How to Win at the International Telecommunication Union

In December 2020, CSIS laid out why the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the most important UN agency you have never heard of. On March 31, Secretary Blinken announced U.S. support for an American candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, to lead that important agency. She would be the first woman and the second American to lead the agency. While her candidacy is deeply meaningful, having her at the helm of the ITU would be even more so .

Yet, running a successful campaign to head a UN specialized agency is not an easy task. There are many examples where a lack of strategic organization by the United States has resulted in our competitors taking on important positions, such as the 2019 Food and Agriculture Organization ’s director-general elections. In the case of the ITU, the current secretary-general is a Chinese national, well known for practices preferential to Chinese firms. Recent international organization elections, including the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have yielded important lessons about how the U.S. government might successfully support both U.S. nationals and like-minded candidates to succeed across these organizations. However, to put these lessons and good practices to use in the ITU 2022 election, it is important to first understand the organization's rules and norms.

Election Process

All international organizations have different systems for electing leadership, making the processes complicated and difficult to track. While UN funds and programs rely on appointment by the secretary-general, many of the United Nations’ 15 specialized agencies rely on elections. Since 1965, the ITU election has used a secret ballot conducted by its 193 member states at the large Plenipotentiary Conference. Candidates announce their intent to run between six months and one day before that meeting, regularly held in the fourth quarter of the year.

At the plenipotentiary (or plenipotent as it is informally known), the voting occurs in three stages: first, the secretary-general is elected, followed by the deputy secretary-general and then the director of each technical bureau (development, standards, and radio). These “down ballot” races are critical, as the directors oversee important standard-setting committee processes ranging from broadband internet to satellite positioning. In a previous backgrounder, CSIS has reviewed the strategic importance of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), the technical bureau which Bogdan Martin currently heads.

To win the election, the ITU secretary-general, deputy secretary-general, and bureau director candidates must have a simple majority of the vote. If no candidates receive a majority in the first round, the ITU begins successive intervals of voting until a majority candidate emerges. If there are no successful candidates after a second and third round, the fourth round begins with only the two highest-ranking candidates. If a tie ensues after the fourth round, the eldest candidate is then selected.

Officials Past and Present

ITU elected officials may serve a maximum of two four-year terms in any elected post . The current secretary-general, Houlin Zhao, has been in his position for eight years but previously served for eight years as deputy secretary-general and an additional eight years as director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB). In 2018, he ran unopposed and was elected by a total of 176 of 178 votes. He ran unopposed for the secretary-general position in 2014, as well as for his second term as deputy secretary-general in 2010. In 2006, during his first bid for the deputy secretary-general position, he ran against three candidates from Turkey, Ghana, and Spain. Secretary-General Zhao’s previous candidacies may have been the exception, as unopposed elections are relatively uncommon at the ITU.

It is not clear if the current deputy secretary Malcolm Johnson is going to run for the secretary-general spot, although it is typical for the deputy secretary-general to run for the senior-most position.

So far only one candidate for secretary-general has been announced: Rashid Ismailov of the Russian Federation. Russia has recently increased its policy and standards at the ITU, looking for ways to put itself in the driver’s seat of important internet regulations. The government has publicly announced its support for Ismailov, a former deputy minister of telecom and mass communications. In addition to his ministerial tenure, Ismailov has significant experience in the private sector, holding executive level positions at Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia. This may lead to some support among private industry executives, particularly from the Nordic region.

The United States has held the top job at the ITU only once, from 1960 to 1965. Since 2006, the United States has sponsored only one candidate for the secretary-general, deputy secretary-general, or bureau director positions: Bogdan-Martin in 2018.

Government Support and Building Coalitions

Recent CSIS analysis of the OECD election highlighted the importance of a host nation’s support for their candidate. It found that a strong alliance with the domestic political party in Australia was a defining component of current secretary-general Mattias Cormann’s victory. Prior to his OECD nomination, Cormann served as Australia's finance minister as part of the Liberal-National coalition and received the active support of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. This was a vastly different national relationship than his competitor, Cecilia Malmström, who had spent the past decade working with the European Commission as opposed to in her homeland of Sweden.

A similar analysis from the United States’ experience with the recent World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) director-general elections shows the importance of building broad coalitions to support like-minded candidates. During the WIPO election process, U.S. ambassadors mobilized and collectively engaged their foreign counterparts who were set to vote in the upcoming election. The United States and its voting committee allies (Japan, Australia, Europe, and Canada) were able to successfully come to a collective consensus on a candidate for director-general with a sense of urgency about the increasing role of China. WIPO is analogous to ITU, given its critical yet niche standard-setting responsibilities.

While our allies and partners have significant units established to coordinate advocacy for leadership elections, the United States is not currently staffed in a manner that supports strategic planning for such international appointments. The result, as was the case of the Food and Agriculture Organization election, might be a Sunday-night candidacy.

