U.N. chief rises, thrives on low-key, unhurried style Annan was U.S. favorite, but his cautious approach now dismays Washington


UNITED NATIONS -- Kofi Annan captivated Capitol Hill. He dazzled financiers and political leaders at the annual forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The United Nations' new secretary-general impresses nearly everyone he meets as ever so nice -- but now leaders are discovering that he is also ever so cautious. Although Washington is reluctant to pass judgment so early on the man the Clinton administration promoted as the organization's savior, some of his first moves have disappointed.

By Annan's own admission, the job he assumed last month makes him "the man in the middle," the chief administrative officer -- with very limited authority -- over only part of an unwieldy, decentralized, global system that takes orders from the 185 countries that make up its membership.

"I'm trying to move the organization to go through with reform at a time when lots of people think that the United States is imposing reform and that the member states are not ready," he said in an interview in his office. "You can come with the best blueprint, but if you impose reform, you're never going to go anywhere."

Asked whether he had an impossible job before him, he replied, "A friend of mine described it as a job from hell."

A consensus-builder

A career international civil servant from Ghana who is said to have never raised his voice with colleagues, Annan, 58, has survived and thrived in the labyrinthine U.N. bureaucracy for more than three decades because he prefers quiet, slow-moving consensus-building to bold action.

But it is precisely that quality that might make it hard for him to press the United Nations to change -- the only way the United States will pay more than $1 billion in back dues.

In its 1998 budget plan released Thursday, the Clinton administration proposed spending $100 million next year and $912 million in 1999 to pay its debt. The payments, however, are contingent on a level of reform the administration and the Congress have yet to define.

"It's not ideal, but given the history and circumstances it's probably the best we could get," Annan said, acknowledging that he has no choice but to accept the proposal even though the payments are not at all certain and even though the United Nations says the United States owes $300 million more.

Annan disagrees that his studied, low-key style is a liability. "There seems to be a sense out there that unless you are confrontational and get into contentious situations, you are not tough, you are not a leader, you are not free," he said.

"I've never shared that view in my life, and I'm not going to change now. I often tell my colleagues you can even win without fighting, so why do I have to go and pick unnecessary fights?"

Reform plan pushed back

Much to the dismay of the United States and some of the other big donors, Annan has announced that he will not have a comprehensive reform plan ready until late July at the earliest, after the entire U.N. membership has had an opportunity to weigh in.

The delay misses the opportunity to capitalize on the extraordinary good will surrounding Annan in succeeding Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian whose ouster was spearheaded by the United States.

It also gives conservative Republicans in Congress time to pre-empt Annan with their own legislation.

"I was a little surprised," said Princeton Lyman, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations, of Annan's decision to take so much time. "There are a number of steps we have all been waiting for, and, frankly, we hope he takes them before July."

One of the changes the United States and the world's six other largest industrial countries say they want is the merging of the United Nations' three economic departments under a single head, a proposal they formally presented last year.

Even the departments' titles suggest duplication: the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, the Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, and the Department for Development Support and Management Services.

But when Edward W. Gnehm Jr., the acting chief U.S. representative, and Ambassador Alain Dejamet of France met Tuesday with Annan to press him for a decision on behalf of the group, he said he was not ready to make a decision, according to diplomats familiar with the meeting.

In fact, they said, he changed the subject. And when the two envoys tried again, Annan refused to be pinned down.

"This is an idea that has been around for a long time," said one diplomat. "Even the Chinese seem to be in favor. It's all, well, a bit disappointing."

Annan's reappointment of most of the senior bureaucracy at the United Nations -- many on contracts of three to five years -- instead of cleaning house has also dismayed the United States, some of the other members and even some officials inside the bureaucracy.

And the way Annan has decided to organize his reform team is already causing confusion about who will do what.

U.S. concerns

Annan appointed Maurice Strong, a former businessman from Canada who has undertaken a number of U.N. missions, to a newly created post of "executive coordinator for reform" at a symbolic salary of $1 a year. But Strong reports directly to Annan, not to Joseph E. Connor, the American undersecretary-general in charge of the United Nations' administration and management.

The two men are said to have a correct relationship at best.

The administration has expressed concern that Strong may usurp or duplicate some of the functions now performed by Connor, a former chairman and chief executive officer of Price Waterhouse, whom the administration hand-picked to lead the reform effort three years ago.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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