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The U.N. Shadow Play

The U.S. campaign to deny Boutros-Ghali a second term masks the urgent need to reinvent the international organization for a post-Cold War era

December 08, 1996|David Rieff | David Rieff, author of "Slaughterhouse: The Failure of Bosnia and the West" (S&S Trade), is now working on a book about humanitarian aid

NEW YORK — The U.S. effort to deny Boutros Boutros-Ghali a second term as U.N. secretary-general has now succeeded, as it was bound to. Though the secretary-general has technically not withdrawn his candidacy, his decision to "suspend" it amounts to the formal recognition by this intelligent, vain and imperious Egyptian diplomat that the United States will not be dissuaded from its determination to unseat him.

Apart from the French, for whom Boutros-Ghali was virtually a native son, few at the United Nations will mourn his departure, whatever they are now saying publicly. Morale within the institution is at an all-time low, and while much of this can be attributed to the failures of peacekeeping in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, and to the U.N.'s parlous financial condition (itself largely the result of the U.S.' failure to pay its assessments), Boutros-Ghali personally bears much of the blame.

The diplomat who once boasted that, in the Egyptian foreign service, he had learned to deal with subordinates through "stealth and sudden terror" relied too often on these methods during his U.N. tenure. Too often capricious (he told a Turkish Cypriot delegation in the midst of a rare moment when a resolution of the crisis seemed possible that he had little time to deal with their concerns) and morally tone-deaf (in December, 1992, Boutros-Ghali visited Sarajevo and admonished the besieged citizenry that he knew of at least 10 places where conditions were far worse), Boutros-Ghali may, with the possible exception of Kurt Waldheim, be the worst secretary-general in U.N. history. But, while there is every reason to welcome his departure, neither the way Washington handled the matter nor the reasons behind the American decision stand up to scrutiny.

It is true that the argument over Boutros-Ghali's qualifications to serve a second term might have provided a context in which the long-overdue debate over the U.N.'s mission in the post-Cold War world and the role of the secretary-general could both have taken place. The United Nations is at a turning point, with its relevance, if not its survival, in the balance. In this moment of crisis, much would be clarified if the United States were to express what role it wishes the organization and its leadership to play. But rather than articulating such a serious policy, Washington has simply denounced the United Nations for its failure to reform and suggested that this failure can be attributed to Boutros-Ghali's defects as a secretary-general. In reality, whatever his faults, to personalize the U.N.'s crisis by laying it at Boutros-Ghali's door is not only hypocritical but, like most exercises in sound-bite diplomacy, doomed to failure. What confronts the United Nations is nothing less than a crisis of legitimacy--not the failures and limitations of one individual.

In any case, the American critique of the secretary-general involves a considerable distortion of the record. To hear U.S. officials tell it, they always had reservations about Boutros-Ghali. In fact, though he assumed his office as a compromise candidate put forward by the French, the Americans, who have a veto over any nominee for the post, did not oppose him. Moreover, some steps he took early in his tenure--notably in crafting "An Agenda for Peace," the 1992 position paper calling for a vastly expanded U.N. role in the past-Cold War world--were undertaken, at least in part, because the United States had encouraged U.N. officials to do so. Both the Bush administration, with its theory of a new world order, and the Clinton administration, with its insistent talk of a revived multilateralism, seemed to be calling for a more activist United Nations.

Then came the trauma of Somalia and, after that, the Bosnian disgrace. The U.N. role in the Balkan tragedy, despite what its apologists have claimed, was far more than simply serving as a fig leaf for the world's reluctance to act. In fact, Boutros-Ghali's U.N. played a crucial role, successfully impeding, at key moments, moves that might have led to the outside intervention that might have stopped the slaughter, and covering up Serb atrocities. The point, however, is that whatever the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Madeleine K. Albright, and other members of the Clinton administration, have claimed, the U.S. could have forced a different policy on the U.N. secretariat--had it been determined to do so.

Instead, however, in Bosnia and in many other contexts, the U.S. government preferred to act as if it were not in a position to impose its will on Boutros-Ghali and, indeed, as if somehow the world's most powerful country was at the mercy of a man who, like every U.N. secretary-general before him, will do what he is told by the great powers, if told firmly enough. If Boutros-Ghali overstepped his mandate, this was due to the failure of the administration to develop a coherent foreign policy until it was too late in the Horn of Africa, in the Great Lakes region and in the Balkans.

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