Getting out in front of the nomination of Bogdan-Martin is an excellent first step. However, bureaucracy and political appointees will have to begin to infuse that support into a range of upcoming bilateral and multilateral forays. Bogdan-Martin is unique in that she neither political patron nor outsider; instead, she is an international executive civil servant. The State Department must balance her independence alongside opportunities to support. This will mean considering how to engage her candidacy in key areas, such as support for travel to build key coalitions (including in the developing world) and, because of the pandemic, savvy digital outreach (in the least, a website).

Highlighting Bogdan-Martin’s admirable work on Agenda 2030 and emphasizing the need to support a more robust multilateral system capable of responding to digital development could be one step toward courting European allies. Another is to continue to expand on-the-ground project partnerships (such as with the U.S. Agency for International Development ) in developing countries, which will be critical to her success.

Private sector entities will also play a significant role in the ITU elections, where many members actively participate in the standard-setting process. While private sector members will not have a direct voting role in the election, their support for a candidate can be meaningful. The 63-member U.S. ITU Association supports U.S. positions at the ITU. The association might consider how their coalition can best support the Bogdan-Martin candidacy. Similarly, the newly established United States International Digital Economy and Telecommunication Advisory Committee (IDET) offers an ideal and novel platform to encourage linkages between nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities with a shared vision on emerging digital trends.

Why Does U.S. Leadership Matter?

As one of the four specialized agencies led by a Chinese national, the ITU has been significantly impacted by Secretary-General Houlin’s leadership. Houlin is known for highly favorable comments and decisions supporting Chinese companies and is responsible for a Memorandum of Understanding between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the ITU. China sends the largest delegation to the ITU’s various study groups and is also represented, through their membership, by Huawei and other Chinese state-owned enterprises. Working through these study groups with the support of high-level ITU leadership, Huawei has introduced more than 2,000 new standard proposals on topics including 5G, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence. China’s most notable standard proposal is for a new “Internet Protocol,” which has the potential to fundamentally reshape the internet by imposing a centralized, highly controllable Chinese model throughout the world.

The leadership of the ITU has a critical impact on the future of internet governance. While Bogdan-Martin's candidacy priorities have yet to be announced, her role as director of the ITU BDT yields some important clues about how she might approach governance standards. She has advocated for alignment between the ITU’s development goals and Agenda 2030, the United Nations’ ambitious global goals for development. While that effort has primarily concentrated on access to online learning, an extension of the effort might take on issues around governance standards such as ensuring greater transparency, access, and inclusion to next-generation systems. This issue will become more challenging in the coming years, with open and free societies increasingly forced to confront and balance the risks that accompany online systems, such as facial recognition and other machine learning-based security systems.

Going forward, member states will likely want to know candidates' position on the future of internet protocol proposals. They will also be interested in a given candidates’ positions on radio spectrum technology. The ITU has the responsibility of allocating frequency bands that allow different radio frequencies to coexist without interference. This regulatory space is complex, with member states and private sector members advocating for different priorities and levels of intervention and management by the ITU.

Long-Term View

While the top job at the ITU is highly important, so are the many professional posts below it. Like in most international organizations, the United States is poorly represented at the ITU. As of 2016, of the 350 professional staff, only nine (2.6 percent) are U.S. citizens —well below the level of U.S. financial contributions to UN agencies, which generally hovers at around 25 percent of agency funding.

Irrespective of Bogdan-Martin’s success in her bid for the top post, the United States should work with like-minded governments to ensure an allied candidate backfills her bureau director position with the BDT. This important position oversees many of the areas of interest for the U.S. government, including widespread access to technology across the developing world. The bureau director positions should also be seen as a stepping-stone to the secretary-general and deputy secretary-general positions and therefore be treated with greater priority.

In addition to supporting candidates for top posts, the United States must develop a more robust process for supporting the entry- and mid-level representation of Americans across UN standard-setting bodies such as the ITU. U.S. Executive Order 11552 , signed in 1979, allows for U.S. government employees to detail into international organizations. In fact, Bogdan-Martin originally began her career at the ITU when she was detailed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This makes her an outlier to the usual political appointee–nominated candidate. In addition to mid-level details (where the U.S. government maintains employment of the staff member), the United States also has the opportunity to support pipeline programs through junior professional officers (JPOs) and support for U.S. citizens to pursue positions within both the ITU and broader UN ecosystems on digital development ( such as at the UN Development Program ). During this critical moment, the United States should be supporting highly qualified and diverse talent across the UN system, including by providing additional resources for technical details.

The ability of the United States to engage in these activities today will have significant implications for our potential to engage and lead at the ITU and UN standard-setting bodies in the future. While the U.S. government continues to push for one amazing candidate, it cannot forget the need to build a wave of candidates behind her.

Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Her views are not representative of her home institution.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Kristen Cordell

Kristen Cordell

Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development