Two Who Might Revitalize the United Nations

Jonathan Power

December 07, 1990|By Jonathan Power

LONDON — London.

THE ECONOMIST magazine ran an amusing piece last week suggesting that Margaret Thatcher run for president of the United States -- after all, two years ago she topped George Bush in a poll held on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. She'd certainly cut the budget deficit in no time at all.

What The Economist didn't suggest is for her to be the next secretary general of the United Nations, a post soon to become vacant and one for which she is more than eligible.

For some months now the talk on the East River has been that it must be a woman or an African -- the five secretary generals so far have all been male, three were European, one Asian and one Latin American.

Until last month Gro Harlem Brundtland appeared to have her hat in the ring. But after the Norwegian government collapsed she's now back in office as prime minister and can hardly jump ship.

Mrs. Thatcher as secretary general would make the office recognizably significant and important again. It used to be said of Kurt Waldheim that his servility to delegates was so pronounced that if you'd put him behind the bar you'd assume he was the barman. And of the present office holder, Javier Perez de Cuellar, his detractors say that even if he fell out of a boat he'd make no waves. A man who spent the first month of the Gulf crisis back home in his native Peru is clearly someone not seized with a sense of the important historical chance or a feeling for the enormous unused potential of his office.

Not since Dag Hammarskjold has the United Nations had at its tiller a great helmsman who believed that the U.N. was more than the sum of its parts. Hammarskjold argued that the $H secretary general was the spokesman, and even the executive, of the organization. He envisaged ''imaginative and constructive institutional innovations.'' He ardently believed that a remarkable and just order could be constructed if the nations of the world yielded a portion of their sovereignty and allowed the U.N. an independent role as an active peace organization.

Bits and pieces of Hammarskjold's vision still remain. It was during his tenure that the technique of peacekeeping was pioneered -- U.N. forces sent not to do battle as in Korea or as might happen in the Gulf, but to arbitrate, police and keep the peace. They have successfully done that on many occasions, including separating the Egyptian and Israeli armies in the 1973 Middle East War, the Turkish and Greek forces in Cyprus and, most recently, supervising the withdrawal of the South African army from Namibia and that country's first free elections.

While Mrs. Thatcher might not be sold on some of Hammarskjold's more mystical ideas she would instinctively understand that with the U.N. coming into its own as the Cold War ends, leadership of a very tough and bold kind is needed.

The re-emergence of the Security Council to play the part the founding fathers of the U.N. envisaged in 1945 is both impressive and inspiring to observe. Yet the way it has been done leaves one wondering if the secretary general has ceased to exist and the Americans have somehow occupied his chair.

This could not have happened with Mrs. Thatcher in office. We would also know that there would be a radical pruning of the rambling tentacles of the U.N. bureaucracy both on the East River and in its subsidiary organizations.

The weaknesses of a Thatcher candidacy are twofold. First, her sense of big-power Realpolitik might clash with the idea an organization that the more numerous smaller and weaker countries could identify with. Would she stand up for the U.N. Charter as it was written, which would mean in a crisis like the present one in the Persian Gulf insisting that the forces commissioned to fight Saddam Hussein be under U.N. command rather than American?

The second weakness is the side of her personality that broke her rule at home -- her growing sense of imperiousness and her inability to work with other people.

The African case for a chance at the top job is compelling. For the Africans have one candidate who might fairly be described as Mrs. Thatcher's alter ego. Nigeria's former military president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a no-nonsense man of principle and decision. He is also one of the few who ever bested Mrs. Thatcher in a political fight -- over how to end the white-led usurpation of British authority in Rhodesia -- and earned her respect as result.

Mr. Obasanjo has done two other important things. He returned Nigeria to democracy and he has spent his time out of office telling Africans that they must stop blaming the outside world for their misfortune and look to themselves. He is a civil libertarian, a man of enormous courage and resolve and has no time for people or countries that set aside the principles of international law whenever they become inconvenient. He has all Mrs. Thatcher's qualities of decisive political leadership that would enable him to deal confidently with crises like the Gulf or Cambodia, but he has too that extra quality of empathy for people out of power and out of sight.

What would do the United Nations no end of good would be an open contest between these two.

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