspect of public policy.
If that is the profile they want, that’s me. If it is a low-key technocratic profile, that’s not me.
You are not a low-key technocrat. You have been described by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key as a natural leader. What do you think he meant?
I am someone who is prepared to lead. I assess the evidence, take a position and go out and advocate for it. And I do mobilise and bring people with me.
After all, I did win my constituency ten times in New Zealand and I won three general elections. I have a record of being a winner and of getting things done, and I think it is important to remember that the phrase you just quoted comes from someone who was my political adversary.
One of the things that has been noted about this campaign from New Zealand for me is that it goes across all political lines, it is genuinely a national campaign with multi-partisan support, and NZ is playing as a team.
So maybe that also says something about the kind of country it is. We are able to bridge divisions and get people to come with us. And I can bring those skills to the UN, which is a very complex political environment that covers every conceivable kind of political system.
The world is changing and so is leadership. What do you think are the ingredients for the 21st century leader?
I think the leader of the 21st century must be able to operate within conditions of great volatility. This is the new normal.
In this situation, you can’t just be like a compass needle, adrift. You have to have a solid foundation of values, and I think for leadership at the level of the UN secretary-general, the values are clearly expressed in the charter.
Those are the values you must stand for as you work to try to steer the ship and work with the member states to get through what are incredibly difficult times: times of conflict, times of environmental challenge, times of growing inequality.
We have to come back to those basic values and ask how we are going to build a better world around this. We have the agendas, we have the SDGs, which talk about peaceful and inclusive societies as the bedrock of the future.
So continuing to mobilise people around the aspirations the member states themselves have expressed for a better, more inclusive, fairer, more inclusive, more sustainable world, that’s the job. These are the values you have to lead from.
Last week, NZ Prime Minister Key pointed out that the crisis in Syria has shown the shortcomings of the work of the United Nations Security Council, where it has not been able to provide a unified response, and highlighted the urgency of reforms at the organisation’s primary body responsible for maintenance of international peace and security. Do you agree? What kind of reform?
Firstly, on the issue of Syria, I spoke to a lot of people that left NY last week very distressed that after five and a half years of war, and after days of intense discussion, including at the UNSC there was no resolution in sight. And that continues to be the case as we speak today.
Secondly, the drafting of the charter in 1945 did two things: it created five permanent members, with no mechanism for changing it, and it created the veto.
I might add that NZ opposed this back in 1945. But once things get into a constitution, as we see in the US with the right to bear arms, they are very difficult to change, and efforts to reform the security council have all run into stormy waters.
On the subject of the veto, France has put up very interesting proposals about getting permanent members to accept a constraint on the veto in certain circumstances, for example, when faced with horrific situations.
And then there is the debate about permanent membership itself, which really hasn’t reached white heat since Kofi Annan’s time and the UN’s 60th anniversary. There was a lot of discussion then, I was Prime Minister of New Zealand, we discussed it in our cabinet.
But it just isn’t straightforward because those that have the veto can also use it over questions of reform. So at the moment there is a lot of lower level discussion going on about whether there is an intermediary solution of some kind.
All I can say is that as secretary-general, you cannot decree on any of these issues, but what you can do is facilitate the debate among the member states.
You can provide advice, flesh out options, try to find different ways of looking at the question. You are not in a position to make the decision, but you can facilitate the debate.
So you would see your role as a facilitator?
Absolutely, and facilitating because if institutions can’t adapt and change, they become less relevant. I think the real crisis the UN faces now, in light of some of these major peace and security issues that it has failed to deal with decisively, is one of relevance.
When you start to lose relevance, people start to look for other ways and other places to do business. And that would be a sad thing because this is the premier multilateral institution.
Do you think the world needs more hard or soft power?
More soft power. There is a tonne of hard power out there, and military spending is probably the highest it has ever been. Has that brought peace and security? No. We need more soft power, and the secretary-general role is a soft power role.
The Secretary General has no army. Even when you deploy a peace-keeping force you have to beg countries to give you some troops.
But I do understand soft power. As Prime Minister of a small country, you really have no hard power, you only have the power of your voice among the other UN member states.
We obviously need to invest much more in security and conflict prevention. How to invest in that to bring tangible results?
Well, there is the long and the short-term. In the long-term, we need to persuade those who are in a position to fund development to actually fund development.
At the moment we have all these crises and a lot of money is being cut from development budgets or being diverted to meet humanitarian relief needs. This is understandable, but the long term business of investing in the stable, prosperous society that can employ its people and mediate its differences is not getting the attention it deserves.
The second point is the UN itself needs to have better early warning systems. What I can say as the leader of the UN’s development arm, is that we have full country teams in over 130 countries.
The UNDP itself has programmes and initiatives in 168 countries. We are on the ground. We see what happens.
We could be used much more effectively as part of an early warning system, spotting signs of tension emerging, bringing in more active intervention early – by this I mean mediators, people that can help the different parties talk though their differences, bringing in regional leaders to try to sort out a country rather than see it descend into warfare – there is a lot more we could do by means of following up on early warnings.
Let me briefly go back to the race. Obviously there is growing support to have a woman lead the UN. That is definitely an argument in your favour. But there is also the tradition that there is a rotation among the regions, and now the case is strong to give the job to an Eastern European nation. Do you think that is old-fashion thinking? All the candidates have different strengths, but should it not be the best one that wins, rather than just giving it to a European? Is this 20th century thinking?
I entered the race on the basis that the scale of the challenge means this should be a global search for the best talent for the job.
If the search is restricted to one corner of the globe, you are not going to get that global search for the best talent.
In the last 71 years, with eight secretary-generals, the position has gone around four regions. Eastern Europe has not been one of them, I imagine because it has been, and continued to be, tectonic plates between East and West. But right now, I think that the UN has to focus on who can lead it to step up a number of notches, to be a far more effective organisation than it is today.
How do you answer the critics that say you are too closely tied to the traditional UK-US power axis?
I think anyone who looks at NZ foreign policy going back a number of decades, including during my time in office as prime minister, would say that we stand as an independent-minded, small nation, and that we make our own judgements, based on our principles and upholding the UN charter.
That saw us not playing a part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, and rather taking the position of the vast bulk of the UN membership that the case for war was not made.
So noone could seriously mount the argument that Helen Clark and NZ automatically fall into one camp or another. We assess everything on its merits.
You hoped to be a compromise candidate. After the entry of Georgieva, do you think that can still be possible?
I think anything could happen in this campaign, because we have a very polarised security council at the moment, between the great powers.
In a very polarised situation, the chances of one or the other getting their top candidate go down. Then, they will have to look for where they might find a consensus, and around which candidate this consensus might form.
If you had to pick one competitive advantage that you would offer to convince those unconvinced members of the security council, in a word, what would it be?
I would say it is my capacity to work across divisions. And they know that. They have all worked with me.