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If You Want It, Forget It

The ideal candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general should be diplomatic and self-confident. Just don't advertise the fact.

January 18, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — With one year left in Kofi Annan's term as secretary-general, nearly everyone here is talking about who will succeed him. Except for the candidates.

In the protocol-laden world of the United Nations, to promote oneself as a contender for the world's top diplomat is considered most undiplomatic.

Candidates typically are nominated by their heads of state or a regional group, or have someone else put their name forward. To campaign publicly tends to lessen one's chances of being selected by the Security Council, so until they have been formally presented as a candidate, most nominees deny they want the job. That puts some of the quieter contenders in a can't-win position. One diplomat whose name has been floated said the more he denied he was in the running, the more convinced people were that he was.

"It's like that Monty Python movie, where the group of devotees mistakes an ordinary man for the Messiah," he said, referring to a scene from "Life of Brian." ("I am not the Messiah!" the man says. "Only the true Messiah denies his divinity," a woman says. "All right! I am the Messiah!" he says, and they fall to their knees. "He is! He is the Messiah!")

"It is hardly a process at all. It is more like a lottery," said Brian Urquhart, a former undersecretary-general who has served or advised every secretary-general since the organization's birth in 1945. "It has become a rather squalid competition with no set procedure, shrouded in Big Power secrecy."

One of the earliest U.N. chiefs, Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold, didn't even know he was being discussed as a candidate when he was notified that he had been selected to be secretary-general on April 1, 1953.

"He thought it was an April Fool's joke," Urquhart said.

The first secretary-general, Norwegian diplomat Trygve Lie, didn't even want the job, aspiring instead to be the president of the General Assembly. At that time, the secretary-general's job was viewed as more secretary than general, administering the organization and its staff.

But Hammarskjold helped define the job in a way that has made it a powerful perch in world affairs.

The secretary-general, he said, is the embodiment of the institution, representing all the nations. The post does not have the weight of military or economic power, Hammarskjold said, but it does have moral authority. He believed his job was to discreetly prevent conflict before it ignited, and to push the world to embrace interdependence.

Annan aspired to that ideal. The soft-spoken U.N. career diplomat from Ghana won the Nobel Peace Prize, was handed a second term as secretary-general, and former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke dubbed him "the rock star of diplomacy." But after the $64-billion Iraq oil-for-food scandal, revelations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, and a struggle to reform the organization, the next person to hold the post may once again be more secretary than general.

At least, that is what Washington would like to see.

"This organization needs a strong manager," said Sichan Siv, a senior U.S. diplomat at the U.N. who has been helping to vet candidates. "Not a rock star, not a politician, not someone who spends a lot of time on the TV screen. We want someone who gets things done."

By traditional geographic rotation, the next U.N. chief should come from Asia. But Britain and the United States have made it clear that merit should trump geography.

"We've said that we want the best-qualified person from whatever region of the world that person might come from," U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said in a recent interview. "If it's an Asian, that's fine with us. If it's not an Asian, that's fine with us too."

They also are pushing for the next secretary-general to be chosen by midyear, to allow plenty of time for a transition.

What the two countries think matters, because it is the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia -- that choose the successor in a closed-door vote. If the rest of the 15-member council agree, they recommend the candidate to the 191-member General Assembly, which formalizes the selection.

But sometimes an even smaller clique steers the process. In his book "Against All Enemies," former White House advisor Richard A. Clarke details how he and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conspired to oust the contentious Boutros Boutros-Ghali and install the more conciliatory Annan.

It was "a secret plan we had called Operation Orient Express, reflecting our hope that many nations would join us in doing in the U.N. head. In the end, the U.S. had to do it alone," he wrote.

That reflects the unspoken requirements of the job: that the aspirant is not so strong that he (or she) will challenge the key Security Council powers, and not so weak that he cannot clean up the organization. In 1982, the job was given to Javier Perez de Cuellar, a Peruvian who was described as someone who "wouldn't make a splash if he fell out of a boat."

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