Out of the world winds, a new UN chief

The term "straw poll" comes from an old way of deciding an issue: Toss straw into the wind and see where it lands. The Security Council's recent straw votes to pick a UN chief were without the straw. But they weren't without the winds of global affairs.

The Council's nonbinding and anonymous straw poll of its members have led to South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-Moon being the likely next secretary general. He would replace Kofi Annan, an African who has held the job for a decade. The Council is expected to formally nominate the sole candidate to the General Assembly next week.

Much wrangling and horse-trading have gone on behind the scenes to pick the world's top diplomat. Global differences are so strong that the Council long ago decided it must try to avoid a stalemate. Thus the secret balloting to winnow down candidates.

The process alone is telling about the state of the world. The five great powers on the Council cooperated to keep the UN running. They also stuck to a long-held consensus that the post needs to rotate to a different region of the world (Asia was due). And they agreed on the qualities of a leader they want.

Unfortunately, one of those qualities may be compliancy, or doing the bidding of each or all of the veto-wielding great powers (or doing nothing at all). Yes, the secretary general is a civil servant, one who runs a vast bureaucracy and whose authority is derived from the Council. But as the world has shrunk, as borders mean less, and as conflicts are potentially more deadly, a UN chief who wisely leads others as well as follows orders is needed more than ever.

It's also sad that the Council decided this time around that only states can nominate candidates. No self nominations. That runs against the idea that the UN chief is a leader of all peoples, not just governments. And the process of selection is so nontransparent that it doesn't signal a strong stand for democracy.

It's also worrisome that the post is still rotated by regions. The UN represents universal values that rise above the interests of groups of countries. Such regionalism hints at a clash of civilizations.

Mr. Ban may prove to be a strong leader. He is soft-spoken but principled. As South Korea's foreign minister, he knows how to stand up to the world's only superpower, the US, and when to bend. And coming from a country surrounded by big powers (Russia, Japan, and China), his instincts are like those of a shrimp among whales. He has also learned how to deal with an irascible, nuclear-tipped North Korea.

Most of all, he backs Mr. Annan's policy of humanitarian intervention, the idea that the world cannot stand by (as it did during the Rwanda genocide) when a government fails to protect its people. The ongoing tragedy in Darfur could be Ban's first big test.

Despite the compromises needed to select a UN chief, most of the past ones have risen to greatness by the expectations thrust upon them. Fighting off corruption and patronage in the UN bureaucracy alone takes courage. Working with and standing up to the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations requires tact.

As the world changes, so must the methods of picking its top diplomat. The winds of those changes are blowing stronger than ever.

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