Can a Consummate Insider Bring the Change the U.N. Desperately Needs?

Susana Malcorra wants to run the U.N. But can she shake up an institution that she's been so instrumental in shaping?


Susana Malcorra, Argentina's foreign minister and a leading candidate to become the U.N.'s ninth secretary-general, understands the inner workings of Turtle Bay better than any of her 10 rivals, a double-edged attribute that could boost her bid for the world's top diplomatic job -- or deal it a serious blow.

Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister and a leading candidate to become the U.N.’s ninth secretary-general, understands the inner workings of Turtle Bay better than any of her 10 rivals, a double-edged attribute that could boost her bid for the world’s top diplomatic job — or deal it a serious blow.

As Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff from April 2012 to December 2015, Malcorra helped run the U.N. secretariat she now aspires to lead. Before that, she served as a senior administrator at the World Food Programme (WFP) and the chief of logistics for U.N. peacekeeping operations, responsible for mustering the troops, helicopters, rations, and fuel needed to run the world’s second-largest expeditionary force.

“She saw her role as getting shit done,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, noting that she was the go-to official that the United States and other big U.N. powers would go to get problems resolved. “She was one of the few adults in Ban’s office, and she has a strong sense of how to use the limited power you have in the U.N. system.”

During more than a decade with the U.N., Malcorra earned a reputation as a decisive and pragmatic bureaucrat — a high-powered fixer particularly adept at putting out administrative brushfires and accommodating powerful government envoys, including Samantha Power and Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who serve as the U.N.’s unofficial corporate board. The challenge for Malcorra, observers say, is whether she can move beyond her roots as a backroom power broker, stand up for the principles enshrined in the U.N. charter in the face of big power push-back, and articulate a strategic vision for an organization whose future seems as uncertain as it has ever been.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Malcorra said that while she has mostly worked “under the radar,” she has demonstrated a willingness to speak hard truths to power behind closed doors. But she has found the most effective way of advancing the principles enshrined in the U.N. charter is through quiet, discreet diplomacy. “It’s not by yelling all the time that you get there,” she said. “I am a troubleshooter and a problem-solver. That’s true. But I am also a bridge-builder.”

Malcorra added that the U.N. is designed “for evolution, not for revolution.”

“You need to be careful not to break things in a manner that affects your ability to deliver [results],” she said.

Her critics are skeptical. They say she has been all too willing to sacrifice the U.N.’s independence and its core principles, including a commitment to human rights, for the sake of political expediency. Sometimes that meant exercising her considerable authority over the U.N.’s informal patronage system, one of the most powerful levers of influence at the U.N., to accommodate the United States and other key powers who will ultimately decide if she will get the top U.N. job.

In her first meeting with President Barack Obama’s new U.N. envoy, Susan Rice, in February 2009, Malcorra, then head of U.N. field logistics, lavished the American diplomat with the kind of VIP treatment reserved for big-power representatives. She presented a list of six vacant high-level jobs that she had either earmarked for an American candidate or for which she encouraged Rice to put forward a U.S. candidate, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.

Tony Banbury, a Clinton-era National Security Council official who worked with Malcorra at the WFP and was viewed favorably by the Obama administration, was on a “one-man short list” to be her second-in-command, Malcorra told Rice. Banbury got the job. Malcorra also “indicated an openness to considering USG [U.S. government] candidates for four vacant director-level positions in her department,” according to the U.S. cable. Washington wound up with an American in one of those jobs.

When Rice expressed a desire to see a “strong American” as the No. 2 in the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Malcorra told her that another American she had worked with at WFP was already being considered for the job. But Malcorra said that if Rice had a preference for a different candidate, “we should move quickly” to get him or her on the short list. Rice did.

In the end, the job went to American diplomat Peter Galbraith over the objections of the U.N.’s top man in Afghanistan, Kai Eide of Norway, and other senior U.N. officials, who feared the appointment of a senior American official could compromise the U.N.’s independence from the U.S.-led NATO force. Galbraith was subsequently fired following a bitter dispute over how the U.N. should respond to allegations of voter fraud by supporters of Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai.

