The US Will Not Get a Secretary-General Made to Order

United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has announced that he is suspending his candidacy for reelection. The United States campaign to remove the secretary-general appears on the way to success. But will this success be a Pyrrhic victory? Can any new UN leader meet the expectations of the critics in the US Congress?

The US effort was clearly based on the belief that congressional support for the UN in general and for paying US arrearages in particular rested on Mr. Boutros-Ghali's departure. Critics insisted he was not pressing hard enough for administrative and fiscal reforms. Beyond that, they associated the Egyptian diplomat - unfairly in many cases - with US casualties in Somalia, weakness in Bosnia, and inadequate responses to African crises.

With some in Congress, the real issue is not Boutros-Ghali. He has become a convenient symbol of their basic antagonism toward the UN itself. Despite strong support for the UN among the American public as shown by polls, a substantial portion of conservative America has become increasingly suspicious of the international organization. As the world body became more and more dominated by third-world nations with different views on the Middle East, apartheid South Africa, and the cold war, the US often found itself outvoted. Doubts arose concerning the value of the UN to US global interests.

Today politicians find exploitable capital in their nationalistic cry that American soldiers will never again be "under Boutros Boutros-Ghali." Reports from the administration that significant UN reforms are being instituted are ignored. A statement of the secretary-general on finance is used to raise the cry that he wants to tax Americans. Such critics want a UN devoid of patronage and more fiscally responsible than is the US itself and one that will become a reliable instrument of US foreign policy.

The US has agreed to consider a candidate put forward by African states. Any new African candidate, however, will be beholden to regional supporters. Reforms being pushed by the US involve reducing the size of the UN bureaucracy. Yet much of that bureaucracy represents third-world, including African, appointees. Will a new African secretary-general begin by discharging UN officials from that continent?

France strongly supports an African candidate, provided he or she is one from Francophone Africa. Given recent differences between Washington and Paris over Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East, the Helms-Burton legislation on Cuba, and the US secretary of state's visit to Africa, will an incumbent strongly beholden to the French follow US leads? Whether Francophone or not, it is doubtful the positions of any third-world candidate on international issues will be totally acceptable to congressional critics.

If it was to save support for the UN, perhaps the Clinton administration had no choice but to withdraw support from Boutros-Ghali. It would be tragic, however, if, having done that, it now finds the world organization even less willing to do Washington's bidding than before. Given the ill will created by Washington's move, it seems highly unlikely either that a new secretary-general will immediately move to fulfill the US agenda or that the US Congress will restore funds to the UN until it takes the measure of the new secretary-general.

The UN is valuable to the US. From the Korean to the Gulf wars, the UN provided internationally acceptable authority for US actions. From the Middle East to Namibia, UN Security Council resolutions have provided the bases for peace.

The present crisis threatens both the future of the UN and US influence in the organization. To save both, the time has come for the Clinton administration to help Congress face reality. No new secretary-general in today's world will meet the full US expectations for reform and policy support. But, nevertheless, without the UN the world would be a more dangerous place. Its weakening would be a high price to pay for a victory over an incumbent secretary-general.

David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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