The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership

The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership

The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership

The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership


Once described by Trygve Lie as the "most impossible job on earth," the position of UN Secretary-General is as frustratingly constrained as it is prestigious. The Secretary-General's ability to influence global affairs often depends on how the international community regards his moral authority. In relation to such moral authority, past office-holders have drawn on their own ethics and religious backgrounds -- as diverse as Lutheranism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Coptic Christianity -- to guide the role that they played in addressing the UN's goals in the international arena, such as the maintenance of international peace and security and the promotion of human rights. In The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority, contributors provide case studies of all seven former secretaries-general, establishing a much-needed comparative survey of each office-holder's personal religious and moral values. From Trygve Lie's forbearance during the UN's turbulent formative years to the Nobel committee's awarding Kofi Annan and the United Nations the prize for peace in 2001, the case studies all follow the same format, first detailing the environmental and experiential factors that forged these men's ethical frameworks, then analyzing how their "inner code" engaged with the duties of office and the global events particular to their terms.

Balanced and unbiased in its approach, this study provides valuable insight into how religious and moral leadership functions in the realm of international relations, and how the promotion of ethical values works to diffuse international tensions and improve the quality of human life around the world.


Kent J. Kille

The office of the un secretary-general has been described as a needed voice in an international arena where moral principles are often seen as subservient to concerns over power and interest. in fact, because the secretary-generalship is a relatively constrained position lacking in traditional forms of power, those who analyze the position tend to see the moral authority of an officeholder as vital to the operation of the office. Such moral authority is often viewed as dependent on the personal qualities of individual officeholders. As one observer notes, “If it is a moral authority, one may ask, whence does this moral authority derive? It derives from the personality of the Secretary-General himself and not just from the office he holds.” It is therefore appropriate to inquire into the religious and moral values of those who hold the office. If a secretary-general's “own morality … must forbid him certain policies,” and presumably encourage other policies, then one should be able to trace the decision-making implications of these values across the activities of the officeholders.

Past studies examining particular secretaries-general are informative, and analysts have made interesting claims about the importance of the secretary-general's moral authority, but a detailed comparative examination of the moral and religious dimensions of the office has not yet been attempted. Works that discuss the moral or religious basis of the office tend to rely on isolated observations or personalistic evidence. in addition, some of the secretaries-general have been studied along these lines more deeply than others, and even when the religious or moral values of specific secretaries-general have been considered, there has not been a comprehensive analysis. For example, observers have emphasized the importance of the religious values of Dag Hammarskjöld and U Thant, and have implicitly assumed that religion should be an important consideration for understanding the actions of all of the secretaries-general. Yet the religious values of the other officeholders, and their potential impact . . .

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