WHILE some Americans are beginning to wonder about an eerie quiet surrounding a presidential election ``only'' 22 months away, even more remarkable is the lack of attention - in government circles, the press, and the public at large - given the election late this year of a new United Nations secretary-general. At a moment when the UN's capabilities for effective action are growing, with the end of the cold war, the world community should be clamoring for a forceful leader of the organization, and an open selection process that would produce one. Unfortunately, the traditional process is a throwback to the days of Tammany Hall, when a clutch of party bosses would pick the most inoffensive and pliable candidate in smoke-filled rooms. Press and citizen pressure finally reformed the Tammany system. Similar pressure is needed now if the world organization is to have a world-class leader.
The UN's increasing role in managing problems affecting people's lives - from resisting military aggression and advancing human rights to protecting the environment and controlling drug trafficking - means that choosing a secretary-general is too important to be left to UN diplomatic insiders. National political leaders should be discussing it. So should the press and nongovernmental communities.
In UN diplomatic circles, there has been talk of what region's ``turn'' it is to claim the job, and of what individuals will be blocked by which countries for past offenses. These traditional standards can lead to last-minute deals on lowest-common-denominator candidates, evidenced most graphically by the election of Kurt Waldheim in 1971.
What is needed instead is a set of positive criteria to guide the search for a new secretary-general, and new procedures for conducting the search and election. The US, like the four other veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, has a special power over this process - and hence, responsibility for upgrading it - since it is the 15-member Council that presents a single candidate to the 159-member General Assembly for election.
With its own plate full of urgent security problems, the Security Council should in the next few weeks empanel a small search committee to assess and propose candidates for secretary-general. The search committee should canvass leaders of national governments, UN representatives of major regional blocs, and respected nongovernmental figures for their views and nominations, examine the qualifications and background of nominees, and provide a short list of candidates to the Council by Oct. 1. The search committee should be headed by a distinguished retired statesman of global recognition, such as Nobel peace prize winner Oscar Arias, the past president of Costa Rica, or a Rajiv Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher.
The committee should be guided by a short checklist of essential criteria in assessing candidates. Obviously a plausible candidate will need experience in diplomacy and negotiation, without the apparent passivity (verging on invisibility) that the incumbent has shown for much of the Iraqi crisis. The ideal secretary-general would also possess such traits as articulateness and a flair for the media, boldness and imagination, experience in national government, and worldwide recognition and respect.
There are two policy criteria on which Americans should insist, and if the search committee is indifferent to these standards, the US should signal early it is ready to wield its veto against candidates who don't meet them. The first is a strong commitment to advancing human rights, and in particular the right to popular self-government through free and fair elections.
Every secretary-general to date has been elected from a country enjoying a competitive democratic political system at the time of his election. Nothing would do more to undermine the UN's recent painstaking progress in the eyes of the public, in America and around the world, than the election now of a secretary-general who has been closely associated with dictatorial rule.
Conversely, nothing would do more to enhance the UN's moral authority than the election of one who had resisted pressures to accommodate dictatorship, as Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel and Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto did in their own countries. The US should be firm: Handmaids of tyranny need not apply.
The US should also insist that the new secretary-general commit to making environmental threats a top priority of the UN system. He or she will be uniquely positioned to forge action among balky international agencies and national governments to combat these new global dangers. This will certainly require linkage to a wide range of global economic and social issues, especially the urgent need for sustained economic development in poorer countries. It also implies a readiness to press vigorously for far-reaching UN structural reform.
At this crucial moment in the UN's development, these are qualities far more important than the region of a candidate's birth. The geographical disqualification of citizens of the Council's five permanent members is one of the traditional election ``rules'' that should now be junked. If anything, luring a distinguished figure like Jimmy Carter to the UN's helm could enhance its stature and credibility.
What the world does not need is another secretive, last-minute selection in musty UN back rooms. As a one-time elector himself from his days as US representative to the UN, President Bush knows all too well the pitfalls of the traditional election process. He is in a unique position to define early the standards for judging candidates for this position. Such an initiative will be another major step toward restoring America's global leadership and credibility.