The U.S. election isn’t the only big vote coming up next year, and Hillary Rodham Clinton might not be the only woman trying to break an infamous “glass ceiling.”
In a race that handicappers say is among the most unpredictable in the organization’s history, the United Nations next year will pick a successor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the low-key South Korean diplomat who has held the post since 2007. Just as in the U.S., the candidates already are deep into campaigning.
The global pecking order has changed significantly since Mr. Ban won the job eight years ago with strong U.S. support. The traditional carousel of regions taking “their turn” to hold one of the world’s plum diplomatic jobs is being challenged, and a group that has sprung up in recent days says it’s time for a woman in the post after eight male secretaries-general.
“Right now, the field is wide open,” said Brett Schaefer, an international affairs researcher at The Heritage Foundation. “Traditionally, the position has circulated around the regions. Most are making assumptions based on who hasn’t been selected. But it’s still early in the process, and it’s hard to predict who the front-runners are.”
Four of the five U.N. regions have held the secretary-general position: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America/Caribbean, and Western Europe/others, which includes the U.S., Canada and Australia. Only Eastern Europe has not hosted a U.N. chief executive, as the region had been dominated by the Soviet Union since the global body’s establishment in 1945.
Citizens of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States — are not allowed to hold the secretary-general post, per the U.N. Charter.
However, those five countries must agree unanimously on a candidate, who then can be appointed by the 193 member nations of the General Assembly to no more than two five-year terms. A veto by any of the Security Council’s permanent members can sink a nomination.
It will likely be difficult to find a candidate who is acceptable to Russia, China and the West. Facing deadly unrest in the Middle East, incendiary territorial disputes in the Pacific and Eastern European tensions stoked by Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil conflict, officials around the world are calling on a strong leader to keep the peace.
What’s more, women are expressing a sense of being underrepresented in leadership roles, as all eight of the U.N. secretaries-general have been men.
“There is sentiment for a woman, and it is high time that we have one,” said Assistant Secretary of State Bathsheba Crocker, who runs the Bureau of International Organization Affairs.
Jean Krasno is a former executive director of the Academic Council on the U.N. System, a nongovernmental organization that researches and teaches about the global body. Ms. Krasno, a Yale University international security professor, has just launched the Campaign to Elect a Woman U.N. Secretary-General.
“The U.N. is 70 years old; that is a lifetime. Let us make sure that in the next lifetime of the U.N., its leadership includes women of merit and nerve, significantly gifted to make the U.N. work. It’s time,” the campaign’s website, WomanSG.org, proclaims as it features profiles of women it deems qualified to hold the top U.N. post.
Among the female leaders the website highlights are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. Included in the list of potential female candidates is UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, whose home country of Bulgaria already has nominated her for secretary-general.
Another potential candidate is former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is the administrator of the U.N. Development Program.
Mr. Schaefer, of The Heritage Foundation, said the next U.N. chief likely will not be selected based on merits, region or gender, but will be someone who is not of a high profile and whom the five permanent Security Council members will not find threatening to their agendas.
Military-political analyst Richard Weitz agreed.
“Russia and the West can agree on a mutually acceptable candidate. They did during the Cold War. But any such candidate will, as usual, be weak except in those few areas the new person would make a priority. U.N. reform is unlikely to be such an area,” said Mr. Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
The selection of a U.N. secretary-general is generally a behind-the-curtains affair conducted via closed-door meetings and secret ballots.
According to the State Department’s Ms. Crocker, U.N. officials are reviewing documents to allow the selection to be a more open and transparent process.
“The [Security] Council was created to foster discussion and solve issues peacefully,” she said. “If members of the General Assembly had the same mindset, there would be no need for an international organization like the U.N.”
A secretary-general candidate will not be announced until mid-2016 and would assume his or her duties after Mr. Ban steps down Dec. 31, 2016.
• Hannah Crites can be reached at email@example.com.
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