Early next month, election politics goes into high gear in the United States and at the United Nations. The American presidential campaign will have a clear outcome. At the UN, no one will win.
The five-year term of the present secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, expires on Dec. 31 and, as with the American presidency, the post cannot remain unfilled. This year, the US has raised the normal process of succession to the pitch of melodrama.
The curtain went up on June 19, when the Clinton administration announced, by way of a newspaper leak, that it would use its veto in the Security Council to block Mr. Boutros-Ghali's reappointment for a second term.
Under the UN charter, the 15-nation Council recommends a candidate. The entire membership then votes on his appointment in the General Assembly. Boutros-Ghali, apprised of the leak the night before, shot back that he had widespread support for a second term and would therefore run.
Boutros-Ghali had been campaigning around the world for at least several months. In one move, he invited the Socialist International, the loose organization of socialist parties and socialist-led governments, to hold its annual conference at United Nations headquarters in New York.
On Sept. 9, some 20 or 25 heads of government and 1,000 delegates from around the globe will gather in the General Assembly hall to discuss the world economy, peace, and human rights. Participants will include such leaders as Chancellor Franz Vranitzky of Austria and Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway.
A red flag in Washington
The Socialist International has for 100 years hewed to a middle-of-the-road social democratic line, fighting off communist subversion. But for many in Washington the name is like a red rag to a bull. Boutros-Ghali similarly seems to excite those who see in him and in the UN a threat to American power. Republican candidate Bob Dole has jeered at "Boootros Boootros." And many think that President Clinton has dropped him as a political liability.
Officially, the reason is that Boutros-Ghali is a poor manager and has not done enough to reform the UN. Only last October, however, Mr. Clinton toasted the secretary-general at a 50th UN anniversary luncheon: "I thank you for your leadership, your energy, your resolve, and the vision of the United Nations and the world for the next 50 years that you have just painted for us." Until the open break in June, the president had offered to extend his term by a year.
Stage set for confrontation
Some, including Boutros-Ghali, have felt that Clinton might change his mind after Nov. 5. This is obviously not in the cards, so the stage is set for confrontation. The brusqueness of the American action has annoyed many; and, while annoyance is not a policy, it does not help. Washington had not bothered to inform the other members of the Security Council, whose cooperation it needs for a smooth transition, let alone consult them about its intention. Washington has made itself look like the 800-pound gorilla whose advice is: Be reasonable; do it my way.
There is already considerable discomfort over US pressures to compel compliance in, for instance, expanding trade sanctions against Cuba.
The flashes of isolationism and xenophobia that emanate from Washington are disturbing. Its cavalier attitude toward the $1.5 billion it owes the UN in chronic assessment arrears is a thorn in the flesh.
One consequence is resistance to Washington's desire for quick action on a new secretary-general. There is also considerable talk about keeping Boutros-Ghali in office regardless. Interestingly, the US has in the past suggested such a strategy.
In 1950, repeated Soviet vetoes prevented the Security Council from recommending Norway's Trygve Lie for another five-year term. The problem was to find a way around the veto.
Washington, stressing the vital need for continuity in the function of the UN's chief officer, proposed simply extending Mr. Lie's term by three years. Rejecting Moscow's angry protest that there was no difference between extension and appointment, the General Assembly agreed.
Once again, in 1961, after Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was killed in a plane crash, the US called for quick action to fill the post provisionally, pending appointment of a successor. Moscow announced it would not agree to any single individual and sought to use this opportunity to install a "troika," a three-man committee, in which the Soviet Union would have a permanent presence and veto at the head of the UN machinery.
The US insisted that this, being an interim appointment, was entirely a matter for the assembly. After seven weeks, the Soviets gave in, endorsing U Thant of Burma.
This year, in the face of a sustained American veto, the shoe could be on the other foot, with an appeal to the assembly and its approval of a three-year extension that Boutros-Ghali would surely accept.
However, this scenario has an essential flaw. Would a majority of the membership really antagonize Washington in so injurious a fashion? If the US then furiously pulled out, there would be no United Nations.
More likely is a compromise, of a sort. The United States will accept another African in Boutros-Ghali's place. At least two are eminently qualified: Kofi Annan of Ghana, now head of the United Nation's peacekeeping operations, and Amara Essy, foreign minister of the Ivory Coast. Crisis will thereby have been averted, but happy days will hardly follow.
US not likely to pay debts
Once again, the US will have used raw power to assert its will; and this at a time when only the tightest teamwork can address the world's basic problems: environment, disease, drugs, terror, overpopulation, poverty, and growing shortages of food and clean water. As for the UN itself, America's effort in forcing its demand implies that it would give the new secretary-general the support it withheld under Boutros-Ghali.
But there is little expectation that Washington will pay its debts and appreciable doubt that it will treat an independent successor better than it has the incumbent.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.