THE Help Wanted sign is out at the United Nations and, while the need is urgent, the circumstances are vague, even confused. Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar's term ends Dec. 31. His successor will need two or three months to comprehend the organization's responsibilities, vastly expanded in scope and complexity over the past four years and especially since Iraq invaded Kuwait last August. The 46th UN General Assembly, convening in mid-September, must make the appointment its first order of business. But the Assembly acts only on the recommendation of the Security Council, so the council must improvise and start a hitherto nonexistent candidate selection process. Adding to the uncertainty, France and the Soviet Union want P'erez de Cu'ellar to stay on for a year or two. But he has signaled no willingness to do so.
The man or woman chosen for what the first secretary-general, Trygve Lie of Norway, called the ``most impossible job on earth'' takes on a daunting agenda. Lie found himself enmeshed in the cold war that disfigured the UN for its first 40 years. That is past, probably forever; but the unfrozen organization, now able to function on the basis of a consensus in which the Soviets join, must deal with a variety of problems, unimaginable five years ago. It has moved beyond buffer-zone peacekeeping to peacemak ing and nation-building.
The UN - or, more precisely, its members using the UN as the instrument they had devised it to be - brought Namibia from South African colonial rule to independence and democracy. It is working to put warring factions together in a peaceful Cambodia; and a UN-conducted referendum will end a generation of war in Western Sahara - operations involving thousands of UN personnel for long periods and costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
The 15 members of the Security Council have agreed to expanded interpretation of the UN Charter's Chapter VII, on ``action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression.'' Chapter VII is the UN's teeth. It authorized the coalition's military operations against Iraq. It then afforded the UN unprecedented power to demilitarize Iraq and to direct its economy until debts and compensation are paid.
In April, the council found that Saddam Hussein's repression of the Iraqi civilian population, which moved millions to flight, threatened international peace and security. In future, any massive malfeasance with international consequences may provoke council action.
What sort of person can serve the world community as its chief executive in predictable and unpredictable emergencies? He or she (``she'' is not a courtesy pronoun, since Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland is on many a short list) must have great tact in dealing with the member states. The five permanent members of the Security Council, Britain, France, China, the United States, and the Soviet Union, each with veto power, are the political core of the UN. Lately a new Group of Four: US, Brita in, Soviet Union, and Japan, which together pay 52 percent of the regular budget, have been prodding the secretary-general and his secretariat to greater economy.
At the same time, the small and poor developing countries, the great majority of the members, must see the secretary-general as someone who represents their interests.
Some, like the US, demand management reform. But administration and coordination of this structural monstrosity should be left to experts. Enough that the head of the system be vigorous and prestigious enough to give it coherent leadership.
One widely respected aspirant, perhaps the leading one, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, has done much important work for the UN in the third world over the past decades. Some wonder, however, whether he can rein in what will soon be 161 member states.There is always nostalgia for a ``strong'' secretary-general like Dag Hammarskjold, forgetting that he was finished politically when he crossed the Soviet Union, long before he was killed in a plane crash.
The great powers will not accept enlargement of the office to permit independent action by the secretary-general in a sudden crisis. Nor do they want a spokesman for the world's conscience to poke into their affairs. They are also suspicious of regional candidates, which puts a damper on the Africans' claim that it is now their turn.
How to find the right person? The first five were found almost haphazardly. Today, there is a felt need for considered choice. Instead of quiet suggestion by insiders, there will be many, perhaps hundreds of candidates. The US apparently has a list of two dozen. Individuals, so minded, may nominate themselves. The starting field may be enormous.
If the process is not to be a joke, time will be needed to narrow it down - and time is running out.