Reforming the UN: A High Wire Act for Annan

The UN's new secretary-general, Kofi Annan, was warmly welcomed last week on his first trip to Washington where his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had become a political pariah. The change in atmosphere was real.

The climate at UN headquarters has also changed in the first weeks of Mr. Annan's incumbency. Unlike the reserved, aloof Boutros-Ghali, Annan can be seen eating lunch in the big delegate's dining room and does without a manned elevator for his exclusive use.

He is more articulate than Mr. Boutros-Ghali, and his English is not only elegant but also deliverable in sound bites. His French is good, which helps with France and the francophone countries, but English is more and more the world's lingua franca. In Annan the UN has a powerful communicator. In fact, President Clinton told him at their recent meeting, "You have the potential of becoming a compelling public figure in the United States. You should use it."

What will Annan communicate? Having worked in the UN for 30 years, he knows better than almost anyone what is wrong. And he has started to fix it. He is lightening the top and pruning the senior ranks. He at once ended the extreme centralization of power and information practiced by his predecessor and has delegated authority to those who need it to function well.

The secretary-general is chief administrative officer of the UN. He can rejigger the structure of the secretariat with its 9,100 employees mainly in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. He can straighten out some duplication of functions. He has ordered a study by July on streamlining the organization and reordering its priorities. He is expected to create the post of deputy secretary-general, probably appointing a woman.

While he can certainly change the style, he cannot alone change the system that the sovereign member states, now 185, have built up over 50 years.

The UN system includes 15 specialized agencies like the World Health Organization and the International Labor Office, and such special programs as the UN Children's Fund and the High Commissioner for Refugees. Their staffs are, in total, five times as big as the secretariat and their budgets seven times as large. The secretary-general has no control over them, and they usually ignore his efforts to coordinate their sometimes overlapping activities.

The members give the secretary-general his orders and define his responsibilities - either acting as a whole in the UN General Assembly or in the smaller Economic and Social Council as well as the Security Council. He must consider geographical distribution when hiring staff, with each member entitled to a quota. The "big five" - the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China - expect and get representation at the highest levels. As to cutting positions, the secretary-general can be stymied by the General Assembly's refusal to eliminate posts. Firing people is extremely difficult in the face of a jealously guarded staff-appeal procedure.

The size of the staff and the budget are determined not by the secretary-general but by the General Assembly and the two councils, which mandate services and information. It is they who have launched and monitored all peacekeeping operations, from the most successful to the most tragic.

They have set up dozens of subsidiary bodies and functional commissions with their own programs, often on the backscratching basis of "you vote for my program and I'll vote for yours." They require hundreds of reports, additional staff, and rivers of paper translated into the six official languages. Some functions are quite valuable, but the secretary-general has no power to terminate even the most useless.

For all the constraints placed on him, however, he is not a mindless instrument, but must use his diplomatic skills of leadership and conciliation to rally members behind him. That is no easy job; in each case he must contend with domestic politics. He cannot, for example, compel the US to pay its lawful share of the budget.

Despite his very civil reception of Annan last week, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, believes that the UN threatens US interests. His demand for an undefined "real, deep-seated change" could be an open-ended means to effect US withdrawal and the UN's destruction. He and his colleagues can make it possible - or impossible - for the secretary-general to meet that demand.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.

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