As Kofi Annan prepares to wrap up 10 years at the helm of the United Nations, admirers say the soft-spoken Ghanaian has overseen an expansion of the secretary-general's role into "the world's top diplomat."
Critics are more apt to point to the deteriorating esteem that much of the world holds for its largest international organization, or to the scandals that have rocked its walls, and conclude that a truer moniker might be "world's worst manager."
Now, as Mr. Annan approaches the end of his second five-year term in December, his accomplishments and shortcomings are defining the search for his successor, who could be selected as early as next month. Does the world need most a globe-trotting arbiter and executive – or someone who will put the house in order?
Two schools of thought have opened up on what the next secretary-general should be, says Edward Luck, a UN expert who teaches at Columbia University in New York: "a spokesman for the world, a kind of secular pope," or "someone who learns the lesson of Kofi's legacy and is careful not to overstretch the bounds of the office – but focuses instead on managing and leading the institution."
While candidates are already campaigning for the post, no consensus has formed around any one of them – in part because UN members, in particular on the powerful Security Council, have different views of what is most needed for the job.
Almost no one challenges the notion that Annan has presided over the UN during a decade of deep global change, or that an institution gathering 192 nations under its umbrella has evolved from the world's biggest convener of conferences to much more of a "doer" organization – managing more peacekeepers than ever, spearheading development efforts, fighting AIDS.
"The UN under Kofi Annan has begun to adapt to a very different world and a very different mission" than that of the world body's first half century, says Lee Feinstein, a UN expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "It's much less a talk shop, much more a place that does things."
But the UN's reputation is also badly tarnished in the wake of the oil-for-food probe and other scandals. Some critics believe the UN under Annan has aligned itself too closely with American foreign policy, while others, notably among US conservatives, say Annan has presided over the transformation of the UN into a den of inefficiency, corruption, and anti-Western thinking. President Bush recently noted that support for the UN among Americans is at it lowest level ever.
Annan has not shied away from addressing previously "taboo" topics for the secretary-general, such as the promotion of democracy, individual rights versus those of government, the individual's right to protection, inequitable wealth distribution, and genocide, Mr. Feinstein says.
Yet despite that, the UN has suffered from failing to operate effectively or efficiently as it has expanded its workload, he adds. "And part of that is because Kofi Annan has not been an effective and efficient manager," he says.
That view, widely held among Annan admirers and detractors alike, has led many analysts to conclude that what the UN needs most now is not so much the "world's top diplomat" as a manager with a laser focus on internal operations who will make the organization work better.
"Yes, you need the well-respected international figure, but beyond that, what is needed as secretary-general is someone who is tremendously focused on reforming a highly flawed institution," says Nile Gardiner, an expert in international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"You need someone who won't just preside over a deep well of corruption but will dig in and do something about it," he adds, "someone who will challenge time-honored practices like hiring and promotion rules that too often yield the lowest common denominator."
Annan did launch a major reform effort in March 2005 that was to be the capstone of his tenure. But to some observers, it was fanciful to think that an ambitious overhaul including broad management reforms, expansion of the Security Council, and the addition of new tasks could be accomplished in the wary and distrustful atmosphere of the post-Iraq-invasion period.
"No one thought it was a propitious moment for such a wide-ranging undertaking," says Professor Luck of Annan's reform agenda. "When oil-for-food hit, he should have pared it down to focus on management," he says, adding, "Kofi is a decent man with many talents, but managing people isn't one of them. He seems to want everyone to like him."
Though it was hardly the sole responsibility of Annan, management reform stalled last year and is unlikely to go anywhere by December – and that means it will fall on the plate of whoever replaces Annan.
"Fiscal management, patronage within the UN system: Those are issues that Kofi Annan tried to address but that the next secretary-general will have to pick up," says Karl Inderfurth, a former State Department official who now teaches international relations at George Washington University in Washington.
While he agrees that management will have to be fixed if the UN is to succeed at its many and multiplying tasks, he says the next secretary-general will have to be mindful as well of the world's greater expectations of the UN in global security.
"Especially in the years of Kofi Annan, the world has come to look at the UN as the global 911," Mr. Inderfurth says, "So the new secretary-general will come in having to deal with those expectations."
That will mean tackling the thorny issue of Security Council reform, something Annan attempted but got nowhere with fast. For starters, says Inderfurth, who is a former US undersecretary for South Asian affairs, that will mean adding two new Asian members, Japan and India, to the Council's five permanent members, with other members likely to be added.
Annan "didn't get the updating of the Security Council that he wanted," Inderfurth says, "but it's something his successor will have to accomplish if the UN is to reflect not the world of the cold war but the world of the 21st century."
As the hunt for the next secretary-general at the United Nations heats up, the latest question to dominate the deliberations is this: Does it hurt a candidate if his country has just undergone a military coup?
Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand's ousted deputy prime minister and one of seven announced candidates to succeed Kofi Annan, should know the answer this Thursday, when the 15-member Security Council takes another in a series of straw polls on the secretary-general's race.
In the last informal vote earlier this month, Mr. Surakiart came in third – but that was before military leaders overthrew Thailand's elected government, including him. Since then, the military leaders have said they support Surakiart's candidacy. But China – a veto-wielding member of the Security Council – has said the coup "complicates" the Thai's campaign to lead the UN.
If Surakiart is down, then it would seem to follow that other candidates are up. They include South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon, generally considered the leading contender; Shashi Tharoor of India, a longtime UN diplomat and currently the UN undersecretary-general for public information, who came in second in the last straw poll; Jordan's UN Ambassador Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein, who played a key role in establishing the International Criminal Court; and Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, a former UN undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs.
Two candidates have emerged since the last straw poll on Sept. 14: Afghanistan's former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani; and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
Some countries say the eventual winner may not have even emerged yet – though UN ambassadors hope to settle on a candidate in October and avoid a repeat of the down-to-the-wire election of Mr. Annan in 1995. He vacates his post at the end of the year.
Attention in the selection is focused on the 15-member Security Council, because the Council sends its nominee to the 192-member General Assembly for an up-or-down vote.
All the announced candidates to date are from the Asia region, except Ms. Vike-Freiberga. That is in line with a UN tradition of rotating the regions represented in the secretary-general's office – a rotation that would dictate an Asian holding the next five-year term.
China is known in the halls of the UN headquarters in New York to be pressing strongly for the tradition to be followed – and many outsiders agree, saying the economic and political rise of Asia warrants an Asian holding the job. On the other hand, the United States, which has not yet made any preference known, has said the best candidate should hold the job regardless of regional origin.
One thing seems certain, however: The next "SG," as UN regulars refer to the organization's chief, won't be Bill Clinton.
Rumors flew a year ago that the globally popular former American president was a top contender for the post, but since then, Mr. Clinton has poured cold water on the idea.