The campaign for U.N. secretary general is moving into high gear, as jet-setting candidates audition in New York, Washington and other capitals for a shot at the world's most prominent diplomatic job.
Even though Kofi Annan's second five-year term runs through December 2006, a handful of aspirants are already hard at work, advertising their qualifications at international summits and appealing for backing from the United States and other Security Council members.
Possible candidates whose names are being floated by U.N. diplomats include a Polish president, a Jordanian prince, a Turkish economist and an Indian novelist. Only two governments have officially declared candidates: Sri Lanka named diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, and Thailand named Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has been campaigning for more than a year.
The new secretary general will have to find a way to lead a 191-nation organization where bitter disagreements linger over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and where tension has been rising between the major powers and poorer nations, some of which fear that the drive to streamline the bureaucracy will ultimately dilute their power. Annan's successor will also be faced with restoring public confidence in an institution battered by revelations of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers and corruption in the oil-for-food program.
Asians contend that the next secretary general should come from their region because an Asian has not held the job since 1971, when U Thant of Burma completed a 10-year term. Russia and China agree, but the Bush administration opposes the concept of regional rotation and has urged aspirants from around the world to compete. "We don't believe that the next secretary general belongs to any particular region," U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said.
There are no specific qualifications for secretary general. Officeholders have been drawn from the international diplomatic corps or, in Annan's case, from the U.N. bureaucracy. The U.N. charter states that the chief is to be appointed by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the 15-nation Security Council.
In practice, the five permanent veto-wielding members of the council -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- ultimately select the secretary general by secret ballot. Hopefuls have hailed from relatively powerless countries that have few regional rivals, and typically have never done anything to offend the five permanent council members, known as the "P5."
"The requirement is that some of the P5 like you and that the others at least do not dislike you," said Sri Lankan Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam. "If they dislike you, you don't get the job."
The United States, which quietly supported Annan's 1996 bid for the top job, has withheld public support for a specific candidate. But senior U.S. officials have said that they prefer a strong administrator. "For us, the management reform is first among equals in terms of reform priorities," said Sichan Siv, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council. "So, obviously we're looking at a candidate that has strong management experience, that can bring a commitment to accountability, transparency and, in a sense, clean up the organization a little bit, make it more lean and efficient."
In contrast to most modern political campaigns, candidates who spend lavishly, appear too self-confident, or announce their campaign intentions early often undermine their prospects. Annan never openly campaigned for office. "The horse that runs longest gets hit first," said Samir Sanbar, a retired U.N. assistant secretary general who served under five U.N. chiefs.
Sathirathai emerged as the early front-runner, lining up a critical endorsement from the influential Association of South East Asian Nations. But he has failed to impress key delegates, say diplomats, and has offended sensitivities by trying to position himself as Asia's consensus candidate before being endorsed by the U.N. Asian group. His public opposition to the International Criminal Court, meanwhile, has made him unpopular among European governments.
Sathirathai's cool reception has emboldened other challengers, including Dhanapala, Sri Lanka's former ambassador to Washington, and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, who suggested recently that he or another senior Korean official would make a more "credible candidate."
Sri Lanka's Kariyawasam cautioned that it was too risky to rally around one Asian candidate, a strategy that cost Africa the top job in 1981, when the United States blocked Tanzanian diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim. He said it would be wiser to propose a slate of competitors, a process that he believes would inevitably lead to Dhanapala's selection.
He recalled that Al Gore once credited Dhanapala with the success of a 1995 conference that extended the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "I won't mention that to John Bolton," he said. Bolton, a critic of some NPT provisions, played an active role in the 2000 Florida recount that led to George W. Bush's defeat of Gore.
The top U.N. job has not always been so desirable. Norwegian diplomat Trygve H. Lie, the first secretary general, had initially competed for what was then considered the most prestigious U.N. job, the presidency of the General Assembly. He lost to Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium. The secretary general's post, which Lie would later describe as "the most impossible job on this earth," was the consolation prize.
The position's stature grew during the tenure of Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, a Swede who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after dying in a 1961 plane crash in the Congo. The stature of the General Assembly, meanwhile, has waned, leading Annan to deride the body as a largely irrelevant talk shop that "has no impact on most of the people outside the General Assembly and this building."
Central and eastern Europeans, who lament that one of their own has never held the job, have mounted a challenge to the Asians. President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, a close ally in the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, have emerged as potential contenders who could gain U.S. backing. But U.N. diplomats believe they are opposed by Russia. "It's just a fact of life," said Stefan Tafrov, Bulgaria's ambassador. "We have never been historically represented at the highest office."
The lack of consensus behind a candidate has increased expectations that the new U.N. chief may ultimately be drawn from a field of more than a dozen potential dark-horse candidates who have not declared their intention to run.
Diplomats have mentioned Prince Zeid Hussein, Jordan's ambassador; Kemal Dervis, a former Turkish finance minister who was recently appointed head of the U.N. Development Program; and Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist who runs the institution's large public relations bureaucracy.