It is often said, more or less rhetorically, that the UN needs a secretary-general who will provide strong and independent leadership. In fact, nothing could be further from the wishes of most governments, and especially the five permanent members who control the UN Security Council. In recent years, of those permanent members none has been more averse to the idea of an independent secretary-general than the United States.
Each of the previous secretaries-general has described the job differently but accurately. The first, Trygve Lie, called it “the most impossible job on this earth.” The second, Dag Ham-marskjöld, observed that the secretary- general is like a secular pope, and for most of the time a pope without a church. The third, U Thant, said it was “an absorbing, a thrilling, and a deeply frustrating task.”
The UN is an organization of governments that have no intention of losing control of it. Thus their attitude to its chief and only elected official is ambivalent and, on occasion, downright hostile. The secretary-general embodies, if only in a tentative way, the possibility of something more than the mere cooperation of governments—even a hint of supranational authority. Sometimes, during the cold war, this possibility was welcome. At some of its more dangerous moments, when an East-West nuclear confrontation seemed possible or even imminent—the 1956 Suez affair, the anarchy in the Congo in 1960, the Cuban missile crisis, the 1965 India- Pakistan war, or the 1973 Middle East war—an international official of proven skill and integrity who was above cold war alignments and could speak for the “international community” was extremely useful. But most of the time a strong and independent secretary-general makes governments nervous.
The reservations of the great powers about having a strong, independent executive were clear from the outset. Under the UN Charter, the secretary-general is the chief administrative officer and executor of the UN’s decisions with the right to bring to the attention of the Security Council “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” There are few other guidelines for his responsibilities but the Charter is quite clear about what he—or perhaps one day she—may not do. It prohibits him from seeking or receiving instructions from any government and calls on all governments to respect the “exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.”
In drafting the Charter, the five great powers took no chances on setting up an executive they could not control. Against the wishes of the majority of lesser powers, they rejected the idea of the secretary-general being directly elected by all the members in the General Assembly and assigned the power to nominate the secretary-general to the Security Council, where they had the veto. Thus any candidate for secretary-general has to be able to avoid a veto by any one of the five permanent members, as does any incumbent running for a second term.
The spectacle of a great power opposing a secretary-general of whom a majority of the UN members approve is not new. The Soviet Union did it with Trygve Lie and with Dag Hammarskjöld, who did more than anyone else to make the UN, and the office of the secretary-general, active agencies for mediation and peacekeeping. The issue of reelection did not arise in the Security Council in Lie’s case, because he resigned. Hammarskjöld, during his second term, was killed in a plane crash in Africa. As the United States did with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Soviet Union resented Hammarskjöld’s view that the secretary-general should act according to his best judgment, especially in dangerous situations.
In 1960, the United States backed Hammarskjöld and was strongly critical of the attitude of the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower administration had its disagreements with Hammarskjöld over US attempts to bring down the regime in Guatemala, among other matters, but it concluded that a strong and independent secretary-general was, on balance, in the best interests of the United States. Washington had certainly taken note of the fact that in 1955, when the US was anxious to recover seventeen American airmen, prisoners from the Korean War still being held in China, China had accepted Hammarskjöld as a negotiator in part because he had not been afraid to disagree with the United States on other issues.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga is the frankest and most detailed account yet of the relations of an activist UN secretary-general with a superpower. As the subtitle indicates, it is not a conventional memoir. Its author believes that he has been treated both unjustly and dishonestly, and he is determined to put the record straight. The account of his five years at the UN is incidental to his main theme, which is an almost day by day journal of his increasingly rancorous relationship with the Clinton administration, and particularly with its then ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright. His prose is lucid, ironical, and often humorous, and he has written a refreshingly subjective book, the antithesis of the usual diplomatic memoir. On the face of it, it is also a heavy indictment of some aspects of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy—or the lack of one—and of the way in which that administration has used the United Nations and its secretary-general.
Boutros-Ghali comes from a well-to-do Egyptian Coptic family. His grandfather had been prime minister of Egypt and was assassinated by a nationalist fanatic, apparently for his cooperation with Egypt’s British overlords. Boutros-Ghali was a professor of international law with no aspirations to a political career until, in 1977, he was peremptorily drafted into government service by President Anwar Sadat, who had lost two foreign ministers in succession on the eve of his historic visit to Jerusalem. Boutros-Ghali served as Egypt’s acting foreign minister and had an important part in the negotiations with Israel and the United States leading up to the Camp David Accords. In 1991, in a French-sponsored maneuver which took several Security Council members, including the United States, by surprise, he became the sixth secretary-general of the UN.
