The International Civil Servant: Foot Soldier of Multilateralism

Jean-Marie Guéhenno
January 09, 2023

We are living at a time when the expression “international community” rings hollow. The space in which the Secretary-General of the United Nations can operate keeps shrinking as competing powers pile up pressure on him and on the Secretariat. The United Nations, instead of being the place where compromises are ironed out (although it still happens, as seen in the recent ‘grain deal’ that allows Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea amid the ongoing war), is used as the stage on which the major powers of the world are waging a battle to gain the political high ground. Many in the general public are thus disappointed that the UN does not speak with a louder voice.

Public discussions about the role of “the UN” often fail to distinguish between the political bodies comprised of member states, such as the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, on the one hand, and the UN secretariat and the dozens of agencies, programs and funds, on the other. In fact, almost 120,000 UN staff members work at headquarters, regional, and country offices. These international civil servants, from the Secretary-General to junior staff members, are the foot soldiers of multilateralism. Reviewing their role and responsibilities in times of crisis, I argue that they are the ultimate line of defense of multilateralism, and much rests on their commitment.

Based on my experience having served as Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations and my long-standing involvement with the UN, in this essay, I reconsider key ideas on the role and responsibility of international civil servants uttered some 60 years ago by then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. To ensure that the UN’s bureaucracies play a key role in solving today’s most important global issues, we need to consider the process of appointing the Secretary-General and senior UN staff, as well as how to manage human resources at all levels.

When I was appointed by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to be the Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping in 2000, the world was much less divided than it is now, but I was mindful of the responsibility of an international civil servant. I knew that my loyalty to the UN would be questioned since I owed my appointment in part to my passport: the Secretary-General had a choice of several candidates, but he had decided to appoint a Frenchman to that position, and I was therefore only facing two French competitors also nominated by the French Government. I would have to prove to my staff and to member states that, notwithstanding the flaws of that process, I was a loyal international civil servant, and would fully respect the prescription of paragraph 1 of article 100 of the charter of the United Nations that stipulates, “In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the Organization.” This would prove to be not so difficult, because the international community was less polarized than it is now, although the illegal war of Iraq opened deep divides, and because France generally respected paragraph 2 of the same article of the charter, which prohibits member states from trying to influence staff members of the UN.

Upholding the principles of the charter: the answers of Dag Hammarskjöld

Dag Hammarskjöld served as the UN’s second Secretary-General from 1953 until 1961. He lived in a period that had more similarities with what we are witnessing now. He was confronted with a political and ethical dilemma that is similar to the one António Guterres is facing today: how much should he bend to the conflicting pressures of the member states to ensure the future of the organization, at the risk of losing the moral authority of the UN?

The last major public speech of Dag Hammarskjöld was a lecture on the international civil servant, delivered at Oxford University on 30 May 1961. It expands on what he had told the Security Council a few years before, at the height of the Suez crisis: “the discretion and impartiality required of the Secretary-General may not degenerate into a policy of expediency. He must also be a servant of the principles of the Charter, and its aims must ultimately determine what for him is right and wrong. For that he must stand.”

Dag Hammarskjöld’s reflections remain relevant for our time. He first reminds his audience that, according to article 97, the Secretary-General of the United Nations is the chief administrative officer of the organization. That description could be understood as a minimalist understanding of the role of the Secretariat that would limit its task to the apolitical implementation of decisions taken by the political organs of the United Nations, that is by its member states. But Dag Hammarskjöld challenges that interpretation when he stresses that article 97 is complemented by article 98, which entitles the organs of the United Nations to entrust the Secretary-General with tasks involving the execution of political decisions, and by article 99, which states that “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” As the head of the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations, I experienced on a daily basis the importance of article 98. The mandate given by the United Nations Security Council, when it authorizes a peacekeeping operation, is always of a general nature, and its implementation requires that the Secretariat enjoy a wide margin of initiative. During the eight years I led the UN’s work on peacekeeping, I took thousands of decisions that were political. Moreover, without explicitly referring to article 99, I brought to the Council issues that some member states did not necessarily want to get involved in. For instance, when I discussed and prepared with the European Union (EU)’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana an EU-led and UN-authorized operation in the Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, wary of any military intervention, was unhappy that the UN Secretariat had shown a level of independence greater than what was tolerated in the EU bureaucracy, which is usually more mindful of the positions of its member states.

