I am not, of course, suggesting that when Ban’s term concludes at the end of 2016 all 194 U.N. ambassadors gather in the General Assembly until they can produce a puff of white smoke. The great powers, including the United States, would abandon the U.N. if they could be outvoted on important questions, including the choice of the organization’s chief executive. But the United States, which drives the process more than any of the orther veto-wielding states, could for once seek someone whose chief qualification for the job is that they’d be good at it.
This would be one of the last decisions of Barack Obama, a president who prominently enshrined in his national security strategy a commitment to “focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests….” In his first few years in office, Obama placed the U.N. at the center of both his nuclear nonproliferation agenda and his approach to Iran. Since then, though, he seems to have lost interest, or perhaps hope of change. That may have more to do with Russian intransigence than with Ban’s ineffectiveness. No new secretary general can solve that problem.
Sometime this year, Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, is expected to become his national security advisor; Samantha Power, who is probably at least in part responsible for Obama’s faith in the U.N.(and in the responsibility to protect), is expected to take her place. If Obama really wants to strengthen international institutions, the stars will be aligned for him to do so. Power, Rice, Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry can find someone with the voice and the vision to renew the institution and restore its relevance — if they want to.