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The world is looking for a new diplomat-in-chief and there’s one woman for the job

The world is in desperate need of skilled diplomacy and effective international leadership. With the rise of terrorism and extremism globally, ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria, Russia’s territorial expansionism and China’s new assertiveness, it is difficult to think of any time since the end of the Cold War when international tensions have been higher. 

Despite its many imperfections, the United Nations remains critical to managing these problems. And it’s looking for a new leader. Ban Ki-moon, who steps down next year, has called for his successor to be a woman and, in my view, we have one who’s just right for the job: UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova. 

{mosads}Let me take you back to my time in the Reagan White House. As the United States stood locked in conflict with the Soviet Union, President Reagan rightly believed that the West needed clear moral leadership. But the UNESCO of the 1980’s did not provide it. Its politics were overly radical. Its budgets were grossly mismanaged. And its programs and policies too often flew the face of U.S. interests. As a result, we exited the organization in 1984. 

Flash forward nearly two decades to 2002 and President George W. Bush’s administration opted to re-join the organization. UNESCO had been set on a path toward reformed management, better budgets and a more constructive international role. Indeed, by the time I re-entered the White House in 2005, much of the worst damage had been undone, but UNESCO still had a great deal to prove. 

After becoming director general in 2009, Irina Bokova met these challenges head on. First, recognizing that the organization had for too long been almost silent on the issue, she became a pioneering champion of UNESCO’s role in promoting Holocaust education. In doing so, she gave the organization a clear moral voice on one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity and made the protection of Jewish heritage a key part of her work. In October last year, Bokova courageously and successfully opposed a destabilizing resolution proposal at UNESCO to recognize the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem as a Muslim holy site. In recognition of her consistent support to the fight against anti-Semitism, racism and denial, Bokova received the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s International Leadership Award. 

Second, Bokova helped professionalize an unwieldly and highly inefficient organization.  When U.S. funding was cut after the agency’s executive board elected to recognize the Palestinian state, Bokova met the challenge by doing more with less. Setting an example that the United States could stand to learn from, she put UNESCO’s fiscal house in order and ran the organization like a business. The fact that this month the White House and the State Department pushed hard to re-start the U.S. financing of UNESCO after it was stopped for many years clearly shows how respected her work is in Washington DC by the current administration. She is also well regarded by many on Capitol Hill as a result of years of constructive engagement and dialogue. 

Bokova recognized the need to make UNESCO, usually at its strongest on ‘soft’ issues, relevant to our most pressing hard security challenges. As director general, she has made UNESCO a leading voice on preventing the financing of terrorism and speaking out against the wanton destruction of priceless cultural artifacts in the Middle East, in addition to the organization’s important ongoing role in the areas of culture and education. Numerous U.S. leaders have praised her vision and determination, from Laura Bush to Secretary Kerry, who congratulated her for her engagement on countering extremism during his visit at UNESCO this autumn. 

But it is not just what Bokova has done that qualifies her for the position. It is who she is. A serious international player with deep relationships across give continents matched by decades of experience and a proven ability to engage at the highest levels of diplomacy, she comes ready made for the role. 

She also has the right temperament for the position. Highly diplomatic, but also bold and courageous, Bokova is willing to say tough things when circumstances require but is also capable of skilled mediation between the sometimes irreconcilable differences inherent in international politics. We need that at a time when Russia, China and others are questioning the legitimacy of the international order. 

If Bokova is widely rumored to be the frontrunner to succeed Ban Ki-moon, she is obviously not the only candidate. There is a crowded and talented field of leaders that includes New Zealand’s Helen Clark, UN Development Program administrator, and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet. 

There is a large international consensus that it is the turn of Eastern Europe to secure the next UN Secretary General position. And in my view, Bokova is the woman for the hour. It is in the U.S. interest to choose a talented, respected and courageous UN secretary general who can also be a good manager to streamline the UN bureaucracy and run the organization like a business. Bokova did it for UNESCO. I believe she can do the same for the UN. 

McBride is the former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, 2005-2009. She also served in the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations.


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