Guterres Has a Lot Riding on the Ukraine Deal

Guterres Has a Lot Riding on the Ukraine Deal
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, left, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, before ministerial meeting on growing food insecurity around the world, May 18, 2022, in U.N. headquarters (AP photo by John Minchillo).
Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Istanbul for what he described as “probably the most important” event of his tenure at the U.N. to date. He visited Turkey for the signing of agreements by Russia and Ukraine that are meant to allow agricultural shipments to resume from Black Sea ports, helping to alleviate a growing global food crisis. While Turkish officials played a major part in these talks, Guterres has been personally involved in the negotiations “every day” since April. This initiative may come to be considered a turning point in his career as the U.N.’s top official. There is still a good chance the deal, known as the Black Sea Initiative, will fall apart. Under the deal, Moscow agreed to ease its wartime blockade of Ukraine’s ports in return for Western steps to facilitate its own agricultural exports. But on Saturday—just one day after Russian and Ukrainian officials signed the treaties—Russia fired four missiles at Odessa, the Ukrainian port at the center of the deal. At best, this looked like a signal from Moscow that it will not allow the grain deal to hamper its military operations. The bargain could prove to be a dead letter. Yet even if this U.N.-Turkish initiative unravels, Guterres should get credit for risking some of his political credibility on a process with a high chance of failure. Although the secretary-general was previously involved in some high-profile peacemaking efforts—including a push for the reunification of Cyprus in 2017 and a bid to end the Libyan civil war in 2019—overall, he has gained a reputation for caution when it comes to preventive diplomacy. As I observed when he was running for a second term last year, he has often adopted a “low-key” approach to engaging in preventive diplomacy, preferring to focus on challenges like climate change. There are a number of explanations for this caution. Well before Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine, the secretary-general had recognized that “dysfunctional” relations between major powers had circumscribed his room for political innovation. He also has a genuine preference for quiet talks over dramatic diplomacy. In fact, he argued last week that the Black Sea deal shows that “discreet diplomacy” —a phrase he has used in the past to describe his craft—can deliver results. In the first months of the Russia’s war on Ukraine, Guterres again seemed to hang back from personal diplomacy, inviting public criticism from former U.N. officials. In April, however, he visited Moscow and Kyiv, where he helped seal an agreement on evacuating civilians trapped in the besieged Azovstal steel works in Mariupol. That personal touch set the stage for his work on the grain deal, for which Guterres will now face public praise or criticism depending on the deal’s implementation. Some of the response may be unfair, considering that U.N. officials lack the power to enforce humanitarian agreements of this type. Nevertheless, Guterres, who expressed dismay at Saturday’s missile strikes on Odessa, will have to decide when and how to call out Russia and Ukraine for actions that potentially undermine the fragile bargain. He will potentially anger both sides. This may be uncomfortable for him and for the U.N. system. However, the reputation of U.N. secretaries-general has often been tied up with their willingness to take risky political initiatives. Dag Hammarskjold, the Swede who still tops most informal rankings of the most inspiring U.N. leaders, made his reputation as an international mediator by visiting China in 1955 to secure the release of U.S. airmen detained during the Korean War. Kofi Annan, the most widely admired post-Cold War secretary-general, won kudos inside and outside the U.N. when he met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1998 to defuse a crisis over weapons inspections that seemed likely to spark new hostilities in the Gulf. This ultimately only postponed, rather than prevented, the Iraq War, but as I noted in World Politics Review at the time of Annan’s death in 2018, it was indicative of his readiness to take risks “even if the chances of success were uncertain.”

Guterres will have to decide when and how to call out Russia and Ukraine for actions that potentially undermine the fragile bargain.

Even the most politically astute secretary-general must accept that many of their diplomatic initiatives will sputter out unsuccessfully. Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Peruvian diplomat who headed the U.N. through the end of the Cold War, is often cited as a master of the type of discreet diplomacy Guterres admires. He was able to help frame peace agreements in cases from Central America to Cambodia. Yet he also had his fair share of failures. One of his first major initiatives as secretary-general was a push to mediate a peaceful outcome to the 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the U.K.-administered Falklands Islands, which the latter claims as the Malvinas. This proved impossible. Similarly, in 1991, Perez de Cuellar went on a last-ditch mission to Baghdad to try to head off the Persian Gulf War, during which he met with Saddam Hussein for two hours. The trip had little impact. Regardless, many of the diplomats who dealt with Perez de Cuellar on these abortive initiatives admired his determination to keep looking for peaceful solutions to international crises against the odds. It is worth keeping these precedents in mind as we wait to see if the Black Sea Initiative succeeds or falters in the coming months—and if there is any further political space for Guterres to do useful work on mitigating the Russia-Ukraine war. As I have argued elsewhere, we should use “modest” metrics when it comes to judging the U.N.’s performance in this war. The organization and its secretary-general cannot realistically halt Russia—a nuclear power with a veto in the Security Council—from its aggression. But Guterres and his team can aim to limit the fallout of the war by advancing proposals like the Black Sea Initiative. Having seen Guterres at work on Ukraine, diplomats from other regions say that they would like to see him engage more in a similar fashion in other regions, such as the Middle East. The secretary-general may have been a reluctant mediator for much of his time at the United Nations, but he could find that his diplomatic services are in demand for the rest of his term.

Richard Gowan is the U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. From 2013 to 2019, he wrote a weekly column for WPR. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardGowan1.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.