How to be neither an apolitical bystander nor a puppet of powerful member states

The international civil servant does not have the luxury to be apolitical, but then what does it mean to be politically independent? Resisting the pressure of a particular member state is necessary but it does not give a sufficient direction. In a national bureaucracy, there is a political direction, which in democracies is determined by elections. But what is the political direction of an international organization like the United Nations, and where is its accountability? Dag Hammarskjöld gives a nuanced answer to the question. For him, the principles of the UN charter, a body of international law, and frequent consultations with member states, that provide “an essential link between the judgment of the executive and the consensus of the political bodies” should all be part of the answer. This is a subtle interpretation of the charter. Dag Hammarskjöld knew that international civil servants, legitimately proud of defending interests that are broader than national interests, could easily fall into the trap of self-righteousness, but they should resist it. That is why he mentions the “frequent consultations with member states”: this does not reflect a concern for some kind of international “democracy”, but rather , a pragmatic awareness that without the backing of member states, the UN quickly becomes an empty shell, impotent and useless - the path is very narrow between the risk of being seen as a puppet of powerful states, and the risk of becoming an irrelevant by-stander with no real power.

There can never be a final answer to such difficult questions, and each situation will have its specificities; at a time when the world is increasingly polarized, the temptation may grow to give up, and lower its expectations to an international civil service which is simply representative of the diversity and contradictions of the world, rather than inspired by a vision that rises above the conflicting views of the member states. That was indeed the spirit that inspired the proposal by the USSR of a troika replacing the Secretary-General, which Dag Hammarskjöld firmly rejected. He did not want a secretariat whose impartiality would degrade into neutrality because the conflicting pressures of the member states would cancel each other.

How then can we ensure that the United Nations does not fall in that trap? Part of the answer lies in the individual ethical posture of each and every international civil servant. When I left the UN, I told my successor that I had found that the most useful preparation for my job had not been political science, international relations, or military strategy, but philosophy and the classics. The most important decisions made by international civil servants involve difficult moral judgments, that need to reconcile universal principles with the specificity of particular situations. However, beyond the ethical posture, we should also look at institutional measures that can shore up the ideal of the international civil servant.

Improving the selection process of the Secretary-General?

The process through which the Secretary-General is selected has attracted significant attention.

The UN Charter prescribes that the General Assembly appoints the Secretary-General, on the recommendation of the Security Council. In recent years, a growing number of well-meaning friends of the United Nations have advocated for actions that, without a reform of the charter, would give more accountability to the selection process. They argue for a public campaign modelled on the political campaigns that take place for the selection of leaders in democracies. I have my doubts. While such a process will have the benefit of eliminating poor speakers, it will also test the capacity of candidates to dodge controversial questions and to court countries that have opposite views on key issues, which may be less of a good thing. In the end, it rests on the assumption that there is such a body as an international community in which an informed debate on who would be the best Secretary-General can take place. We observe at the national level how such debates are increasingly absent because there is no genuine common ground between candidates, and I believe it is an illusion to think that they would be of a higher quality between member states at the global level. One should not forget that Dag Hammarskjöld and Kofi Annan, widely seen as two of the best Secretary-Generals in the history of the organization, were selected in part for the wrong reasons: they were expected to be bureaucrats who would not cause offense to the major powers, and they surprised the member states who elected them. Making the selection process more transparent and public may therefore disappoint, because it might eliminate good surprise candidates rather than give a chance to the best. In the absence of a genuine international community with a sense of shared purpose, no selection process can guarantee that the best will be selected. In that respect, preserving the independence of the Secretary-General once he /she has been elected is a more achievable goal. Having one-term appointments, maybe extended to six years, could be a more promising improvement.

