Prime Minister Turnbull's refusal to nominate Kevin Rudd for UN secretary-general (SG) last week, claiming Rudd wasn’t ‘well suited,’ almost certainly ends his chance at running for the UN’s top spot. It was an unexpected twist for UN watchers, including myself, who have spent more time debating Rudd’s campaign strategy and which of the veto-wielding permanent five members of the UN Security Council might block his bid, rather than questioning the support of his own government. As Peter Nadin explained in The Interpreter last week, most member states that have nominated candidates have done so without fanfare or extended deliberations about the nominee’s qualifications, instead leaving the question of suitability to the UN Security Council. For several of the small Eastern European countries, it seems to be a major source of pride to even have a candidate in the race.
Some commentators have speculated that Rudd, who excels in the world of ‘great power arm wrestling,’ may still find a way to finagle himself into the race. While it’s technically possible for Rudd to revive his candidacy without Australia’s endorsement, I’d argue that it’s fairly unlikely at this point in the process. It’s worth noting that SG candidates are not required to be nominated by their own government. Security Council members emphasised this point in a letter to the President of the General Assembly in June. This stated: ‘As in the past, a member State may present candidates, nationals and/or non-nationals of that State, at any stage of the process.’ Some observers, for example, are still hoping that European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva will be nominated by a country other than her own (Bulgaria), which has already endorsed UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.
In Rudd’s case, however, it would be a pretty hard sell to get another member state to nominate him after being so publicly rejected by his own government. While Rudd wouldn’t need his country’s diplomatic or financial backing in the same way that a less well-known candidate from a smaller country would, the more important question is whether member states would be willing to go against Australia to support him. In the highly politicised and sovereignty-oriented UN world, member states are likely to be concerned about the perception that they were ignoring Australia’s assessment of Rudd as unsuitable for the position, especially if it raises any concerns about their bilateral relationships with Australia.
Furthermore, it’s still early in the race, and there are viable alternatives.
Former UN refugee chief and Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres found himself with a surprisingly clear lead in the informal first straw poll held on 21 July, with 12 ‘encourage’ votes, zero ‘discourages,’ and three ‘no opinion’ votes. We’ll find out whether he can maintain this initial support with the second poll on 5 August, but any possibility for a Rudd resurrection would be more likely if the Security Council becomes seriously deadlocked and is running out of time for selecting the next SG. As I’ve mentioned before, there's precedent for the Council looking for a last-minute compromise candidate, but it's less likely in this new era of SG race transparency.
Finally, while there isn’t really a process for Rudd to formally withdraw his candidacy (given that he never actually became a candidate), his public statement on Friday and subsequent release of letters claiming that he had Turnbull’s assurance of support seem to indicate that he’s throwing in the towel. In his statement, he conceded that his candidacy was ‘not to be’ and wished the other contenders well. In addition, Rudd has fuelled his public spat with Turnbull with the release of their private correspondence, suggesting that he is more focused on pleading his case in the court of public opinion than in pursuing alternate paths to an SG candidacy.
And so, instead of continuing the relentless campaigning that Rudd is known for, he’s more likely to lick his wounds and focus on his various positions in New York while contemplating other career options. As Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism — a two-year program aimed at providing policy proposals to improve the multilateral system’s ability to respond to global challenges — he still has an opportunity to help shape the UN’s future. One UN expert has suggested that the program’s final report (due by the end of the year) should be a ‘no-holds-barred blast’ now that Rudd is out of the SG race.
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