Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Voice of the World

Who Will Be The Next U.N. Secretary General?



After a papal conclave, possibly the most secretive election in the western world is the selection of a new secretary general of the United Nations. In the conclave, the cardinals start each voting day by invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Veni creator spiritus! "Come, Holy Spirit," they sing in that most famous of hymns. In the U.N. Security Council there are no prescribed prayers before the 15 members vote in secret for a new head of the world body, but the analogy is not as far fetched as it might seem. Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. undersecretary for public affairs, recently wrote that the secretary general "must serve as the voice of the world, even ‘a secular pope.'"

And the next global leader (might be) …
Tharoor, a 50-year-old Indian diplomat who is also a prolific writer, was himself "papabile" - the Italian term for a churchman who could become pope. Tharoor was campaigning to succeed Kofi Annan, whose second term ends on December 31. With 28 years service in the organization, Tharoor is very much the insider candidate; and some time in mid-October (no date was set at the time of writing) the Security Council could very well choose him from the list of contenders to fill the post. But to the very last minute the field was wide open. There were even a couple of dark horses pawing the ground in the wings. Before getting down to the decisive selection, the Security Council tests the water with a series of straw polls in which members can "encourage" or "discourage" individual candidates, or abstain. In a July poll Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea's impressive foreign minister, ended up with 14 "encourages" and one "discourage." Tharoor was second with ten positive votes, three negative and two abstentions. Third was Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand's deputy prime minister (until the September army coup), and fourth was Zeid Al-Hussein, the deft and elegant Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations, who is King Abdullah's cousin, and at 40 the youngest candidate. Last on the list was Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. undersecretary general for disarmament. The picture changed hardly at all in the next straw poll on September 14, and the South Korean seemed well on the road to final victory. But Brian Urquhart, who has been connected with the world body in one influential capacity or another since its foundation in 1945, had it right when he described the election as "a rather squalid competition with no set procedure, shrouded in Big Power secrecy." In the making or unmaking of a secretary general, it's what isn't seen to be happening that makes the difference. For example, following the September 14 straw poll a document began circulating in Washington and New York questioning Ban's human rights credentials, and hinting that he was too close to the North Korean regime.

Ban's anonymous detractors charged among other things that as foreign minister he had been instrumental in repeatedly stopping the Dalai Lama from visiting South Korea's sizeable Buddhist community by refusing him a visa. The most recent occasion was in June, the document alleged, when 22 Nobel Laureates convened in Seoul, and the Dalai Lama, a Peace Prize Laureate, was again not admitted into South Korea. Translation: Ban kowtows to China. Another complaint is that as the official in charge of Seoul's so called "Sunshine Policy" that favors rapprochement with North Korea, Ban would be too sympathetic towards that rogue state in the dispute over its nuclear weapons program. The document gave no indication where it came from, having neither letterhead not signature. But it was widely believed to have originated on the Hill: and if there was strong opposition to Ban in Congress, it would be difficult for the Bush administration to support him. Ironically, China was not enthusiastic about Ban either, because of South Korea's close ties with the United States; and no one who is not acceptable to both Washington and Beijing can step into Annan's shoes.

Since January, candidates have been quietly visiting Washington, New York, Paris, London, Beijing and Moscow, meeting with senior government officials in most instances with very little coverage, and slipping out of town again. The pilgrimage was essential because the United States, China, France, Britain, and Russia, are the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and any one can use the veto to block the choice of secretary general. President Clinton used this prerogative to deny Boutros Boutros-Ghali a second term. The council's ten non-permanent council members, who serve for one year, also needed to be canvassed. These were – and still are - Argentina, Japan, Congo, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, Peru, Qatar, Slovakia, and Tanzania. But ultimately, the final choice is the product of an agreement of the permanent five.

Musical chairs
Historically, the job of secretary general rotates by region, and by tradition it is now Asia's turn. Early on, John Bolton, the feisty neo-con U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, caused a stir by suggesting that the rotation was not set in stone. The job – he said - should be open to "the best qualified person from whatever region of the world that he or she comes from." The region of the world that the Bush administration favored was Eastern Europe, emerged from the ruins of the Soviet empire and demanding attention as a separate regional grouping. Donald Rumsfeld's "New Europe" – the supportive one in Iraq – had produced two candidates and both were popular in Washington. One was former Polish president Aleksander Kwasnewski, a non-starter because of Moscow's virtually certain opposition to a Pole. The other was President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia, a former Canadian school teacher who had returned to her native country in the post- Communist era.

