If You Want It, Forget It

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Times Staff Writer

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.”

U.S. officials say that it may be Asia’s turn but that they are still waiting to see a candidate with the right qualifications. That is not a vote of confidence in the two candidates who have actually been publicly nominated, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and Sri Lankan nonproliferation expert Jayantha Dhanapala.

Surakiart won a tepid endorsement from the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, but other countries in the region are withholding their public support. A former Thai ambassador to Washington recently wrote an opinion piece saying that Surakiart was so weak that he would damage Thailand’s reputation if he became secretary-general.

Sri Lanka reportedly has a couple of candidates in reserve, including Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga, who would appeal to those pushing for a woman to head the U.N.


Eastern Europe is also lobbying for a chance at the post, but Russia does not want any other voices from the region that might challenge its own and has called for an Asian candidate.

If that doesn’t nix the chances of the most talked-about candidate, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, his recent remark that he wanted the post only if the U.N. had already been cleaned up would take him out of the race. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga also has been mentioned, but she would have to overcome Russian objections.

Other names that have been floated include Jordan’s ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Raad Hussein, a former peacekeeper and ex-president of a group of the International Criminal Court’s founding members; and Kemal Dervis, Turkey’s former economics czar who now heads the U.N. Development Program.

Although there is an unwritten agreement that no one from a permanent member of the Security Council can hold the post because it would concentrate too much power with one country, a campaign pushing former President Clinton gained momentum with a Harper’s magazine cover article this month insisting that only he can revive the U.N. and its “sense of relevance to Americans.”

Then there are those who question why anybody would want the post, which the first secretary-general described as “the most impossible job on this Earth.” But Annan has a bit of advice for his successor.

“They need thick skin,” he said last month, moments before lashing out at a contentious reporter. “And they need a sense of humor.”