A secretary general to respect: Gorbachev?

July 05, 1996|By Jonathan Power

OXFORD, England -- Boutros Boutros-Ghali is on the way out. Five countries have a U.N. veto, but the veto that counts is America's.

The Clinton White House should hang its head in shame for the way it has treated the secretary general. In Somalia, the U.S pinned the blame on the U.N. for the killing of 18 American soldiers and the disaster that followed. But it was the U.S. Quick Reaction Force, acting independently of the U.N. command, that led the attack on the Somali warlord that provoked the slaughter of American soldiers.

In Yugoslavia, the United States spent two years undermining all the compromises that the U.N. and the European negotiators devised, then lifted matters out of U.N. hands, ''borrowing'' the compromises for the Dayton accords.

Not the man to win Congress

Nevertheless, the secretary general has lost his credibility in America. He is not the man who can persuade Congress to pay up America's $1 billion debt, and in the next world crisis he would be unable to win America's ear.

The U.N. has long been everyone's kicking boy, but in a time of trouble the big powers do have a habit of running to it. Even in the Cold War its role was indispensable.

In the 1954 crisis over the capture of 17 U.S. airmen by China, American opinion became agitated; there was even some talk about using nuclear weapons. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold went to Beijing to talk to Premier Chou En-lai. It took six months of negotiation, but the men were released. President Dwight Eisenhower has a whole chapter in his book on the incident, but the central role of the secretary general is almost ignored.

Thant's letter to Moscow

Robert Kennedy's book on the Cuban missile crisis also scants Secretary General U Thant's letter to the Soviet boss, Nikita Khrushchev, but that letter elicited a crucial response from Khrushchev indicating that there was room for compromise.

Very few Americans are aware of this history. Their politicians, apart from Adlai Stevenson, rarely bother to educate the public, and the media with rare exceptions prefer to snipe and snigger.

The United Nations needs a secretary general who commands instant respect in America. Ideally it should be an African, because it is Africa's turn and Africa has at least three eminent candidates -- Kofi Annan, the master of U.N. peacekeeping operations; the recently retired archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who brings out the best in everybody; and Olusegun Obasanjo, who engineered Nigeria's return to democracy, then was overthrown by military thugs and now languishes in jail.

It should also be a woman, and two women -- the former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland -- are often mentioned.

Wanted: a doer

It should be someone who knows the U.N. inside out and who gets things done -- such as the Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, secretary general of the Rio environmental conference.

None of these are household names in America. So what about Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union and the man who, more than any other human being, brought about the end of the Cold War, dismantled the communist system and engineered the freedom of eastern Europe?

As Olga Chayhovskaya, the Russian writer, has observed, ''He inherited a moribund, slavish country and made it alive and free.''

Nothing that happened in Mr. Gorbachev's time was inevitable. No other member of the Soviet hierarchy would have or could have followed the course he took.

As the late foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Andrei Gromyko, used to say: ''Gorbachev has a nice smile but iron teeth.''

Iron teeth are what is needed -- to win over the U.S. Congress, to cut out the flab in the U.N. itself and, above all, to command instant respect so that things get done when they have to be done.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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