Global Policy Forum

In Selecting New UN Secretary General,


By Ramesh Thakur *

Daily Yomiuri
February 3, 2006

This year's U.N. agenda will be dominated by the choice of the next secretary general who, under the convention of regional rotation, should be Asian. Choosing the best available candidate is a good principle, like the one that would impose two-term restrictions on chief executives of all international organizations (which the U.N. University follows). Washington's and London's pursuit of this noble course would have been more credible if the same principle had been followed in choosing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund chiefs instead of a cozy gentlemen's agreement that sees these divided between Americans and Europeans.

Some Eastern Europeans are claiming they have never had a U.N. secretary general. Three of the six secretary generals to date have been European, and only one Asian, despite Asia accounting for 60 percent of the world's population. Can countries claim to be Eastern European for this purpose while also clamoring for membership of the European Union?

A practical compromise would be for all to agree that the secretary general will be Asian, but many candidates can be nominated. The Security Council votes on them all, eliminating losing candidates in successive rounds until one person secures the necessary votes and avoids a veto by any of the five permanent members (P-5) on the council. This way the secretary general is Asian but everyone gets to vote. The Asians do not impose their choice on the world.

Trygve Lie, the first secretary general, famously remarked that it was the most impossible job in the world. It is now even more so. The U.N. chief must cultivate six different constituencies simultaneously without being captured by any one.

First and most important, he must not alienate those who control the Security Council, especially the P5 members, and in particular the United States. He must be attentive to the priorities of the council whilst sensitive to the passions of the General Assembly. During the Cold War, deadlock in the council often produced a policy vacuum that only the secretary general could fill through creative interpretations of his role, oversight of peacekeeping operations and crisis mediation.

Peacekeeping requires leadership by the secretary general because it falls between war-fighting and diplomatic negotiations, both of which are undertaken mainly by states. The Security Council establishes, renews and terminates peacekeeping operations and gives them their mandate, the General Assembly appropriates funds, and the secretary general exercises oversight. Occasionally he must exercise independent judgment with little time for the guidance by the Security Council or General Assembly.

Second, the secretary general must retain the confidence of the majority of countries in the General Assembly. The end of the Cold War greatly expanded the agenda and activities of the Security Council alongside a decline in the role and influence of the General Assembly. The fate of the United Nations' peace and security agenda then often hinged on the relationship between the Security Council and the secretary general. The U.N. chief found himself at the heart of a complex web of several peace operations, directing the military and humanitarian operations, engaging in conflict prevention and resolution activities, and supervising elections and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. There was a commensurate enlargement of his day-to-day operational responsibilities and political judgment calls.

The proper balance between the United Nations' major member states and different principal organs proved impossible to strike amidst the passions stirred by the Iraq war. Kofi Annan was left to improvise as best he could, seeking to chart a steady course for the organization amidst the transAtlantic clash of civilizations between Old Europe and the New World. While U.S. critics thought he was too ready to appease Saddam Hussein, critics of U.S. policy thought he failed to stand up to U.S. warmongering.

Third, he must ensure he has the support of those who control the resources without which the United Nations cannot pay its bills, implement its mandate and carry out its necessary operations. This is an especially sensitive issue for countries like Japan, Germany and India, which contribute so much financial and human resources to the United Nations' budget and peace operations, yet are repeatedly thwarted in efforts to become permanent members of the Security Council.

Fourth, his staff must be in broad sympathy with his vision for the organization, responsive to his wishes and commands, motivated and competent. International secretariats often are riven by factional jealousies, jurisdictional turf wars and national loyalties. Equally, though, the staff look to the secretary general to articulate U.N. values, be the voice of moral clarity on behalf of the international community as a whole and issue clarion calls for action in defense of the international interest.

Fifth, the U.N. chief must mobilize civil society. They are a ready resource and reservoir of support and goodwill for the United Nations. Some in civil society say that the Iraq crisis has heightened the need for a global peoples' assembly to counter the repeated betrayals by governments. Others look to the secretary general as the last line of defense of the U.N. Charter's principles. But this places an impossible burden on him. If the Security Council is united, he cannot be an alternative voice of dissent. If it is divided, he cannot be a substitute for inaction by a splintered council.

Finally, of course, the secretary general must represent and give voice to the people of the world. To do this he must sometimes rise above the interests and preferences of governments but not alienate them, for they are his political masters.

The single most important challenge for the secretary general is to provide leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest. Leadership consists of articulating a bold and noble vision for the international community, establishing standards of achievement and conduct for states and individuals, explaining why they matter and inspiring or coaxing everyone to adopt the agreed goals and benchmarks as their own goals.

And this still leaves the question of administrative and management skills of the highest order. Like Groucho Marx not wanting to join any club that would admit him as a member, perhaps anyone who seeks the office should be rejected, and anyone who wins should demand a recount.

About the Author: Thakur, senior vice rector of the U.N. University in Tokyo, is the author of "The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect" (Cambridge University Press). These are his personal views.

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