Clapping for Clark

by The Listener / 28 April, 2016
A strange thing happens in domestic politics when a Kiwi runs for international office.
Helen Clark.
Helen Clark.


A strange dynamic kicks in when New Zealanders run for high international office. Hatchets are promptly buried as the political establishment puts partisanship aside and swings in behind the candidate. It’s a reminder that for all the bitchiness of domestic politics, our ideological and political differences are not acute by world standards, and certainly not so great that they can’t be set aside when there’s a prospect of New Zealand’s international standing being enhanced.

So it was with Sir Don McKinnon’s bid to lead the Commonwealth and Mike Moore’s campaign for the top post in the World Trade Organisation, and now with Helen Clark’s push for the job of United Nations Secretary-General. John Key went head-to-head with Clark in the 2008 general election but has become her ardent backer. Jim Bolger, who fought to keep Clark out of government for most of the 1990s, is similarly supportive. Even career spoilsport Winston Peters is on board.

How good are Clark’s chances? Not bad, even allowing for the patriotic cheer­leading of New Zealand commentators. British bookmaker William Hill has her as favourite, Ladbrokes as second favourite behind ­Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova. Factors in Clark’s favour are that she is female – although she shares that with several other con­tenders – with a proven record as New Zealand’s prime minister for nine years and as a capable administrator since 2009 of the UN Development Programme.

New Zealanders know her as a politician with a formidable intellect, an enormous appetite for work and an impressive command of detail. In her campaign for the UN job, she can point to her record in government as someone capable of wrangling disparate factions into effective coalitions. Like most centre-left politicians of her generation, she’s an internationalist. And though she’s a manager rather than a visionary, in the UN’s case the vision is already there; the hard bit, as previous secretaries-general have found, is making it happen.

Crucially, Clark comes unencumbered by baggage. She represents no power bloc and no divisive ideology. Because it poses no threat to anyone, New Zealand escapes suspicion of global ambitions or self-serving agendas. On the contrary, her prospects are buoyed by the country’s standing as a fair-minded, conscientious and generally independent player in world affairs, and by its consistently high rankings on all indices that measure human rights and freedom.

Whether this will be enough to secure the backing of the UN Security Council, which effectively decides the appointment, is another matter. Convention decrees that the position of Secretary-General rotates geographically, and that it’s the turn of Eastern Europe. Unesco head Bokova, who scored points over Clark by answering questions from the General Assembly in three languages, is said to have Russia’s backing. But any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council can veto a candidate, and it’s not hard to imagine a stalemate being broken by the appointment of a neutral contender. China has made noises of approval for Clark and its stance could prove critical.

And if she gets the job? The words ­“poisoned” and “chalice” come to mind. As a peacekeeper, the UN’s reputation remains tarnished by its inability to prevent genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, and more recently by sex crimes allegedly committed in Africa by blue-helmeted soldiers against the very people they are supposed to protect. As a guardian of human rights, its credibility is fatally compromised by a Human Rights Council that’s chaired by Saudi Arabia and includes some of the world’s most repressive regimes. In other fields of activity, the UN remains burdened by an image as bloated, ineffectual and toxically contaminated by ethnic, religious and ideological divisions – an institution where ritualised talkfests too often get in the way of efforts to help the world’s poor and oppressed.

There are structural issues too – notably the outdated compo­sition of the Security Council, which reflects the state of the world as it was in 1945. And Clark herself has talked about the enormous challenge of combating global terrorism, which has replaced the Cold War as the main threat to world peace and security.

She will have no illusions about the difficulty of rebuilding the UN’s damaged reputation, but neither will she lack the determination to tackle the task. And if it’s any help, she’ll have that stadium of 4.5 million people cheering her on.

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