Galbraith’s appointment in Kabul — and Malcorra’s willingness to accommodate Rice — highlights the transactional nature of international diplomacy at the U.N., where plum assignments are used to lubricate the wheels of statecraft. For her part, Malcorra appealed to Obama’s U.N. envoy to use her government’s influence to encourage governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to continue pledging troops for U.N. peacekeeping missions. She also asked the United States to continue the Bush administration’s policy of supporting an African Union peace-enforcement operation in Somalia with logistics and training. The Americans accommodated her.

Malcorra said that there was no favoritism shown to the United States, that she had followed the U.N.’s hiring rules scrupulously, and that all senior officials were required to go through a competitive recruitment process, which requires producing a short list with three candidates, including at least one woman. She added that senior appointments were an “issue that is brought up and raised by every single member state” she dealt with while serving as Ban’s chief of staff and running the logistics division of the U.N.’s peacekeeping logistics branch.

“I would have that kind of conversation with the French, the British, the Americans — or the Kenyans, or the Brazilians, or the Indians,” she said.

The United States has long claimed that it doesn’t engage in the U.N. game of swapping jobs for influence. Despite Washington’s stated preference for merit-based senior appointments that would open key posts to non-Americans, it has long insisted that certain top posts, from the department of political affairs to the head of WFP, remain in the hands of U.S. political appointees. Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recalled in his memoir, Unvanquished, that his decision in 1995 to reject President Clinton’s first choice to head UNICEF “seemed to irritate” Madeleine Albright, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., “more than any previous issue between us.” American officials have privately defended the practice, saying they have a record of putting forward talented American nationals who share the values of U.S. policymakers who want the U.N. to succeed while ensuring that billions of American taxpayers’ dollars are well-spent.

But others say the practice has reinforced a troubling pattern of parceling out top jobs throughout the U.N. secretariat to candidates with more political connections than skills and experience. “There is an unfortunate perception, extremely unhelpful, of a secretariat that is in the pocket of the big powers,” Thant Myint-U, a former U.N. political officer, wrote in a recent history of U.N. appointments published by New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “Change will be difficult, but without the right initial appointments it will be impossible.”

“Susana’s big weakness is she looks at everything through the prism of the member states — she will always make the Russians, the Americans, or anyone else walk away with a feeling that they have a sympathetic ear,” said a U.N. source who worked closely with Malcorra for years. “I have never seen her in all my time as an observer challenging a powerful member state. Sometimes you have to say no.”

That is easier said than done. Another U.N. official pointed out that denying Americans what they want can be fatal to one’s career, recalling how the United States single-handedly blocked former Egyptian Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali from serving a second term after he resisted appeals by the U.S. to authorize airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s. “The Americans want what they want and saying no to them has a cost,” the official said.

The United States and Britain, in particular, have highlighted the need to appoint a strong secretary-general at a time when the world is confronting a host of thorny challenges, including global warming, the rise of Islamic extremism, and the greatest flight of refugees and migrants since World War II. Before joining the Obama administration, Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had decried the selection of Ban as an uninspired choice to lead the U.N.

For Power and Rice, installing an effective and inspirational U.N. leader, particularly a woman, could stand as an important legacy. Whether Malcorra fits that bill is a matter of dispute in U.N. circles. There are several other female candidates, including Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand who now serves as executive director of the U.N. Development Programme, and Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian head of UNESCO, vying for the job. Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian economist and senior budget official in the European Commission, has been informing key powers that she intends to enter the race in early July.

As a U.N. insider, Malcorra may lack the political credentials of some of her competitors, including Clark and António Guterres, a former U.N. refugee chief who served as Portugal’s prime minister. Her appointment as Argentina’s foreign minister in December 2015 should help allay some of those concerns, but Latin American diplomats say she has struggled to rally support for her candidacy in the region. She has not received endorsements from any key Latin American countries. Another Latin American candidate, Christiana Figueres, a former U.N. climate chief from Costa Rica, is expected to mount a challenge.

In recent weeks, Malcorra has faced sharp criticism from human rights advocates who claim that as Argentina’s foreign minister she has dramatically dialed back her government’s commitment to promote human rights in Venezuela in a bid to secure Caracas’ support for her bid to become secretary-general.

