Politics & Policy

U.N. Redeemed

The institution needs to pick an unconventional secretary general.

The United Nations is about to elect its eighth secretary general. Which candidate offers the best hope for inaugurating the deep reform that the organization needs so badly?

The frontrunner is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, a country for which 54,000 Americans laid down their lives; not only that, but it owes its existence to the continued willingness of United States to risk all out war on its behalf. In return for this largesse, the government in which Mr. Ban serves as foreign minister has chosen to treat the United States as a threat to its security and to lavish affection upon the aggressor that has always menaced it — a kind of state equivalent of the psychological malady known as Stockholm Syndrome. 

Trailing Mr. Ban is Shashi Tharoor of India, currently the undersecretary-general for communications and public information.  If you have been impressed by the U.N.’s triumphs of public relations in recent years and feel grateful for the job that the organization has done of informing the world’s publics about its goings on, then Tharoor would be your man.  Alternatively, you might take a close look at a third candidate, Ashraf Ghani, a former minister of finance of Afghanistan who presumably can boast of his contribution to that nation’s economic achievements.  If those seem paltry, at least it can be said that the U.N.’s budget depends on the same industry as Afghanistan’s economy — Western donations — making Ghani suitably credentialed to head the world body.

There are four other candidates, all but one of them also Asian.  By U.N. tradition it is that continent’s turn to have one of its own as Secretary General, as the post rotates by region.  To appreciate the genius of this system, consider the results.  The current secretary-general, Kofi Annan of Ghana, presided over scandals including kickbacks in U.N. contracting, sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers, sexual harassment by the high commissioner for refugees, and the Oil-for-Food scandal, perhaps the most lucrative in history.  This latter episode entailed the enrichment of the secretary general’s son, Kojo, fresh out of college and with no known skills, in the capacity of “consultant” to a firm that battened on U.N. contracts. His father took the initiative in arranging this job for Kojo, and it apparently required few duties other than to be the son of the secretary


Annan was chosen to succeed another African, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, in contravention of the system of regional rotation.  This was to compensate Africa for the denial of a customary second term to Boutros-Ghali who had worn out the patience of even the U.N.-friendly Clinton administration.  The highlight of Boutros-Ghali’s tenure was the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, arguably the most important challenge in the organization’s history.  This bloody but small-scale conflagration was the acid test of the U.N.’s ability to manage the peace in the post-Cold War world.  Boutros-Ghali’s response?  He dismissed it as a “rich man’s war” about which the Western media was making altogether too much fuss. 

Before Boutros-Ghali, the post was held by Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, who proved his mettle by refusing to renew the term of Theo Van Boven.  Mr Van Boven, a Dutchman, had been the director of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.  That body was abolished earlier this year after Kofi Annan, famously vigilant for anything that might cause the organization embarrassment, declared that it “casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”  This was largely because the commission resolutely turned a blind eye to the depredations of the world’s most repressive regimes.  However, as director of the commission (a staff job, not a diplomatic one), the impolitic Mr. Van Boven had referred in writing to some of these same depredations, a breach of U.N. etiquette that Perez de Cuellar would not abide.

Perez de Cuellar’s predecessor was a European, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, an exemplar of the diplomatic virtue of discretion.  He refrained from burdening anyone with the knowledge of his past as a Nazi SS officer even though his performance in that position had earned him a place on the “honor list” of wehrmacht officers commended for carrying out a massacre in Bosnia.

Before him, the post was held, as the system required, by an Asian, U Thant of Burma.  It was Mr. Thant’s distinction that in 1967 he withdrew U.N. peacekeepers from the Sinai upon the demand of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with such alacrity that, by some accounts, it caught the Egyptians themselves off guard.  This move precipitated war, which may well not have been the outcome that Nasser was seeking.

If Thant did help bring on that war, this was the beginning of a lamentable tradition.  Boutros-Ghali, by extending a Security Council arms embargo against Yugoslavia to the breakaway state of Bosnia, although Bosnia was the victim of aggression, helped to prolong and deepen that war.  And Annan, by rushing to Baghdad in 1998 to forestall U.S. air strikes when Saddam Hussein abrogated the arms inspection regime, made the present war in Iraq all but inevitable.  In short, it is easier to think of wars that were facilitated or exacerbated by U.N. secretaries general than any that they prevented or ameliorated.

The system that produced this record in the selection of U.N. chief officers also applies up and down the line to all the 20-odd thousand positions in the vast bureaucracy over which the secretary general presides. They are filled by nationality and region, rather than merit, in the world’s most lush and baroque program of affirmative action.

Unless this system is abolished, the chances of effective reform of U.N. management are nil.  Such change would have to start at the top.  Ergo, the new secretary general should come from anywhere other than Asia.

The deeper reform that the U.N. cries out for is not managerial, but political.  Neither the Security Council which comprises five supreme states, nor the General Assembly in which all are equal, reflects the realities of today’s world.  In this world, one state is preeminent, and it shoulders the overwhelming burdens of keeping the peace.  To become a valuable institution, the U.N. would have to be adapted to reflect this configuration of power and responsibility.  In this model, the U.N. would serve to temper American unilateralism while abetting and legitimating America in its leading role.  The one international figure most suited to engineer such a transformation will also, as fate would have it, soon be unemployed.  The clear best choice for next secretary general is … Tony Blair.

 – Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Future of the United Nations: Understanding the Past to Chart a Way Forward.


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