UNITED NATIONS, N.Y — SECRETARY-GENERAL Boutros Boutros-Ghali began his term in January 1992, shortly after the United Nations' first flush of post-cold-war successes. Then, many thought the UN could handle any crisis. Yet the new chief was uneasy.
"I was saying, 'We have too much credibility' - that in a few months we will have a crisis of credibility," he recalls in a recent interview in his 38th-floor office at UN headquarters. The UN setbacks that followed in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia proved that the jubilation had been premature.
A new sense of realism about what the UN can and cannot do permeates the atmosphere here this week as the world's leaders step to the General Assembly podium to assess the UN's first 50 years and its future. Everyone now realizes that the UN cannot do it all.
"This is why we are trying to have more contact with the new actors - the nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], business, unions, universities, regional organizations," Mr. Boutros Ghali says. "They may help us."
Some of these "new actors" are already hard at work:
*NGOs, with their strong grass-roots views, now hold parallel gatherings each time governments convene at a major UN conference, such as the women's conference in Beijing in September. Their presence often prods governments to take bolder positions.
*UN officials and diplomats now are convinced that any peace-enforcement job must be contracted out to capable states or regional groups. NATO is expected to handle enforcement of any Bosnian peace agreement. Russia and its Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has UN-sanctioned forces in both Georgia and Tajikistan. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has a UN-sanctioned troop operation in Liberia.
Even as he works in an atmosphere of more realistic expectations, Boutros-Ghali presses forward in areas he says are in the long-term interests of the world community. Democracy is a strong theme. A former Egyptian diplomat with a PhD in international law from the Sorbonne, Boutros-Ghali is particularly proud that the UN has helped monitor more than 50 recent elections, including the landmark South African vote. Democracy among states and in economic development policy, he says, has a close link to political stability and peace.
He consistently reminds member states of the need to treat world problems more evenhandedly. He is widely credited for an early, eloquent call to the international community to respond to the massacres in Rwanda, when much of the world was looking the other way.
When the Bosnian Serbs captured the UN-designated "safe area" of Srebrenica last summer, Boutros-Ghali drew criticism for proceeding with a trip to Rwanda, Burundi, and Angola. He says he felt obliged to keep a promise. In Burundi he delivered an almost moralistic lecture on the need for tolerance and political stability as a key to attracting development funds. Speaking as an African (the first to head the UN), a brother, and an elder, he insisted that "no one wins through violence."
Asked if he feels a special responsibility to Africa, Boutros-Ghali says: "Emotionally I belong to Africa, but if I am a good secretary-general, I must have the same treatment for all communities all over the world. It is my duty to try to bring the spotlight on those conflicts which nobody wants to pay attention to," he says with particular vehemence. "We are talking about equality."
This sixth secretary-general, a Coptic Christian who speaks Arabic, French, and English, views himself more as a politician than a diplomat since he represents no single nation but must try to meld the interests of the UN's 185 members.
The jury is still out on how well he is succeeding. He is a controversial leader; he says what he thinks. His critics, who prefer anonymity, say he is often arrogant and abrasive. His supporters say he is articulate, bright, and courageous.
"He's hands on - he's got guts," says Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan's former ambassador to the UN. "The prospect of failure doesn't deter him."
During his extensive travels, Boutros-Ghali has been pelted with stones in Mogadishu, Somalia, and subjected to jeers and protest signs that said "Ghali Hitler" in Sarajevo by those who saw him as symbol of a UN that was either doing too much or too little. Critics say he tarnished UN credibility by going there. He dismisses the incidents as "marginal."
At UN headquarters, tensions sometimes flare between the secretary-general and the Security Council. Though Boutros-Ghali calls himself the "humble servant" of the Council and is obliged to carry out its instructions, three years ago he accused the Council of paying too much attention to Bosnia while ignoring other crises, such as that in Somalia. He often urges clearer Council mandates for peacekeeping and sanctions. Some Council diplomats complain he has tried to micromanage their work and blame them for UN failures, while crediting "the UN" for any successes.
The secretary-general readily admits he is not universally popular. "I think criticism is healthy," he says. "I prefer criticism to indifference."
No one questions Boutros-Ghali's devotion to the job or the amount of energy he gives it. He travels four or five months a year, visiting about 50 nations. He is just back from a six-day trip to Latin America.
He says he feels an obligation to make these trips both to "show the flag" - reinforce ties between the UN and its members - and to get a clearer picture of the on-the-ground situation in world hot spots.
The former Fulbright scholar and professor, who served Egypt for 14 years as deputy premier for foreign affairs, is a voracious reader who studies and rewrites most UN reports that cross his desk. Aides call his management style "intense." Advisers in his small entourage are expected to know their brief.
"He does not suffer fools gladly," says one colleague.
His 10-hour workday is typically filled with appointments with ambassadors, foreign ministers, and staff. "Work is his thing," says a colleague. During his four years at the UN, Boutros-Ghali says he has not yet made it to a movie or play. "Once I went to the museum - to Matisse," he says.
Boutros-Ghali's most immediate problem is the UN's financial crisis. The world body is owed more than $3.2 billion. Noting that UN troop contributors are due almost one-third of that total, the secretary-general says diplomats frequently remind him how much their nations are owed. In effect, he says, the UN is "borrowing" money from poor countries because wealthier nations do not pay. He says he has tried every tactic he can think of to get short-term relief, such as authority to issue bonds, without success.
As for current loud calls for UN reform, Boutros-Ghali says streamlining and restructuring is a "continuous process." He says much depends on how willing member states are to go along with changes.
"He's been obliged to try to do massive reorganization on a machine which is grossly overstretched and going full speed," comments Sir Brian Urquhart, Ford Foundation scholar and former UN under secretary-general. He says Boutros-Ghali inherited a "terrible situation." In Mr. Urquhart's view, the role of the UN secretary-general in the UN hierarchy is not one of power, but of influence and exposure. Ideas and vision are key, he says.
'I DON'T think this secretary-general's management, administrative, and diplomatic skills with major powers are always what they ought to be," says Edward Luck, a senior official of the United Nations Association of the USA, a bipartisan UN support group. "However, I do think he's brought to the job some intellectual qualities and a sense of vision ... and direction that has been very much wanting in the institution.... He's using his office as a bully pulpit."
Boutros-Ghali, who initially vowed to serve only one five-year term, deftly dodges the question of a second term to begin in January 1997. He tells colleagues he still has more than a year to decide and that a lot will depend on what more he thinks he can accomplish, his health, and his wife, Leia.
A second term may depend largely on the support he gets from the major Western powers. The United States, which supported but did not champion Boutros-Ghali's election, currently has no position. France has been a strong sponsor from the start. African nations undoubtedly will support one of their own for a second term.