The issue came to a head this spring, when Argentina reportedly stalled a bid by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, the former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, to introduce a resolution evaluating Venezuela’s commitment to democracy, a move that could have resulted in Venezuela’s suspension from the OAS.

“When Malcorra was first named foreign minister and then decided to run for U.N. secretary-general, she softened Argentina’s stand on Venezuela, seemingly to curry vote for her U.N. candidacy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

“A key part of the U.N. secretary-general’s job is to uphold human rights,” Roth added. “If the first thing she does in running for secretary-general is to adopt the language of those who try to avoid international scrutiny of their human rights practices, it is a terrible omen for the kind of secretary-general she would be.”

Malcorra said Roth and other critics are missing the point on Venezuela. There is a false sense that punishing Venezuela and casting them out of the OAS is a “silver bullet,” she told FP.

“Say for a minute that we expel Venezuela. What will that achieve?” she said, noting that Venezuela is facing economic, political, and humanitarian crises. “There is a need to decompress the humanitarian crisis.”

“We have spoken about human rights; we have said it loud and clear,” she said. “But in the end what we need is to have both parties sitting at the table to find a solution. That you will not get by expelling Venezuela from the OAS.”

Malcorra said her position has subjected her to criticism not only from Venezuela’s critics but from the government. “I’m being damned from both sides, which means I must be doing something right,” she added.

In December, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, criticized Malcorra for allegedly interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs on behalf of an international “right-wing cartel.” But that was before Malcorra opposed sanctioning Caracas at the OAS.

Malcorra faces other hurdles to ascending to the U.N.’s 38th floor, the secretary-general’s office atop the U.N.’s headquarters building. The job is usually reserved on a rotating basis for candidates from the U.N.’s regional groups. There is broad sympathy for the notion that a candidate from Eastern Europe, which has never produced a U.N. chief, should have a first shot at it. Russia, which enjoys veto power, has expressed a strong preference for an Eastern European. But it has not explicitly warned, as China did eight years ago, that it would block any candidate from outside its region. Meanwhile, Britain, which fought a war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas as they are known in Argentina, may have reservations about her candidacy. And Moscow could derail the candidacy of a Latin American like Malcorra if it decides that the next U.N. chief must come from its own neighborhood.

There is speculation that the United States and Russia, which have clashed bitterly over policies from Syria to Ukraine, may not be able to agree on an Eastern European, thereby opening the door to a compromise candidate like Malcorra. It helps that there is mounting support for the idea of a woman ascending to the U.N.’s top diplomatic job for the first time.

“Her entry into the campaign does basically change the nature of this race,” Gowan added. “Now you have a candidate who is very widely believed to have U.S. backing and who can trump the other contenders … in terms of mastery of operational detail.”

But he said there is a “downside” “to her qualifications, Gowan added. If “she is elected this is a continuity candidate.”

“She has been in the system long enough that she is knowledgeable about how it operates,” said a senior U.N. advisor. “With Malcorra you get what you get — someone who knows the beast, knows how to maneuver in it but suffers from the compromises of getting stuff done in a multilateral institution.” That means Malcorra, along with other top U.N. officials, will bear some responsibility for some of the U.N.’s biggest muck-ups, including the failure of the U.N. mission to protect civilians in Darfur and the refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the U.N. cholera epidemic in Haiti.

Malcora’s admirers say she has a distinguished record of administrative achievement, shaped during a 25-year career in the private sector, initially with IBM, and later at director general of Telecom Argentina. In her first few years at the U.N., Malcorra tried to apply cost-saving measures to U.N. peacekeeping by centralizing key administrative functions, like budgeting, human resources, and logistics in regional hubs in Entebbe, Uganda; and Brindisi, Italy.

“Malcorra brought a private sector and operational sensibility to the Department of Field Support, and what is rare in the U.N. — she improved both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the U.N. bureaucracy,” said Bruce Jones, the director of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, who has worked closely with Malcorra, whom he considers a friend.

Malcorra has also been tasked with handling some of the U.N.’s most sensitive operations, including the creation of a chemical weapons mission that destroyed the vast majority of Syria’s deadliest missiles. She also spearheaded the U.N. response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa and negotiated a peace deal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “She was very creative in thinking outside the box,” said one senior colleague.

