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Electing the Next Secretary General of the United Nations

Published by Other on 2006-07-08

The United Nations will soon elect a new secretary general to replace Kofi A. Annan of Ghana, who is retiring in December 2006 after two five-year terms during which the 191-member world organization was rocked by accusations of corruption, profligacy and mismanagement.

Although Mr. Annan and the U.N. were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - a tribute to a first class lobbying effort by Mr. Annan's friends in high places - the organization seems to be adrift, a sign that Mr. Annan's leadership has faltered. The U.N. is experiencing a budgetary crisis; there have been sexual and financial scandals; and the institutional morale is at an all time low. Some of its critics want the U.N. to be dismantled; others are demanding a dramatic housecleaning. Some Congressional critics want the United States not only to stop paying 22% of the annual $1.3 billion budget - the budget of the City of Zurich is $3.2 billion - they want the U.S. to leave the organization altogether.

A new secretary general will have to be a wizard to re-energize the organization.

The race for secretary general represents an unprecedented opportunity for President George W. Bush to put the imprimatur of the United States solidly on the 191-member world organization by pushing through a candidate who will institute managerial and fiscal reforms, and also make it more service oriented in the cause of promoting economic development, environmental protection, and peace and security.

The race also offers an opportunity for the American business community to support a candidate who will engender more transparency in the U.N. administration, which typically hands out hundreds of millions of dollars of technical and infrastructure contracts each year, and also urge developing nations to embrace free markets more forcefully.

But who will such a candidate be?

The U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., John R. Bolton says that only an outside candidate can institute meaningful reforms. He has never been known to be a fan of Mr. Annan, and he's even less enamored of the secretary general's staff, some of whom aspire to succeed their boss. Like President Bush, Ambassador Bolton gets only once chance to shape the race for secretary general: Mr. Bush's presidency ends in early 2009, and Mr. Bolton's ambassadorship ends in early 2007. (The president made a recess appointment, which typically lasts two years. Mr. Bolton does not expect to be re-nominated by Mr. Bush. Even if the president wants him to continue in the U.N. post, it's not at all clear that political and personal animus toward Mr. Bolton will subside any time soon in Washington. It was, after all, such animus that came in the way of a Senatorial endorsement for Mr. Bolton.)

More than most of his predecessors, Mr. Bolton has been active in the search for a secretary general. He's said not to think much of the chances of people whose candidacies have been bruited about - such as Louise Arbour of Canada, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights; President Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland; and U.N. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson of Sweden. None of them possesses any special charisma, in Mr. Bolton's view, and none is likely to be a reliable supporter of Washington's objectives in multilateral diplomacy. Mr. Bolton knows that however intriguing the candidacy of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a prominent dissident and prime minister-elect of Myanmar, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is unlikely to be released any time soon from house arrest by her country's generals, who have defied world opinion and common sense.

Ambassador Bolton's choice - and that of Mr. Bush - is said to be President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia. She has been warmly received at the White House in recent months, and Mr. Bolton is said to feel that her selection as secretary general would be a timely acknowledgement that the former satellites of the erstwhile Soviet Union have come into their own. Ms. Vike-Freiberga would be the first woman to become U.N. secretary general, and the first East European. (The eight secretaries general since 1946, when the U.N. was established, have come from other regions.) Finland's president, Tarja Halonen, is also said to be viewed with some favor by the Bush Administration.

One woman who would like the job is the former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. She's also a former director general of the World Health Organization, where she stepped up the agency's global campaign to deal with HIV/AIDS. But Ms. Brundtland, a Harvard-trained physician, is known for leftist views that do not resonate well in the White House.

The race for secretary general has assumed greater urgency in light of remarks in early July by Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere of France that the U. N. Security Council would hold straw polls in the second half of July. The 15-member Security Council - whose five permanent members include France, the president for July - recommends a candidate to the General Assembly for formal ratification.

Ambassador La Sabliere said that four candidates, including Jayantha Dhanapala, an adviser to the president of Sri Lanka, and Shashi Tharoor of India, the UN Under Secretary General for Communication and Public Information, have indicated interest in the position of secretary general. The others are Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea, and Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai of Thailand.

Under an informal rotational arrangement, the next secretary- general is expected to be elected from Asia. Mr. La Sabliere said the straw poll would allow the 15-member Security Council to show which candidate they prefer for the position. He also said some Council members could choose not to show any preference among the candidates in the straw poll. He said that the straw poll would facilitate agreement among Council members and prevent any deadlock in the election process. The ambassador said that the Council should recommend a candidate to the General Assembly by the end of September or in early October. The general expectation is that the Council's pick will be known by mid summer.

In addition to the five permanent members, current non-permanent members of the Council, including representatives of Argentina, Republic of Congo, Denmark, Ghana and Greece, will participate in the selection of the next secretary general. The others, Japan, Peru, Qatar, Slovenia and Tanzania will also vote. (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America are the five permanent members of the Security Council.)

But when Security Council members weigh the prospects of various candidates, they are certain to be impressed by the nomination by India of a national candidate, Mr. Tharoor. He is clearly the front runner.

The nomination signaled willingness by the world's biggest democracy to take a far more visible and activist role in multilateral politics, usually a maw of regional self interest and conflicting ideologies.

It signaled that India saw herself as having come of age in the international community on account of its growing economic strength - and that it could legitimately stake a claim to the most important global job not only in its capacity as a powerful developing country but also as an incipient superpower, one that's expected to behind only America and China in another two decades.

