The U.N. Shadow Play

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

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 Though the secretary-general has technically not withdrawn his candidacy, his decision to "suspend" it amounts to the formal recognition by this intelligent, vain and imperious Egyptian diplomat that the United States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.

The American complaint against the secretary-general goes farther, of course. Boutros-Ghali is taxed with being a poor administrator and with his lack of commitment to U.N. "reform." These accusations are probably true, but, again, improvement in both these areas requires, above all, an American commitment to them. For the country that is the U.N.'s principal debtor to talk about U.N. reform is unseemly, not to say preposterous, as European diplomats have been pointing out, with mounting anger.

You do not need to be an admirer of Boutros-Ghali's to insist that the reality of what has been going on at the U.N. for the past few months has not been, as the U.S. claimed, an effort toward installing a new leader who could effect serious U.N. reform, but, rather, a shadow play in which the current incumbent is being blamed for the U.N.'s disarray--a circumstance that is the product of the institutional faults ingrained in the U.N. itself and of the reluctance of the great powers, particularly the U.S., to make up their minds about what role they want the secretary-general to play.

Should the secretary-general be a great world figure, someone who can eloquently and effectively represent the grand ideals embodied in the U.N. charter? Or should he or she be, above all, a good administrator? Judging by their critique of Boutros-Ghali, U.S. government officials expect both. That hardly seems realistic. Indeed, despite all the fine rhetoric, it is hard not to suspect that the U.S. and, for that matter, the other great powers, do not want a really first-rate official at the helm of the U.N.--for the simple reason that such a person would likely defy their wishes far more regularly than the rhetorically insubordinate but practically deferential Boutros-Ghali ever did.

Recently, there has been some nostalgic talk in Washington about Dag Hammarskjold, the independent-minded secretary-general in the early 1960s who was killed in the Congo. But, in fact, Hammarskjold had given little sign of independence before he was elected and infuriated the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council precisely because he took such an independent line. And to judge by the undistinguished names now being put forward as possible successors to Boutros-Ghali, it seems more likely that what the U.S. and the other major countries are looking for is not a second Hammarskjold, but a second Boutros-Ghali, with a less arrogant manner and management style.

Like so many of the Clinton administration's foreign-policy efforts, the campaign to deny Boutros-Ghali reelection has been the triumph of sound-bite over substance. Undertaken in large measure for domestic political reasons (Bob Dole made Boutros-Ghali into an issue during the presidential campaign), and conducted with astonishing ineptitude (if this is any sign of how Albright will run the State Department, the Clinton administration's second term may hold even more foreign-policy blunders than the first), the attack on Boutros-Ghali has obscured the serious questions about the U.N. that the administration should be addressing.

Those are the same ones that the great powers, particularly the United States, have been avoiding. Should the U.N. have any real power or should it simply serve the interests of countries like the United States? Is the secretary-general to play an important role or is he or she best restricted to serving as a senior but subservient international civil servant? There is also the whole question of the selection process. Whatever Boutros-Ghali's failings, no one of any stature is likely to be made secretary-general under the current highly politicized system, except, like Hammarskjold, by accident.

Those are the realities that the spat over Boutros-Ghali, which is little more than a quarrel over personalities, has obscured. And unless there is real reform--which means countries like the United States need to think through seriously what role they want the U.N. to play--his ouster, while earning the United States the surreptitious gratitude of a great many U.N. employees, will have accomplished little beyond stirring up, at least temporarily, the resentment of many countries that understand just how insubstantial American objections to Boutros-Ghali really are.

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