Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Clark storms to front in UN's talent quest

Failure to make shortlist would earn dunce marks for process.
Clark's experience in both political and administrative leadership have given her a deep understanding of world affairs and conflicts. Illustration / Guy Body
Clark's experience in both political and administrative leadership have given her a deep understanding of world affairs and conflicts. Illustration / Guy Body

Helen Clark has stormed through the transparent part of her bid to lead the United Nations.

Now the murky political part begins behind closed doors at the Security Council.

The only rule is that there are no rules. A secret ballot will be taken next week and even the results will be a closely guarded secret.

By convention, the 12 candidates and their countries will be told only the score of the highest and lowest polling candidates and what they themselves scored.

Reality is then supposed to dawn on the stragglers and dignified exits commence. If it doesn't dawn on them immediately, there will be another ballot the following week until it does.

What is clear from the UN's Got Talent exercises, such as the Al Jazeera debate televised globally this week, is that if Clark does not emerge on the shortlist, then the process is rotten.

In all the public appearances of candidates, Clark has been in a league of her own in terms of being a complete package.

If she doesn't advance to the final one or two, the transparency thus far in public nominations and public assessment of the skills of candidates would count for nothing except to reinforce how outdated the organisation is.

John Key's statement that France is positive about Clark's candidature and what she could do in the job is a strong endorsement in diplomatic-speak. It would not have been issued without the consent of France.

That suggests Clark will be among the candidates France encourages in the early ballots - there are no rules about how many candidates each Security Council member can support.

Europe - east or west - has yet to get behind a consensus candidate even though it is supposedly Eastern Europe's "turn".

Clark, by dint of colonial history, comes from the Western Europe (and Others) group, but the EU wants its western members to coalesce behind an Eastern Europe candidate rather than back one of its own grouping - Clark or Portugal's Antonio Guterres.

Theresa May and Boris Johnson in Britain will have to address the issue early on. With them now leading the British exit from the European Union, they may be less inclined to keep the EU happy and more inclined to consider a merit-based appointment.

Clark has more than demonstrated her aptitude for the job under the public gaze and participation of the UN General Assembly.

The value of the public forums has been to see how many of the candidates' answers were vacuous platitudes and carefully crafted clap-trap. The answer is "a lot".

Very few candidates displayed the substance and energy of Clark.

The former heads of government, including Slovenia's Danilo Turk and Portugal's Guterres, had a greater depth than the others.

But Clark especially so.

Her experience in both political and administrative leadership have given her a deep understanding of world affairs and conflicts.

Her operational experience in the UN Development Programme has given her a clear view of what the UN can practically do to address conflicts. And she has strong views on how the UN can modernise itself.

All other things being equal, she has the advantage of being a woman.

The other candidates have some of that mix, and some have most of them, but none has all of them.

Very few ... displayed the substance and energy of Clark.

The woman who was initially tipped to be one of the main contenders, Bulgarian Irina Bokova, has failed to impress.

The head of the UN's cultural organisation, Unesco, she has not been able to foot it with Clark, Turk or Guterres.

Bokova may be pressured to drop out of the contest early.

With the expected exit of Eastern Europe also-rans, Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak may gain more support, but as a former member of the Communist Party, he may be a hard sell to the US. He has not been outstanding.

If there is no consensus around him, another East European, Bulgaria's current EU Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, could be marshalled into the contest.

Russia has not indicated if it will veto every candidate outside of Eastern Europe or is willing to look further.

Among those outside of Europe, UN insider Susana Malcorra was another tipped to be a strong contender - mainly on the grounds that the United States backed her.

She has performed without distinction on the hustings.

This time last year, Malcorra was Ban Ki-moon's well-regarded chief of staff with an eye on the top job.

But the back office is not a compelling position from which to make a bid, so she became Foreign Minister for Argentina which gave her greater stature from which to enter the contest.

A blot on her UN copy book was her handling of allegations of sex abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, for which she was criticised in an official report. The UN organisation effectively turned on the whistle-blower, Anders Kompass, who resigned in disgust.

More recently, Foreign Policy magazine has suggested Malcorra has gone easy on human rights abuses in Venezuela in order to win its vote on the Security Council.

Wikileaks cables from 2009 show the United States' former UN ambassador Susan Rice (now Obama's chief security adviser) worked closely with her to secure internal US appointments, although Malcorra says she gave similar consideration to many other countries.

Malcorra's big disadvantage is that she is seen as too pliant towards the United States.

Clark's big disadvantage is that she is perceived as being too strong for the United States.

On Thursday, speaking to a think-tank in Washington, Clark played up her pro-US credentials, having sent the New Zealand SAS quickly to join the US war in Afghanistan after 9/11, and her White House visits to meet George W Bush. She has also publicly backed the TPP.

The most recent entry to the UN contest, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, presented forcefully during the riveting Al Jazeera debate. The former UN climate change tsar played a central role in getting the Paris climate change agreement last year. But so did the collaboration between China and the US, without which it would not have occurred.

The success came more from commitments of member countries than a secretariat supporting the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change.

Figueres has talent, but Clark is the clear dux in the current class of contenders. She has set the standard for others to exceed.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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