India's nomination of Mr. Tharoor also signaled to the international community its endorsement of the world organization at a time when it is under severe assault for profligacy, mismanagement and ineffectiveness.

Not that India has been particularly diffident in the corridors of the U.N. But her representatives have long preferred to exercise their clout informally, either during India's intermittent tenures as an elected member of the Security Council, or in myriad committees on issues such as economic development and, the perennial hardy, nonalignment.

That India should pick Mr. Tharoor is telling - not only because he's a veteran of the U.N. system, not only because during much of his 28-year diplomatic career he's been closely associated with Secretary General Annan, a particular favorite of the high chancellery in New Delhi, and not only because, at just 50 years of age, the London-born, U.S.-educated Tharoor represents a new generation of ambitious, press savvy diplomats.

India's choice of Mr. Tharoor is significant because it was made at all.

For long years, India's strategy had been to obtain bureaucratic posts in the U.N. system. These ranged from mid level jobs to sinecures at the levels of assistant secretary general and under secretary general. Indian military personnel often formed the backbone of U.N. peace-keeping missions. Senior officials from the Indian Foreign Service sat on U.N. commissions and panels, engaging in endless rounds of greeting, meeting and eating. Successive Indian ambassadors to the U.N. successfully lobbied for high institutional jobs upon retirement. Indeed, it was often joked that the Indian Foreign Service was a cookie factory for the U.N. bureaucracy.

But when it came to the big job - that of secretary general - India always went along with the tradition at the U.N. Under the unwritten terms of that tradition, candidates were often suggested not because of their personal qualifications but because of their provenance. Geographical rotation was paramount.

Moreover, the big nations - including the five permanent members of the Security Council - tacitly agreed not to field candidates. And so, secretaries general were picked from small, nondescript nations. The conventional wisdom was that such men - and they were always men - would be more amenable to guidance from the big powers.

By nominating Mr. Tharoor, India cracked through those practices. For a country that puts great faith in tradition - diplomatic and cultural - the nomination was little short of revolutionary.

The question arises: Why did the government of Prime Minister Singh do it?

It is not that Mr. Tharoor was owed favors by Mr. Singh's Congress Party-led ruling coalition of 14 fissiparous political parties and groupings. Indeed, Mr. Tharoor's politics are nonpartisan; his voluminous writings as a novelist and columnist haven't suggested anything other than an abiding faith in secularism.

And while Mr. Tharoor has cannily cultivated the mandarins of New Delhi's chancellery, he isn't one of theirs - a career bureaucrat at the U.N., he's lived abroad for most of his adult life. A personal scandal in which Mr. Tharoor reportedly carried on a sizzling affair with the wife of an Indian diplomat in Geneva - that diplomat is now a senior member of the foreign affairs ministry - did not endear him to the bureaucracy.

Three explanations for Mr. Singh's startling move suggest themselves:

He shared the regional view that an Asian candidate was needed at the helm of the U.N., and that perhaps the names already being bruited about - from South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand - were less than stellar. India's growing status as an economic dynamo and a standard bearer of democracy in the third world meant that Mr. Singh could take a shot at the U.N. job without seeming unseemly.

A second explanation might be found in the strengthening political and economic relationship between the Singh government and the Bush administration. President Bush has already gone against the political grain in Washington by agreeing to sell nuclear technology to India and not insisting that Mr. Singh sign the nonproliferation treaty. Perhaps the placement of a Washington-backed prominent Indian figure as U.N. steward could represent the logical next step in the blossoming Bush-Singh nexus.

Of course, it's hardly assured that Mr. Singh will find Washington in lock step with Mr. Bush. For example, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke has declined to comment publicly on the race for secretary-general, but he privately told friends that he didn't think Mr. Tharoor's prospects were especially bright.

Similarly, the current U.S. envoy at the U.N., Mr. Bolton, is not known to be enthusiastic about Mr. Tharoor - but that may have more to do with his reported preference for an East European candidate, or at least one hailing from outside the U.N. system.

Finally, Mr. Singh may well have come to an informal understanding with Mr. Bush that an Indian candidate with sterling credentials such as Mr. Tharoor - an "inside man" no less - would energetically implement the institutional reforms that Washington has long sought. Since Russia and China - both signatories to the clamor for reform - have also indicated a preference for an Asian candidate, Mr. Tharoor's candidacy could be appealing to them.

There is, of course, a fall back position for Prime Minister Singh - one that could save face for him in the event that Mr. Tharoor doesn't get the brass ring.

In a new administration at the U.N. after January 1 next year, someone will have to serve as the next secretary general's deputy, a job involving day to day management of the sprawling U.N. system, and one requiring total dedication to reform. It's a job requiring intimate knowledge of the multilateral bureaucracy. It's a job requiring being on the charm offensive relentlessly.

Mr. Tharoor also has extensive ties within the American business community. For example, he is among the most vigorous promoters of Mr. Annan's Global Compact for Business, an initiative that brings together dozens of leading companies in support of U.N. goals such as sustainable economic development.

The business community sees in those goals the opportunity to get expanded access to lucrative contracts for U.N. projects. Traditionally, European and Asian firms has won the bulk of such contracts - not the least because they aggressively lobby for them.

The question is whether the Bush Administration will prevail in its effort to streamline the U.N. It may not be in a position to ram through its choice for secretary general, but Mr. Bolton's activist ambassadorship suggests that Washington will have a major say in who gets the job. There is, after all, the power of the veto - all five permanent members of the Security Council have it - although Washington has used it sparingly.

Stay tuned.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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