“We could do a lot worse” than having Malcorra as secretary-general, said another official from the U.N. peacekeeping department. “She’s a thinking person and someone who understands the U.N.’s political and operational realities.”

In her vision statement, presented to the U.N. General Assembly, Malcorra said her experience as both an advisor to the secretary-general and implementer of his policies has given her a “unique” perspective on what has worked and what needs to be done differently. “As for whether i would follow in his footsteps, I’m sure there will be things that I will follow and there will be things i will be doing different.” But she made it clear that she would take her guidance from the U.N. member states. The secretary-general must inculcate a culture of humility in the daily work of the organization … to faithfully implement and support member states’ decisions.”

Detractors have challenged her administrative record, citing her failure to elevate women to senior posts and supporting reforms that have imposed cumbersome red tape on hires. A recent analysis of senior posts showed that 92 percent of senior officials hired in 2015, her final year as Ban’s chief of staff, were men. “As the clamor grows for a woman to be chosen as the next secretary-general, other high-level staff appoints have been steadily defying the U.N.’s long-standing goal of gender parity,” wrote Karin Landgren, who served as the U.N.’s top official in Nepal and Liberia.

Malcorra acknowledged that the U.N.’s promotion of women has worsened in her final year as the U.N. leader’s chief of staff. “I’m not going to deny it,” she told FP. “There was a relaxation of the [U.N.’s] very, very hard line on the appointment of women.”

But she appeared to blame her former boss and U.N. member states, saying ultimate responsibility rests with the U.N. secretary-general, whom she alerted to the downward trend in the promotion of women, and the member states, which have not put forward enough good female candidates. “It’s like pulling a tooth out of a tiger, getting women candidates,” she said.

There have also been questions about her judgment in another critical case. In March 2015, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein, had grown suspicious that a subordinate, Anders Kompass, had improperly leaked an unredacted copy of a report documenting sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic by troops from Chad, France, and Equatorial Guinea. Zeid pressed Kompass to resign. But Kompass refused, saying he had acted to stop the abuse. Zeid turned to Malcorra for help.

Malcorra organized a March 20, 2015, meeting in Turin, Italy, with Zeid, Carman Lapointe, then head of U.N. internal investigations, and Joan Dubinsky, then chief of the U.N.’s ethics office, which is supposed to protect U.N. whistle-blowers, to decide how to deal with the problem. Following the meeting, Kompass was placed on administrative leave and Lapointe opened an investigation into possible wrongdoing by Kompass.

But an independent review of the U.N.’s handling of the matter found Malcorra’s decision to organize the meeting was “ill-considered.” The report found that Malcorra “should have known” the high-level meeting “would prompt speculation that a conspiracy was afoot.” She should also have anticipated that by including the head of internal investigations she “was likely to compromise” their independence. The involvement of the ethics chief, the panel added, put her in a conflict of interest.

Kompass, who resigned and plans to re-enter the Swedish foreign ministry, said Malcorra represents the “status quo.”

“Having her as secretary-general would mean more of the same we have seen over the past nine years, which would be a disaster for the United Nations,” Kompass told FP, noting that she had denied him a chance to defend himself. “Please, Obama. Can you give us at least an inspiring secretary-general before you leave?”

Malcorra defended her handling of the Kompass case, telling FP that in organizing the April meeting she “assumed” that Lapointe and Dubinsky had the “judgment to know exactly where their boundaries are.” She also said it was “horrifying” to learn that Kompass had leaked the identities of vulnerable victims as well as the those who investigated the abuse allegations on the ground.

“Often we lose sight of the human rights of the kids that were in this whole story,” she added. “These kids got lost in the translation.”

But the panel dismissed such reasoning in its report. It said that if the U.N. carried so much it did little to respond. If the U.N. really feared that sharing the victims’ identities with French authorities had “been considered such a risk to the children’s safety” they would have taken “urgent steps to protect the children from possible reprisals,” according to the independent panel. “Instead, no one took any steps whatsoever to locate the children.”

Photo credit: Alfredo ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images/Jewel SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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