The US Has a Lot to Lose at the UN Washington's Push to Oust Boutros-Ghali Puts More Important Goals at Risk

By James P. Muldoon, Jr. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

The US Has a Lot to Lose at the UN Washington's Push to Oust Boutros-Ghali Puts More Important Goals at Risk


James P. Muldoon, Jr., The Christian Science Monitor


On the heels of President Clinton's reelection, another "election" is getting under way. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations secretary-general, is seeking a second five-year term in the top UN post. There is a problem, though - he faces steadfast opposition from the United States. The American position has further estranged the US from nearly all the other member states of the world body. Washington's predicament is even worse when one considers the outstanding $1.4 billion debt the US owes the UN. Moreover, the effort to force the secretary-general to step down on Dec. 31 has only caused greater resistance to American UN reform proposals.

US relations with the United Nations have deteriorated significantly during the last several months. Forthcoming Security Council debates over whether or not to let the secretary-general stay at the helm of the world body, following its initial vote on the subject (with the US the lone holdout against Boutros-Ghali), will be messy and acrimonious. This is a terrible waste of the Council's time when more than 1 million refugees are threatened with starvation in Central Africa, the stability of Bosnia is in question, fierce fighting in Afghanistan rages on, and Saddam Hussein continues to flout Council directives.

To devote too much energy to the selection of a UN secretary-general, or too little to "electing" the best possible person for the job, can lead to catastrophic delays on urgent global matters before the Security Council and further fray what little unity remains among the Council's permanent members. Clearly, the confrontational US position has eroded America's credibility in the international community and undermines Washington's legitimate campaign for UN reform and budgetary constraint. Great power politics From the beginning, the selection process for the UN secretary-general has been dominated by great power politics and compromise candidates. All the great powers have had their problems with this or that candidate, and no incumbent has been spared the wrath of one or more of the permanent members of the Council during his tenure. The first secretary-general, Norwegian foreign minister Trygve Lie, and his successor, Swedish deputy foreign minister Dag Hammarskjold, both had run-ins with the USSR. Burma's U Thant, the third secretary-general, initially ran into trouble with the French over his support for Algerian independence and later with the Americans over Vietnam. Kurt Waldheim, Austria's foreign minister at the time, encountered problems with the then newly seated People's Republic of China, and the Peruvian, Javier Perez de Cuellar, had his differences with the US over the withholding of dues. Boutros-Ghali, however, is the first incumbent to be openly opposed by the US and, if Washington's veto holds firm, he will be the first secretary-general to be denied a second five-year term. It is no secret that the selection process for the UN's top job is not very rigorous. Supposedly, the Security Council, acting as the organization's "search committee," considers the qualifications of eminent men and women who are put forward by different member states. There are no candidates (at least, no declared candidates) or a campaign (at least, not overt campaigning). The Council debates the merits of the people under consideration, and after prolonged negotiations settles on a single person to be recommended to the General Assembly for election. Then the General Assembly simply rubber stamps the Council's selection. The process is quite simple and straightforward, right? Wrong. There are big problems with the way the Security Council manages this important procedure. First, there is an unwritten rule of geographical rotation for the job. …

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