New Year’s speeches of state leaders are dollars to doughnuts. And so are teasing statements within them kicking off controversial debates. This year Turkey’s strongman Erdoğan with his claims on Libya, and Little Rocket Man Kim Jong Un, who decided to cancel the annual address upstaged Xi Jinping. He was expected to make clearer statements on the hot Hong Kong issue but stayed diplomatic in sticking to broader economic claims instead.
Likewise appeared the speech of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. His address did not make it to the headlines. His very humble call for the youth to keep its political action appears to be of utmost importance. Yet, no TV channel in the world would interrupt its program for breaking news because of this insight. Now, why then having a look at it?
The interesting part is in what Guterres left unsaid. A year ago, the leader of THE world organization was speaking of “proving our worth through action”. Obviously, it does not appear convenient at the stage of world politics to publicly admit that the own state or organization, respectively, did not achieve its announced goals. And, sadly enough, this holds for most of the high expectations Guterres fueled back then. Powering ahead with the Sustainable Development Goals? After a fashion, if we turn one blind eye to it. Diplomatically overcoming the deadlocks in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan? Failed, even when turning both blind eyes to it.
Though, naysaying the entire year of the United Nation’s work would be unfair. The speech of 2020 alone tells us a lot about what the organization’s head seemingly learned.
Without giving up on multilateralism and diplomacy, Guterres cleverly shifted the attention from political summits to the world society with the youth being its spearhead. This is very smart in many ways. Firstly, he does not pass the buck to young people, as critics might say. On the contrary, young engaged people all over the globe fight for political action that is way overdue anyway. Secondly, by encouraging them he got other parts of the society on board, too. Thirdly, in not addressing the state leaders, he did not hold the diplomatic gun to their head; and fourthly, he released the UN itself from renewed expectations it could not meet.
It might become true now what has been said about Guterres when entering office three years ago. He is an honest broker, well-known for deal making. If it was his objective to step back from unattainable goals without putting feasible ideas that might not suit the political zeitgeist in those days out of his mind, one should congratulate him to his puristic New Year’s speech. At a later (hopefully not too late!) stage the UN now can be taken more serious as a broker than it could when repeatedly failing its self-defined tests.
Guterres shifted and invited to share responsibility instead of shuffling it off. He thereby learned from both, his own mistakes and the ones of the neo-authoritarian anti-multilateralists crowding the conference rooms and presidential palaces. Kicking off controversial debates is up to them; it is not the UN Secretary-General’s cup of tea.