Amos Elon has described Boutros-Ghali in these pages as “an intellectual in politics who was running up against the contradictions between his theories and the demands of practical negotiating.”1 It is true that a highly intelligent academic and civilized man of the world may be temperamentally unsuited to the often Byzantine demands of the UN secretary-generalship. Boutros-Ghali’s aloofness and intellectual superiority were sometimes taken for arrogance by ambassadors and others he dealt with. He himself refers to the “paternalistic tone that I realize results from my many years of teaching.” Of his surprise at President Clinton’s rhetorical praise of him in a 1995 speech he writes, “I have never been known for downplaying my abilities and achievements.” His irony was sometimes seen as sarcasm, and his humor as lacking in compassion. He often appeared to be convinced of his own superior wisdom and therefore resistant to advice. His view, expressed to The New York Times, that a bureaucracy could best be run by “stealth and sudden violence” did not endear him to his colleagues in the UN Secretariat who labored in the half-light outside his inner circle of advisers. That he responded to the very real need for UN reform with some fairly Draconian measures, including eliminating many jobs, may well have added to this resentment.
Like many other public figures, Boutros-Ghali disliked competition from his colleagues for public attention or recognition and tended to claim exclusive credit for whatever was accomplished. (I was amused to read that he had asked Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, and Shujiro Ogata, the former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan, to study and report on the UN’s finances. Not that the origin really matters, but in fact the Ford Foundation did this independently of the UN and later gave the findings to Boutros-Ghali.) None of these shortcomings of personality or administration, however, would seem to justify the wholesale and increasingly brutal assault by the United States on him and his performance.
Boutros-Ghali arrived at the UN when the organization was riding high on the post-cold war wave of what Madeleine Albright, for a time, called “assertive multilateralism.” The UN had mounted an unprecedented number of field operations, almost all of which, unlike previous peacekeeping missions, were concerned with disorders within the borders of single states—among them Somalia, Cambodia, Angola, and Mozambique. By the end of 1992 the UN had deployed 70,000 peacekeeping soldiers. Boutros-Ghali’s misfortune was to preside over the plunge from that high point into the trough of failure and recrimination in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. And following the killing of eighteen US Rangers in Mogadishu,2 he also had to face the 180-degree turn of United States policy away from “assertive multilateralism” through the UN to a prohibition on virtually all new UN operations.
It was also Boutros-Ghali’s misfortune, at a time of great international turmoil, to have to work with a new US administration that vacillated in its foreign policies and with a US Congress to be dominated after 1994 by the Republican opposition. With his sometimes didactic and obstinate independence, Boutros-Ghali quickly became a useful scapegoat and whipping boy for the inadequacies of the Clinton administration’s policies in Bosnia and Somalia, while his activist style and exotic foreign name made him a favorite target for the xenophobia and anti-internationalism of the Republican right wing.
These misfortunes were compounded by a growing irritation with Boutros-Ghali on the part of US representatives, particularly Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, the secretary of state. At a luncheon with Christopher and Albright, Boutros-Ghali said that while he knew he must have US support to work effectively, he hoped he might be allowed, for the good both of the UN and of the US, to differ publicly with the US from time to time. This remark was met with stony silence. “It would be some time,” he writes, “before I fully realized that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough. Only the weak rely on diplomacy.”
The Bosnian tragedy was an early source of friction between Boutros-Ghali and the US. After much bellicose rhetoric during the presidential campaign, the Clinton administration’s first action on Bosnia was to reject the only peace plan likely to be generally accepted, the Vance-Owen formula, on the grounds that it gave the Serbs 43 percent of the territory and also that it would require a force of 30,000 troops, including US units, to police it. (Three years and thousands of casualties later, the US-sponsored Dayton peace agreement gave the Serbs 49 percent of the territory and required an even larger force.) Later on, when it was much too late, the US tried to revive the Vance-Owen plan.
"At Pharaoh's Court," The New York Review, June 26, 1997.↩
See my "Looking for the Sheriff," The New York Review, July 16, 1998.↩