American Enterprise Online
June 19, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

This may sound like some sort of bad joke, but what do an economist from Ghana, Egyptian member of the Socialist International, career diplomat from Peru, Austrian war criminal, Burmese school superintendent, Swedish banker and Norwegian lawyer all have in common?  They all, at one time or another, were the “symbol of United Nations ideals”—at least according to the bureaucrats at the UN. In other words, they all served as UN Secretary General.  

In case you have forgotten the names of the men in this strange and small fraternity, they include Kofi Annan, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Javier Perez de Cuellar, Kurt Waldheim, U Thant, Dag Hammarskjöld and Trygve Lie. Annan’s second five-year term is up this December, which means his tenure atop the UN is mercifully coming to a close. As http://www.unsg.org/ (a veritable clearinghouse of info on the Secretary Generalship) explains, by convention and custom the UN’s top executive only serves two terms before drifting off into the pale-blue yonder.  

So who will replace Annan?

According to the UN Charter, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In other words, he or she must have the support of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the US, the UK, France, Russia and the PRC—and garner at least nine votes from the Security Council’s 15 members.

“Political compromises behind closed doors generally ensure the nomination of a single candidate,” according to unsg.org. The heir-apparent is “usually from a middle power and with little prior fame.”

The frontrunners identified by unsg.org certainly fit that description: Ban Ki-moon, Foreign Minister of South Korea; Jayantha Dhanapala, former Secretary-General of the Sri Lankan Peace Process; and Surakiart Sathirathai, Deputy Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister of Thailand. Others in the running, according to unsg.org, include a Turkish development official, Jordanian prince, the former president of Poland, the former president of Iran, the current presidents of Latvia and Liberia, and two names Americans would recognize—Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. 

But unsg.org adds that high profile candidates “are almost always rejected as unpalatable to some governments.”

That means we are destined for the lowest common denominator. And that’s not all bad. Given the UN’s inability to handle even the limited responsibilities left to it—look no further than the Oil for Food mega-scandal in Iraq; the blood-drenched debacles in Bosnia, Rwanda and too many other places to count; Libya’s chairmanship of the human rights commission; Iran’s leadership spot on the disarmament commission; the systemic and serial moral relativism that permeates the organization and lumps together dictatorships and democracies—having a more powerful, more influential person in the top UN post would only encourage the world body to make bigger mistakes and more of them.

Suzanne Nossel, who served as an aide to Richard Holbrooke during his stint as US ambassador to the UN, has helped handicap the race for Secretary General by sharing ten characteristics to look for in Annan’s replacement. These include strong management skills, charisma, Asian ethnicity (she notes that the UN has an “informal agreed regional rotation system which dictates that this is Asia’s turn”), vision, respect in the developing world, affinity for the US, a willingness to take risks, comfort in the media spotlight, patience and moral authority.  

I thought it would be helpful to match some names with these characteristics.

1.  A Strong Manager
Saddam Hussein and Mullah Mohammed Omar both hail from the Asian landmass, and both are out of work.

2.  A Charismatic Leader
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez certainly stand out in this category.

3.  An Asian
That disqualifies Fidel and Hugo. Pity.

4.  A Visionary of Sorts
Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov renamed the month of January after himself. That’s pretty visionary.

5.  Someone who Enjoys the Respect of the Developing World
Bono and Bill Gates seem to have friends on both sides of the world’s prince-and-pauper divide. (But again, that Asian requirement is tough to get around.)

6.  Someone who likes the United States
That disqualifies the names under points 1 through 4. It also disqualifies virtually all of the EU bureaucracy and much of the American left.

7.  Someone Unafraid to Take Risks
Tony Blair and George W. Bush would certainly shake up the place, and both are headed toward retirement. But something tells me they won’t be asked to sit for an interview.

8.  Someone who likes Media Attention, but Not Too Much
That second clause disqualifies Bill Clinton.

9.  Someone Patient but Not Too Patient
General Pervez Musharraf is still waiting for the day when Osama bin Laden travels to Islamabad and politely turns himself in to Pakistani authorities.

10.  Someone with Moral Authority
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden claim to be doing the work of Allah. But the former is at odds with the UN over that pesky Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the latter would have trouble keeping up with the globetrotting expected of a Secretary General.

But don’t despair. I may have the perfect man for the job—Houston Rockets center Yao Ming. Think about it: He’s Asian. He likes media attention, but he’s OK with others getting applause. He loves America. He just won an award from a big chunk of the developing world as China’s “vanguard worker.” He’s charismatic enough to be on billboards in places as disparate as Beijing and Houston. He’s not only a visionary—he’s the first of his kind. And whether or not he’s willing to take risks, he’s certainly willing to take big shots. He stands literally head-and-shoulders above the other candidates.

This is only partly facetious. It pays to recall that soon after Winston Churchill helped establish the UN, he feared that it might become ineffective and ultimately irrelevant. So he challenged his fellow founders to make sure the UN “is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action and not merely a frothing of words.” Sixty years later, perhaps Churchill’s fears are the best we can hope for.