What It Takes to Lead the United Nations

Open mike.

Photographer: Yana Paskova

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon takes part in his last annual General Assembly meeting, delegates from all countries will be looking to see who might replace him.

The four secret straw polls that the Security Council has already conducted offer few clues. Their results have been leaked, but not to the point of revealing how the five veto-bearing permanent members voted. So the putative front-runner, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, could in fact be out of the running.

It’s much easier to see what kind of person should get the job. For starters, it should be someone who can marshal the international community to confront humankind’s one truly existential challenge: climate change. Getting countries to build on last December’s groundbreaking Paris accord is the most essential task he or she will face.

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What’s more, the next UN leader should be capable of pushing hard for institutional reforms. It is essential, for one thing, to see that peacekeeping operations protect people rather than prey on them -- or serve as a jobs program for ineffectual militaries from poor, repressive nations. More broadly, the next secretary-general should strengthen oversight, shut down ineffectual or overlapping programs, and revisit the UN budget to make sure that all countries pay their fair share. In other words, the UN needs a leader with proven management and political skills and the willingness to confront unpleasant truths.

In this regard, it would help if the secretary-general served not a renewable five-year term, but a single seven-year stint. That would allow more time to make changes, insulated from political pressures.

More straw polls will be taken before the final vote next month. Make these transparent, and the ultimate winner may be able to gather more widespread support from the institution he or she begins to lead.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.