Butros Ghali takes over as sixth secretary-general of the United Nations under trying circumstances: Much is expected of him and of the U.N. Perhaps too much.
How much easier it was for his predecessor, Javier Perez de Cuellar, a decade ago. The world organization was nearly bankrupt, held in contempt and incapable of solving world problems. The Peruvian diplomat was no one's first choice, a late-ballot compromise, sufficiently bland not to be vetoed by any side. Little was expected of him.
The rest is history, a great deal of history. Mr. Perez de Cuellar did not single-handedly bring peace to the world or effectiveness to the U.N. Circumstances changed, notably the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. The partnership forged by former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Presidents Reagan and Bush made all things possible. The greatness of Mr. Perez de Cuellar was to recognize possibility, understand what it required of him and to make the most of it.
He worked to the last minute of his second term patching together an elusive internal accord in El Salvador. He had been deeply involved in the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. He played a decisive role in bringing independence to Namibia under United Nations guarantees and key roles in the settlement for Cambodia, the internal accord in Angola, the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the cease-fire between Morocco and insurrectionists in the Western Sahara, and the Soviet exit from Afghanistan.
Since the world's great powers now wish regional conflicts suppressed, Mr. Ghali will have support to pick up this ball on the run. But Mr. Perez de Cuellar did not get everything done. He notably forgot to reform the United Nations itself. The great challenge to his successor, a veteran Egyptian diplomat and politician, is to cure the problem that United Nations member governments created in using U.N. jobs as patronage.
The catch is that for Mr. Ghali to play the personal role that world crises require, he must trust the U.N. secretariat to run itself. This requires a strong set of deputies who can make the administration lean and mean. A group of Australian-led national representatives at the U.N., with U.S. support, has greeted Mr. Ghali with a reform plan. He is said to have promised reform within two months.
Certainly reform would equip Mr. Ghali to face the next crisis: the near-insolvency of the world body. He has to persuade the dues deadbeats to pay up. Chief among these is the United States. The Bush administration has promised to pay, but is nearly one-half billion dollars short of having done so. An efficient reform followed by support from the major countries would free Mr. Ghali for the personal diplomacy that the world's most vexing issues will demand of him.