The Toughest Job on Earth

By Edward C. Luck
Sunday, October 8, 2006

It's not easy being the U.N. secretary general. The men who've held the post like to call it the most impossible job on Earth. Its duties are largely undefined, and the whole world claims the right to weigh in on how the job should be done. Some clamor for a crusading international leader, on the model of current Secretary Kofi Annan, others for a low-key administrator who'll stay out of the limelight and just make sure the organization runs smoothly.

So when the contest for the eighth secretary general opened earlier this year, it was widely expected to result in prolonged bickering. Some feared that the recent anti-American rants by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the General Assembly would sour the Security Council's deliberations on the candidates. Meanwhile, editorialists the world over pleaded for the appointment of a political rock star -- an amalgam of Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa and Bono -- who could command headlines and rally supporters.

The Security Council had other ideas. Tomorrow, it is expected to nominate -- unanimously -- Ban Ki Moon, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade. If tradition holds, the 192-member General Assembly will vote within a week or two, without debate or dissension, to complete the appointment (in an arcane rubber-stamping process -- see ).

In selecting Ban, the council chose competence over charisma, performance over promise. Ban proved his diplomatic mettle in the on-and-off six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions (something he may now have to delegate to envoys from other parts of the world). His campaign received a decisive boost from the fact that three permanent Security Council members -- China, Russia and the United States -- plus the most influential non-permanent member, Japan, were his partners in those critical negotiations.

In 1945, the founders decreed that the council should nominate the secretary general to ensure that he (and someday she) has the confidence of the major powers, which is hard to earn and even harder to sustain. Whenever a secretary general has clashed openly with one of the great powers -- Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold with Moscow in the 1950s and early '60s and Boutros Boutros-Ghali with Washington in the 1990s -- the organization and its efforts to build bridges between rivals have suffered. And as Annan's tenure has confirmed, the pressures to pose as a secular pope rallying the world against U.S. domination are incessant these days, particularly with a United-States-vs.-the-rest mentality already so prevalent at the United Nations.

The popular image of an outspoken world leader, morally and intellectually above the fray of crass and narrow interstate politics, doesn't reflect the gritty realities of the job. Secretaries general are most effective when they are quietly defusing regional crises and cajoling member states behind the scenes to modernize the United Nations' creaky and sometimes corrupt machinery. Unless Ban is considered an honest broker by all sides of the mistrustful, divided membership, he will have little chance of moving the stalled U.N. reform agenda forward. The less ego and identification with past political glories, the better. For a rookie secretary general, quiet modesty in public and candor in private have their virtues.

Truth be told, the council has never tapped an orator or media star to be secretary general. Hammarskjold and Annan grew into their public personalities while in office, and Ban could do the same. But Lie, U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Boutros-Ghali never mastered that side of the job.

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton called earlier this year for "a proletarian" secretary general, who would stick to improving internal management and be little more than the chief administrative officer mentioned in the U.N. Charter. But that is far too narrow a job description. Leading a diverse secretariat and dealing with a 192-member board of directors demands keen political instincts, as well as tough, fair and open management. Paul A. Volcker's Independent Inquiry Committee report on the oil-for-food scandal at provides a chilling look at what can happen when no one is accountable at the top and member states and secretariat leaders prove equally adept at finger-pointing. But the committee also underlined that the secretary general serves as the United Nations' "chief political and diplomatic officer" and that "in unsettled times, those responsibilities tend to be all-consuming."

World-class proletarian diplomats, not to mention proletarian managers (an oxymoron if ever there was one), are in short supply.

No doubt, as former undersecretary general Brian Urquhart asserts in "The Next Secretary-General: How to Fill a Job With No Description," in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, "history has shown that a great secretary-general not only is important for the U.N. but also is a priceless asset for the world at large." Having served every secretary general since 1946, he should know. His classic 1972 biography, "Hammarskjold," depicts the office's lows as well as its highs. There are times when the secretary general is called upon to scramble around the world, breathlessly trying to resolve brutal crises, as journalist William Shawcross described in his 2000 book, "Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict." At other points, however, the mediating capacity of the office is underemployed by the powers of the day, leaving the secretary general to wait for some juicy assignment, a bit like the passive hero Chauncey Gardener in the movie "Being There."

Two memoirs by past holders of the office tell us more about their authors than intended. Pérez de Cuéllar's 1997 "Pilgrimage for Peace: A Secretary-General's Memoir" is solid, dependable -- and dull. In contrast, Boutros-Ghali's "Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga" from 1999 is as lively as it is tendentious and self-serving. Annan's roller-coaster ride as secretary general, which will end on Dec. 31, has spurred a record batch of biographies and commentaries. Two upcoming journalistic accounts look especially promising: James Traub's "The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power," out this month, and Stanley Meisler's "Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War," to be released in December.

Those who want to dig deeper into the role will have to wait for Simon Chesterman's "Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics," which will be published next spring.

After all that, if you still find the United Nations and its top post to be enigmas, you're on the right track.

Edward C. Luck is a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the author, most recently, of "UN Security Council: Practice and Promise" (Routledge). He has consulted for several secretaries general.

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