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

Audrey Young: Helen Clark respected but loved by too few

US opposition to former PM’s UN leadership bid hurts the most.
Clark's best chance was if a couple of the P5 were deadlocked on an Eastern European or, as it turns out, a European. Photo / UN
Clark's best chance was if a couple of the P5 were deadlocked on an Eastern European or, as it turns out, a European. Photo / UN

Unlike Helen Clark's defeat by John Key in 2008, she did not go to ground following her failure this week to secure the job of her dreams, the head of the United Nations.

There was no telling at what point the Security Council was going to make its choice, so her work schedule did not allow time to indulge any sense of rejection, if indeed she feels it as she did in 2008.

The day the council settled on Portugal's Antonio Guterres, she was on a flight to New York from Dubai where she had been opening the World Green Economy Summit as head of the UN Development Programme.

She got the news on the flight via the airliner's Wi-Fi.

Yesterday she flew from New York to Washington to deliver a speech at the World Bank headquarters to a Small States Forum.

She has barely had time for self-pity let alone to conduct her own post mortem of the campaign.

But no doubt the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be doing one soon.

The primary question will be: what could we/she have done better?

The fact that the final prize went to a non-Eastern European makes the question more valid, because not being Eastern European was considered her greatest obstacle, yet it wasn't to the winner.

New Zealand ambassador Gerard van Bohemen pointed out in an interview two weeks ago that Guterres and Clark had very similar profiles, as former leaders and heads of a UN agency, and New Zealand had expected them to have similar levels of support.

Perhaps she could have declared earlier and begun campaigning earlier but there are unwritten protocols about these things.

If you are No3 at the UN, any declaration earlier than this year would be seen as too ambitious and perhaps disloyal to the No1, Ban Ki Moon.

And if, as we all suspect, she has long-harboured ambitions to run the UN, she has been perfectly placed as head of UNDP over the past seven years to build relationships with capitals around the world.

And she did, which is why she was a credible contender at all, although critics called it a "stealth campaign".

Some say she never had a chance. Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister McCully always said it was a small chance but one worth taking.

Clark's best chance was if a couple of the P5 were deadlocked on an Eastern European or, as it turns out, a European.

While Clark never got higher than fifth placing over six ballots, at one stage she had eight votes out of 15 which, under UN rules, is only one short of the number required (assuming there are no vetoes).

The votes were secret but it is fairly well accepted that her steadfast support came from Britain and Japan.

Support at some time came from Malaysia, Senegal and Uruguay. The rest is uncertain.

The opposition of the United States to Clark, however, is certain and it stings in the face of the restoration of relations from the anti-nuclear rift and close ties formed through TPP work together.

Many theories abound because the US has never made clear its objections.

Some suggest it is a hangover from the anti-nuclear laws of the Fourth Labour Government - in which she was a junior member.

Some suggest bad chemistry between Clark and the current and former US ambassadors to the UN, Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have been driving the US support choices.

They favoured the Argentinian Susana Malcorra and Guterres, a diplomat of great charm as well as competence.

Some suggest Susan Rice favoured Kevin Rudd and New Zealand may be seen as complicit in blocking his candidacy.

Which is more like a conspiracy theory.

Whatever the reason, and despite John Key's pleadings over Power and Rice's heads, it was not a big enough issue for President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry to overrule the women who had been charged with determining the US position.

Clark's gender was a big issue in her favour but only amongst those who did not make the decision.

Things may have been different if Clark had found a friend in the P5 (Russia, China, US, UK and France).

Clark and Key tried to make a virtue of Clark being "independent" and not the favourite of any of the P5 but in fact she needed an influential friend - preferably not Russia or the United States whose favouritism could mean the kiss of death for a candidate.

The influential friend might have been Britain if the Brexit vote in June had not completely upturned personnel and priorities of the UK Government.

The friend was not going to be France, which wanted someone from Europe, east or west.

Despite New Zealand belonging to the UN's "Western Europe and Others" regional grouping (not to mention thousands of Kiwi soldiers buried in France) it got no support from France.

In 2016, the construct of an "Eastern European" candidate is obsolete and rooted in the Cold War.

Four of the eight Eastern Europe countries that nominated candidates are in the European Union.

The contest should raise issues about whether New Zealand remains in the UN's "Western Europe and Afterthought" group or be part of the Asia-Pacific group.

Guterres will be the ninth UN Secretary-General, and the fourth from the Western Europe grouping (others from Sweden, Norway and Austria).

The African Group has provided two Secretary-Generals (Egypt and Ghana), the Asia-Pacific Group two (Myanmar and South Korea) and the Latin American and Caribbean Group one (Peru).

The decision was made more quickly and cleanly than expected largely because Russia decided not to veto Guterres.

A more protracted contest may have helped Clark but it wasn't to be.

The fact that Russia is under pressure over the Syria crisis may have contributed to its willingness to dispense with the contest quickly.

And perhaps, as Security Council president this month, it did not want a fight over one issue to infect the other issue.

Guterres was respected by all, loved by many and is from a place not far from Eastern Europe.

Clark was respected by all but loved by too few.

- 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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