UN Chief Bids for Second Term Decrying Capitalism’s Failings

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made his case for a second five year-term by saying that countries need to move beyond policies focused solely on economic growth, which he argued has fueled inequality and environmental degradation.

Guterres, a 72-year-old former prime minister of Portugal, said Friday that the world needs to let go of illusions from the 1990s, when there was the idea that “globalization would lift and resolve everything” and “that economies would grow forever and that the remarkable technological progress would improve the lives of everyone.”

“As we know today, globalization, technological progress and economic systems that build on endless consumption and ignore social cohesion, sustainable development and well-being, have also contributed to growing inequalities, creating divides, notably in the digital area, and wreaking havoc on nature and the climate,” he told the UN General Assembly, alternating between English, French and Spanish.

Guterres faces little opposition for re-election. Under UN rules, the secretary-general is appointed by the UN General Assembly, based on the recommendation of the Security Council. That gives the five permanent members of the council — Russia, China, France, the U.K. and U.S. — effective veto power over the outcome. The decision will be made before the secretary-general’s next term starts on Jan. 1.

Guterres took office in January 2017 just as the Trump administration came to office promising an “America First” foreign policy that many thought would put it in direct and immediate conflict with the UN. That didn’t initially happen, as Trump’s focus on ramping up sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program found support at the normally-divided Security Council.

Guterres also found common cause with the Trump administration in efforts to scale back costly and ineffective peacekeeping missions. But the relationship grew more tense as the U.S. criticized and then withdrew from UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and World Health Organization.

At the same, time, the Security Council was increasingly paralyzed on major issues as the U.S. and its European allies on one side squared off against China and Russia on the other.

But Guterres’s reputation as a pragmatic leader, steeped in core UN issues including the plight of refugees, held despite the Security Council breakdown.

Guterres alluded to the challenges facing the polarized UN on Friday, flagging concerns about the “dangers of the new geostrategic divide and dysfunctional power relations.” Minutes before, the U.S. and China were exchanging veiled jabs at a different UN meeting as they diverged on the meaning of multilateralism — the core purpose of the world body.

“Guterres has lamented the ‘dysfunctional’ state of great-power relations but does not seem to think he can do much to bring them together,” wrote Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group. Saying he believes Guterres will win a second term, Gowan said the secretary-general has pivoted to issues that win broader support.

“He has increasingly focused on climate change and, against the backdrop of the pandemic, both Covid-19 and its social and economic consequences,” Gowan added.

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