Vike-Freiberga was in Washington in March, visiting the White House, and doing a round of the think tanks. Her performance here did not spark much enthusiasm for her candidacy, and the Russians are said to have delivered the coup de grâce by dropping hints to the Americans and others that no candidate from a former Soviet satellite was likely to be acceptable. At the same time, as Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador to the U.N. during the Clinton administration pointed out in a now famous Washington Post op-ed article that went public on details about the succession, "I seriously doubt that the Asians, having allowed Africa to hold the position for 15 straight years [Boutros-Ghali and two terms for Kofi Annan] and not having had an Asian secretary general for almost 40 years [since U Thant of Burma in the sixties], will allow the brass ring to pass them again." Vike-Freiberga tried anyway backed by the Baltic nations, but otherwise the lineup was based on the U.N. definition of Asia which includes part of the Middle East (e.g. Jordan), and Turkey. Meanwhile, however, the notion of a woman secretary general caught hold, and the search for a suitable female candidate was on.


Ban Ki-Moon
Jayantha Dhanapala

Zeid al-Hussein
Shashi Tharoor

Heng Chee Chan


Madame Secretary General?
In mid-September, Esther Coopersmith, the quintessential politically connected Washington hostess, gave a dinner party for key ambassadors to advance the candidacy of Heng Chee Chan, the Singapore ambassador to the United States. Chan has been Singapore's woman in Washington since 1996, and served as her country's ambassador to the United Nations before that. "This is a capable, competent, brilliant woman," says Coopersmith, who spent months canvassing for Chan. "Everybody lights up when they think of her [in the job]. All of the U.N. would change with her as secretary general, and you would see favorable stories about the U.N." The French are said to have had reservations about her because she does not speak French, but Berlitz could surely take care of that.

In an enthusiastic endorsement of Chan's candidacy, Washington Times columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, said "She cuts a gracious figure in Washington, but behind that agreeable façade is a woman who is a specialist on free trade agreements, U.N. reform, U.S.-Singapore relations and military maneuvers in her own South Asia." There is one problem with Chan's candidacy: she is not a candidate – at least not yet. Anyone hoping to become U.N. secretary general has to be proposed by his (or her) government, and the Singapore government was one of several that – admittedly rather tepidly – originally backed the Thai, Surakiart Sathirathai. Following the recent military coup in Thailand, Sathirathai is no longer a government minister: that coupled with his poor straw poll showing has some diplomats in New York saying that he should withdraw thus clearing the way for Chan.

More secretary… or more general?
In conversations with several officials, a consensus emerged that the world organization ought to be looking for a strong secretary general at this vital stage in the U.N.'s history – someone who can push through the reforms everyone says are needed, and reorganize the U.N.'s vital peacekeeping operation to make its response faster and more effective. Such a choice would be a first in its 61-year existence. The tendency has been to opt for capable senior bureaucrats from within the United Nations or from smaller countries (or both) who offer no serious challenge to the power of the Security Council. Of the Peruvian Javier Perez de Cuellar, for example, it was once said that he "wouldn't make a splash if he fell off a boat." The departing Kofi Annan – according to Tharoor - "commands great diplomatic legitimacy and even greater media visibility, but less political power than the U.N. Charter suggests." The $64 billion Iraq oil-for-food scandal had left a bad blemish on Annan's decade in office, but his successful role in August in brokering the Lebanese cessation of hostilities and - thanks to the European Union's response - sending in a U.N. peacekeeping force has allowed him to go out on a respectable note. The problem is that Washington had a different view of what constitutes an effective secretary general. According to the widely quoted word of a U.S. official, Washington wanted a strong manager who could get things done rather than "a rock star of diplomacy" (Holbrooke's description of Kofi Annan). In other words, more secretary and less general.

A surprising number of U.N. delegates, particularly from Africa, talk wistfully of another possibility: President Clinton as secretary general. Ever since he was reported to have expressed interest in the job a year ago, his non-candidacy has lingered in the shadows, debunked by the west, but wished devotedly and widely by the underclass of the international community who see him as a champion of the Third World. In January, a cover article in Harper's magazine revived the talk. There is no question that Clinton would shake up the organization and give a significant boost to its role in world affairs. But an unwritten agreement among the five Security Council permanent members prevents a citizen from any one of them from becoming secretary general because, obviously, it would give that country an edge over the other four. Besides, with Hillary Clinton a possible Democratic presidential candidate the Clinton factor could have huge domestic political ramifications. As one European diplomat in New York put it almost with a shudder, "Can you imagine if Clinton became SG, and Hillary won the presidential election. The Clintons would rule the world!"

The outcome, we now know, will be less seismic: no tsunami, but a mild ripple on the political surface as the five veto holders in the Security Council once again arrange things to their mutual satisfaction.


Boutros Boutro
Dag Hammarskjold

Javier Perez de Cuellar
Kofi Annan

Boudewijn van Eenennaam, Yvonne and Tom de Swaan and Jellie van Eenennaa


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