Selecting the senior staff

The selection of the senior staff of the secretariat and major UN agencies is the second most important issue, and it is less formally constrained, since the Secretary-General is not bound by specific rules. Senior international civil servants, who serve as Under-Secretary-Generals leading UN departments – the equivalent of national ministries – or influential agencies, funds, and programs, wield significant authority over the work of the UN, its impacts and its perception.

As mentioned above, I was a beneficiary of the unwritten rule that ensures that the permanent members of the Security Council are asked to nominate nationals for important positions in the Secretariat. The only justification I can find for that custom is that the permanent members can block or facilitate the work of the Secretary-General and that it is important for the effectiveness of the organization that fluid relations be maintained with them. From that standpoint, I saw part of my role as explaining the Secretary-General to France, and France to the Secretary-General, which was different from pushing French interests. But perceptions matter, and on issues where France had a major interest, like Côte d’Ivoire, I knew that the Ivoirians would inevitably see me first as a Frenchman, even if I was totally loyal to the UN. That is why I tried to transparently share responsibilities with colleagues when dealing with files in which France was deeply involved. For the same reason, I think it is a mistake for the United States, arguably the most global and influential power, to have an American diplomat as the head of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, even if that diplomat is an impeccable international civil servant: inevitably, conflict parties will tend to conflate US and UN positions. Having the permanent members of the Security Council systematically control the most important UN positions weakens the authority of the Secretary-General and the overall representativeness of the UN system, and it would constitute real progress to fill senior positions at the UN with qualified experts and leaders from around the world. But that may not be politically realistic. Short of that radical change, the P5, while keeping significant positions, should commit to rotation, so as not to be seen as the owners of specific positions.

One further improvement would be to reduce the gap between so called “political appointees”, recruited at the top level, and usually staying for only a few years, and the permanent staff of the United Nations. It is rare that political appointees stay at the UN more than 4 or 5 years. Upon the end of their UN appointment, they often return to work in their national bureaucracies, which can provide leverage to their home governments and jeopardize their independence. Staying 8 years in my position, and not seeking re-integration in the French civil service afterwards, I was an exception. I think such exceptions should be encouraged and facilitated by the UN.

Managing the human resource of the UN

Lastly, and importantly, there is the rest of the staff, nearly 120,000 international civil servants who are the face of the UN around the world. Much can be done to strengthen their ranks and better manage their careers. The UN has tried to address some of the flaws in the latest UN Management Reform that since 2017 has taken steps to decentralize decision-making authority, streamline processes, and strengthen accountability and transparency. Let us hope they will reverse a trend towards ever more bureaucratization.

Although there are some remarkable exceptions like Kofi Annan, it is not healthy to spend a whole career in the United Nations, all the more so as the UN is very bad at nurturing talents. To avoid both self-righteousness and cynicism, one should never forget that the United Nations tries to transcend states but is not above states, and that for most of our fellow human beings, nation states are still the horizon of their hopes and dreams. Those who have stayed too long in the organization sometimes forget that. At the same time, staying too long in the UN carries the danger of becoming cynical about its mission and impacts. That would not be the case if the UN better managed careers, facilitating transfers within the organization and movements in and out of the UN, so that UN staff do not become a separate caste, isolated from the people they are meant to serve. It is an extraordinary privilege to contribute to a dream that transcends nation states, but one must be humble enough to recognize where one comes from and be able to live that tension between the universality of the charter and the diversity of nations. International civil servants have to maintain that delicate balance between the loyalty to the charter and the respect and understanding of member states - all of them, the powerful and the weak - without which the UN loses its potency. Dag Hammarskjöld once said he was not a secular pope. UN staff members are not secular priests. As they embody multilateral cooperation in their daily work vis-à-vis governments, media, private sector actors, and civil society, they are the ultimate line of defense of multilateralism, and much rests on their commitment, quality and values.

About the author

Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the Arnold Saltzman professor of practice at the Saltzman Institute and the director of the Kent Global Leadership Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. A French civil servant, from 2000-2008, he served as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping. He worked again with Kofi Annan in 2012, serving as his deputy in his peace mission for Syria. He was the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group from 2014 to 2017. He tweets at @jguehenno.