UN's Delicate Waltz With Washington

The process of choosing a new United Nations secretary-general is taking place in the aftershock of America's veto of Boutros Boutros-Ghali's bid for a second term. Like a real earthquake's detritus, the American action has left political and diplomatic rubble scattered all over the landscape.

The man who succeeds Mr. Boutros-Ghali - be it Kofi Annan of Ghana or one of the other African candidates - will have to have sufficient clout to clean up the mess at the UN.

He'll also have to try to make sense of what happened in Washington to motivate the US veto. The clout of the UN secretary-general - indeed the very definition of his role - lies close to the heart of the Washington debate over the veto. "The general consensus favors an institution called the UN," says James Shear of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "but with a secretary-general who acts more as a diplomat and agent of the member states than a policy-maker setting an agenda for them."

Job of 'superclerk'

The post of UN secretary-general is technically that of a superclerk who administers the UN Secretariat and carries out the orders of the General Assembly and Security Council. The secretary-general initiates almost nothing of importance of his own, except for sending exploratory missions to potential trouble spots.

Beyond that description in the UN charter, the secretary-general is a symbol of the United Nations to the world at large. Therefore, the character of the man or woman who has the job is immensely important. Boutros Ghali increasingly appeared to his Washington enemies as a proud, abrasive policymaker.

"As it currently operates, the United Nations does not deserve continued American support," wrote Jesse Helms (R), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the autumn edition of the magazine "Foreign Affairs." He added that if the new secretary-general does not make drastic reforms by the year 2000, the United States should quit the UN.

According to his aides, Mr. Helms believes the UN's bureaucracy and programs have grown to outrageous proportions - and that Boutros-Ghali has repeatedly resisted reform. Helms also contends the organization is stealing the sovereignty of its 185 member states, subordinating their foreign and defense policies to people he calls "the international elites" who run the UN.

UN spokesmen deny the charges. They contend that, as of the end of this year, the world organization's Secretariat staff will have been reduced by 25 percent from its all-time high in 1985, and that three of its departments have been abolished.

Ambassador Charles Lichenstein, a former member of the American UN delegation, believes that disillusionment rather than loss of sovereignty is the principal cause of US malaise about the world organization. "We may have been too grandiose in 1945 [the year of the UN's founding]," he says. "Certainly all the early hopes of what the United Nations was supposed to accomplish turned out to be false. You're not going to abolish war, you're not going to abolish differences. Moreover, you're not going to be able to predict the future."

Money - the $800 million US debt to the UN - has been a source of friction between the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress. The administration wants the arrears paid off. That argument may explain the US veto of a Boutros-Ghali second term. There is a widespread Washington theory that no one in authority here will articulate for the record - that the administration offered to exercise its veto on Boutros-Ghali if Congress agreed to appropriate enough money to bring the US dues up to date.

Ian Guest, a specialist in UN affairs at the federally funded US Institute for Peace, disagrees. He believes there were three primary factors motivating the administration's veto. First, Washington's sense that the UN "has gone slightly off the rails - particularly in Bosnia and Somalia. Second, they feel that Boutros-Ghali has not done enough to push the process of reform. And third," he adds, "I think clearly that the personal relationship between Boutros and Madeleine Albright has deteriorated ... I think most people would include that."

Ties that don't bind

The new secretary-general will have to decide what to reveal about himself once the aftershocks stop bouncing the political gravel around. "One would hope we'd get a fundamental level of competence," says Mr. Lichenstein, "some saving humility and, let's face it, the new secretary-general simply has to get along with the major powers."

Does it matter, in the end, who occupies the chair of UN secretary-general? In the sense of personality it does. Some predecessors of Boutros-Ghali's, especially Dag Hammarskjold (1951-1963), were personally revered. And that admiration is an asset to the UN in many ways. So, too, are the leader's diplomatic skills and the image he or she projects to the world. But in an era of increasingly global dominance by the US, a chief skill will also have to be delicate dealing with Washington.

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