Who will succeed Kurt Waldheim at the helm of the United Nations come to end of 1981? The answer to this question, which is asked and whispered about more than any other at UN headquarters now, may well be . . . Kurt Waldheim.
The main argument advanced in UN corridors in favor of reelecting Mr. Waldheim has to do with the present turbulence in world politics.
Cool heads believe that with the possibility of new wars, and of rising tensions everywhere, the time is not ripe for experimenting. As seen here, the need now is for careful, adroit, experienced, cool diplomacy.
"Numerically, demographically, morally, the third world may be very important indeed, but in terms of the actual balance of power in the world, the most neutral point between Washington and Moscow, politically, is still Austria and not Tanzania or Argentina." says one analyst.
The issue of who will be the new secretary-general may well overshadow most other issues at UN headquarters this fall. Mr. Waldheim's second mandate expires at the end of the year. He has let it be known that he would be available to serve for a third term if asked to do so by the world community.
The only official candidate at the present time is Tanzania's foreign minister, Salim Salim, who has received the support of the Organization of African Unity.
Some candidates from Latin America are lurking in the wings and hoping to run away with the prize should a stalemate develop between Salim Salim and Kurt Waldheim. They are Carlos Ortiz de Rosas from Argentina, Alexander Orfila, the secretary of the OAS [Organization of American States] also from Argentina, and Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's foreign minister. They are not backed by the Latin American group and are considered to be at best dark horses.
While Mr. Waldheim's succession poses very tricky diplomatic problems, conventional Wisdom has it that in the end the secretary-general will succeed himself.
There is no written rule regarding the geographical origin of the secretary-general but there is general acceptance that the next one should be an African or a Latin American since the post has already been occupied by Europeans and Asians [Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant and Waldheim].
Salim Salim's candidacy, on its surface, is a powerful one. He is highly respected for his diplomatic skills even though, rightly or wrongly, many moderate third-world diplomats suspect him to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. And there is no unanimity among nonaligned countries in his favor.
Salim is generally expected to be blocked by both a US and a Soviet veto at the Security Council. The US is unlikely to back a radical third-worldcandidate , while the Soviets find him unacceptable because of his pro-Chinese credentials. As one senior Soviet diplomat has put it: "The old shoe -- meaning Waldheim -- fits best."
The media and some officials have also taken potshots at Waldheim.
"It is fashionable in Washington, D.C., to criticize Waldheim for not having brought the hostages home nor gotten the Russians out of Afghanistan. In communist capitals he is blamed for not having brought Namibia to independence or obliged Israel to return the West bank to the Palestinians," says a moderate, senior diplomat.
An ambassador from Asia says: "People tend to forget that the UN is not a kind of multinational company controlled by its secretary-general but that it has 155 stockholders and two powerful chairmen of the board -- the US and the USSR -- and that if the secretary-general went off on a limb and offended one of these two, he would be . . . diplomatically crippled for the rest of his mandate."
Many diplomats say the behind-the-scenes role played by Mr. Waldheim -- such as during the Iraqi-Israeli crisis and during the Habib mission to the Middle East -- has not been publicized. Credit, when negotiation comes to a happy end, goes to the foreign ministers of individual member states.