LONDON. — London -- The silence is unnerving. Who are the candidates for secretary general of the United Nations? And if they exist, what do they want to do with this world organization meant to keep the peace and promote law among nations?
We are at a juncture in world affairs that comes once in an occasional century: with no insuperable ideological or religious divide among mankind, no rapacious empire widening its hold, no all-powerful military dictator set upon conquest. Conflicts, of course, remain -- even war, as lately in the Persian Gulf and still in El Salvador -- but nothing that measures up to the historic proportions of the Cold War, Hitler, Pizarro, the Crusades or Alexander the Great.
Can a leader be chosen to head the U.N. who will deploy imagination and use power not just to make sure that the world stays on this favorable course, but that it is deepened, broadened, underpinned and secured for future generations? Can the U.N. be made to fulfill its charter's promise, written amid the devastation of World War II, to resolve all ''threats to the peace'' through the direction of the Security Council and the leadership and arbitration of the secretary general?
Shirley Hazzard wrote in her recent book, ''Countenance of Truth,'' that we no longer can afford to treat the U.N. ''as a temple of official good intentions -- a place where governments might, without abating their transgressions -- go to church; a place made remote -- by agreed untruth and procedural complexity, and by tedium itself -- from the risk of intense public involvement.''
The U.N. has not, so far, been accountable, much less intelligible, to the peoples of the world. For most of its existence it has been a hollow debating chamber, frozen by the Cold War and polarized by the sick rhetoric of the Western-Third World confrontation over a ''New Economic Order.''
Its first secretary general, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, was a small man, easily steamrollered by Washington into allowing the FBI to vet his staff list.
His successor, the Danish civil servant Dag Hammarskjold, gave the U.N. its one moment of public appeal, revealing that this apparently sclerotic institution could build muscle as a peacekeeper, albeit in a highly disorganized, back-of-the-envelope, manner. But Hammarskjold allowed his habit of condescension to get the better of him, inhibiting the natural rapport that is so necessary for this office.
Next came the gentle, effective Burmese, U Thant, and after him the Austrian Kurt Waldheim, whose deftness in avoiding offense was only outshone by the diligence with which he managed to keep his Nazi past under wraps for so long.
The incumbent secretary general, the Peruvian Javier Perez de Cuellar, seems refreshingly without ambition or pretension -- indeed, to the point where he sees fit to play the role of the quiet man, doing the bidding of the Security Council, even if its members go against the charter, as they certainly did during the gulf war, allowing one country, the United States, to command what should have been a joint U.N. military intervention.
The obedient and faithful civil servant is indeed one way of interpreting the mandate of the job -- but if 99 per cent of the world's population doesn't even know your name, and 99.99 per cent don't read the small print of the New York Times' diplomatic dispatches, it tends to leave the U.N. perpetually in the political shadows of life's pressing priorities.
This raises the question: Are we again going to see elected a person without stature, distinction or genius -- as Milton wrote ''a lank, shallow, unsufficient man'' -- someone who sees the moral power of the office as a current of low wattage to be switched on only on the rarest of occasions?
But how do we know if we are or we aren't? Only weeks away from an election, we know less about the personalities jockeying behind the scenes than we do of the cardinals at a papal conclave.
This way of doing things has had its day. The candidates should declare themselves publicly, allow time for scrutiny of their life histories, appear regularly before the world's press, and agree to world-wide televised debates. All this at the very least.
Peace, it is said, ''limps forward on a cane.'' If so, we certainly don't want another moral cripple or a lame personality at the helm of the U.N. We need boldness and innovation, goodness and guts, someone who understands that for peace to be secured in the world a reformation of the United Nations is now the first order of world business.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.