This is no way to pick a secretary general

December 02, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- Alger Hiss -- yes, the same Alger Hiss -- summed up the criteria for selecting the U.N. secretary general in a private note to the U.S. secretary of state in 1946: ''The qualifications of the secretary general should be the primary consideration.''

But qualifications have never been paramount. And the American veto of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is about as well-qualified as a secretary general can be, reminds us again how basely political the appointment always has been.

Another State Department memo from around the same period put it this way: ''He should be 45 to 55 and be fluent in both French and English . . . It was generally agreed that it would be undesirable if the candidate should come from the U.S.S.R. or France.''

And so the shallow, vain, unimaginative Norwegian Trygve Lie became the first secretary general in February, 1946. He turned into a stooge, accepting Sen. Joseph McCarthy's purge of many of the U.N.'s best American officials, an act of vandalism the organization has never really recovered from.

Lie once described his job as ''the most impossible job on earth.'' To which the distinguished Indian journalist, Aamir Ali, observed, ''it would not be extravagant to describe it today as the most important job on earth.''

Finest hours

On perhaps three or four occasions it has been that -- during the Congo crisis in 1960, when Dag Hammarskjold's calls for U.N. intervention forestalled an American and Soviet attempt to pre-empt each other; during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. when U Thant facilitated Khrushchev's retreat; and in 1973, when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and confronted the Israelis in Sinai. Richard Nixon put U.S. forces on full nuclear alert and Leonid Brezhnev initiated massive Soviet troop movements. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had U.N. peacekeeping troops on the ground within 24 hours to separate the Israeli and Egyptian armies, and the situation was defused.

But most of the time the hands of the secretary general are tied. Only Hammarskjold had the strength of personality to partially escape this straitjacket. A seemingly shy, introverted, little known, colorless Swede, aged 47, he was proposed by a French ambassador who had been impressed by his work in Paris on the Marshall Plan.

Before very long he was a household name the world over, with the independent spirit, when the occasion demanded, to stand up to both superpowers. He created U.N. peacekeeping and died in a 1961 plane crash while mediating the Congo crisis. He is considered one of the handful of political greats of our century, more remembered than most heads of government of his time.

No Security Council member today would countenance another such figure, with the ability to articulate the aims and principles .. of the United Nations to the world public and thus build up an independent, popular constituency. The U.N. is an inter-governmental organization, and governments have no intention of giving up control of it.

Thomas Jefferson once observed that ''No duty the Executive had to perform was so trying as to put the right man in the right place.'' But governments are not even trying to fulfill this duty. Nor are they prepared to make the selection procedure open to view, so that the influence of public opinion might be mobilized.

The Clinton administration and Bob Dole, having together quashed Mr. Boutros-Ghali, appear almost careless of what follows. The U.N. has now reached the nadir of its 51-year existence.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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