Who Runs the International System? Power and the Staffing of the United Nations Secretariat

by Paul Novosad & Eric Werker
 
 

Overview — National governments frequently pull strings to get their citizens appointed to senior positions in international institutions. For the United Nations' executive arm, the Secretariat—which plays a plays a key role in agenda-setting for the various deliberative UN organs, as well as managing global peace-keeping operations—there is keen competition among nations over the staffing of approximately 80 senior positions. Which nations therefore have been successful in controlling this institution? What factors have allowed them to do so? In this paper the authors examine the nationality of the most senior officials in the United Nations Secretariat over the last sixty years. Findings show that democracies, countries that invest in bilateral diplomacy, and economically/militarily powerful countries are the most effective at placing staff in the Secretariat. Furthermore, Western Europe and its offshoots have retained control over a disproportionate share of positions in the Secretariat even while their share of global GDP and population has fallen. Key concepts include:

  • The power to control international institutions is of significant concern to governments around the world.
  • The United Nations is arguably the world's most representative international organization. Even so, it was set up by a particular set of nations, the victors of the second world war, with the goal of sustaining a certain kind of world order.
  • In spite of significant changes in the balance of global economic power over the past decades, the post-World War II balance of control at the United Nations has been largely sustained.
  • Nordic countries are in a far more influential international position than the size of their population or economy would suggest.
  • Top positions are dominated by rich democracies: the five most overrepresented countries in the Secretariat are Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, and Ireland. The United States is overrepresented, and China is significantly underrepresented.
  • In spite of the decline in US influence, the Secretariat remains pro-American relative to the world at large.

Author Abstract

Abstract: National governments frequently pull strings to get their citizens appointed to senior positions in international institutions. We examine, over a 60-year period, the nationalities of the most senior positions in the United Nations Secretariat, ostensibly the world's most representative international institution. The results indicate which nations are successful in this zero-sum game and what national characteristics correlate with power in international institutions. The most overrepresented countries are small, rich democracies like the Nordic countries. Statistically, democracy, investment in diplomacy, and economic/military power are predictors of senior positions―even after controlling for the U.N. staffing mandate of competence and integrity. National control over the United Nations is remarkably sticky; however, the influence of the United States has diminished as U.S. ideology has shifted away from its early allies. In spite of the decline in U.S. influence, the Secretariat remains pro-American relative to the world at large.

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