BUCHAREST, Romania — Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the United States was elected Thursday to head the U.N.’s telecommunications agency, winning a U.S.-Russia face-off for the leadership of a key global agency that sets guideposts for radio, internet and television communications — ending a race that has been overshadowed by geopolitics in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Envoys from the 193 member states of the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union, selected Bogdan-Martin over lone rival Rashid Ismailov of Russia at the latest meeting in the Romanian capital of its policy-making body — which meets every four years.
Bogdan-Martin, who will begin her four-year term as ITU secretary-general on Jan. 1, is a 29-year ITU veteran and the current director of its telecommunication development bureau. Her career began in the U.S. Commerce Department.
She won the position in a 139-25 vote in which there were also a number of abstentions.
Speaking in the plenary hall in Bucharest after she was elected Thursday, Bogdan-Martin described the leadership position as “an immensely important position” and said it will be an “honor for me and my country” to lead the organization.
She is the first woman to head the ITU, and the first American in charge since the 1960s.
“I hope this day will be an inspiration for other women to follow,” she said. “We need to deliver affordable, trusted, and meaningful connectivity to all. Universal connectivity has been a dream for far too many years — let’s unite and make it real.”
Ismailov, 57, is a former deputy telecommunications minister in Russia and a former executive in telecom companies such as Eriksson, Nokia and Huawei. Before Thursday’s vote, both candidates touted expanding connectivity to the internet and the benefits of information and communication technology, or ICT, to roughly half the world that still has no access.
The ITU, whose history dates to 1865, is among the oldest U.N. specialized agencies and predates the United Nations itself by 80 years. The agency has its roots among countries that coordinated over the development of the telegraph, a forebear of the high-tech telecommunications of today.
Speaking to the ITU gathering on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on delegates to “put humanity’s progress at the center of your discussions, especially the 2.9 billion people who still lack online access” and cited ITU’s “vital role” in expanding connectivity by the end of the decade.
The ITU’s main tasks now are setting out a “digital transformation” for the 21st century — as outgoing Secretary-General Houlin Zhao has put it — and setting out standards for telecommunications and regulating the development of technologies like 5G networks.
U.S. officials have been eager to recapture the post amid news reports and allegations from experts suggesting that Zhao, a former government official in China, was too cozy with Beijing and promotional of Chinese interests and technology standards during his two terms as ITU chief.
The race has been overshadowed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has put Moscow on the diplomatic defensive and led some countries to think twice about handing a top U.N. post to a former member of Russian government. Ismailov has alluded to the pressure Russia has faced — including in Geneva diplomatic circles that are home to many U.N. institutions like the ITU.
Also weighing over Ismailov’s bid have been growing concerns that Russia’s government has encouraged at worst — or turned a blind eye, at best, to — use of the Internet and other telecommunications networks to disrupt activities of foreign companies, governments and civilians, if not spy on or monitor people at home as well.
The United States, meanwhile, has come in for sharp criticism – notably from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia to escape U.S. justice – over its own surveillance and spying on civilians and government officials.