The Making of a Scapegoat


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.

Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albright; drawing by David Levine

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 Hammarskjöld, 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…

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