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 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.

UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, had been pitchforked into the war in Bosnia—against Boutros-Ghali’s advice—because the United States and some of its European allies were unwilling to have NATO troops involved on the ground in a shooting war. Deploying the lightly armed UN mission, with no mandate to use force, was a face-saving device, one wholly unsuited to the situation; and UNPROFOR was a perfect whipping boy when that situation predictably deteriorated. The UN force was both required to remain impartial in relation to the various forces in Bosnia and denied adequate means to carry out the humanitarian tasks assigned it by the Security Council. (It was only after the fighting had stopped and the Dayton Accords had been safely signed that a much larger, more heavily armed NATO mission, with authority to use force, was sent to Bosnia.)

In the early summer of 1993 the Security Council blithely declared that the people in six “safe areas” in Bos-nia would be protected by UNPROFOR—but it failed to change UNPROFOR’s mandate or increase its strength. When Boutros-Ghali proposed to the Security Council a force of 70,000 troops, under NATO control, to protect the “safe areas,” the US denounced his proposal as “totally unacceptable.” This suggested to the secretary-general that “for Washington, keeping the UN operation on the scene served two purposes: as a substitute for direct great power intervention and as a scape-goat for problems created by the great powers’ continued unwillingness to act decisively.”

The UN lacked the means either to prevent attacks launched from inside the “safe areas” or to deter attacks on them from the outside. At the same time the UN was expected to agree to NATO air strikes against Serb targets that could (and later did) result in Serb retaliation or in essentially defenseless and widely dispersed UN personnel being taken hostage. The issue of air action led to further friction with the US. Boutros-Ghali insisted on having a say about the use of air strikes because UN troops would be at risk; this allowed the US to blame him for blocking decisive action. The British, French, and other governments, which had troops in UNPROFOR and were also, in fact, opposed to air strikes, meekly followed the US lead and also blamed the secretary-general. (The British, French, and other contingents in UNPROFOR suffered scores of casualties during the UNPROFOR operation.) The result, Boutros-Ghali writes, was

an almost intolerable situation: continued carnage on the ground, claims of UN helplessness, and media pressures on the United States to “do something.” The “something” seemed to be air strikes, which would punish the Serbs and provide the United States and NATO with the appearance of decisiveness without risking unacceptable military losses on the ground.

The attempts to make Boutros-Ghali the scapegoat for the failure of the Western powers now became almost ludicrous. In spite of Boutros-Ghali’s installing a system by which the UN commanders on the ground, in cooperation with NATO commanders, would have the major voice in calling for air strikes, from now on he would be portrayed in Washington as the person who had blocked the US from using air power to end the war. “Critics of the United Nations from within the Clinton administration, Congress, and the media,” he writes, “asserted that war making was possible but was being prevented by pusillanimous peacekeepers. The fact was the opposite: peacekeepers had been deployed precisely because the United States and NATO were not willing to go to war.”

From this episode and from an irresponsible column in The New York Times in which Jeane Kirkpatrick implied that Boutros-Ghali had “operational control” of US forces, Robert Dole derived the line that under his presidency the US armed forces would know that the President was their commander-in-chief—not “Boootrus Boootrus”-Ghali. This often repeated statement, accompanied by the mocking and vulgar pronunciation of Boutros-Ghali’s name, never failed to win applause for Dole.

Boutros-Ghali continued his efforts to protect UN troops in Bosnia and to get adequate forces for the tasks they were given. His request for 35,000 more peacekeepers was summarily rejected. The tragedy of Srebrenica was a direct result of the failure by the Security Council to provide even remotely sufficient forces. (The Dutch UN contingent in Srebrenica was widely criticized, quite rightly, for utterly failing to restrain the atrocious General Mladic and his Serb troops, and for seeming to cooperate with them. The Dutch were, however, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.) Finally, in 1995, several changes took place. The Croats mounted a successful offensive; the UN forces were able to consolidate their positions; NATO launched air strikes, which, owing to the changing balance of power on the ground, had for the first time become an effective option. The fighting stopped, and a peace accord was signed at Dayton.

Once peace in Bosnia was assured, the UN, bankrupted by shielding for three years both NATO and the United States from unpleasant involvement on the ground, was largely excluded from the peace operation, except for a last-minute assignment to provide a peacekeeping force in eastern Slavonia, the region where conflict was most likely to boil up again. Boutros-Ghali reasonably pointed out that a force in such a potentially dangerous position must be able to protect itself, and suggested that a NATO/US force might therefore be appropriate. This once again brought down on him the wrath of the Clinton administration. “It is a grave mistake,” Albright’s spokesman, James Rubin, pontificated, “for the secretary-general to shy away from legitimate operations….”

Somalia, where the Clinton administration had inherited a confused mission from President Bush, quickly proved to be another source of disagreement between Boutros-Ghali and the US. The US was anxious to leave, but, despite the secretary-general’s pleas, it apparently had no intention of disarming the various factions in Mogadishu before the main body of US forces left. After twenty-six Pakistani UN soldiers were killed by the irregulars of the tribal leader Mohammed Aidid, the Security Council, in a marked departure from the tradition of impartial peacekeeping, and after emotional denunciations of Aidid by Ambassador Albright, decreed that all possible efforts be made to arrest him.

The UN Somalia command lacked effective central control, and some of the contingents—the Italians, for example—tended to go their own way, often with disastrous results. Of the remaining US troops, the Marine amphibious group and the special commando (Delta) force were entirely under US command. On October 3, 1993, without the knowledge of the UN headquarters in Mogadishu, Delta Force launched a helicopter-borne attack on a supposed Aidid headquarters in Mogadishu, during which two helicopters were shot down and eighteen US Rangers killed. An estimated one thousand Somalis were also killed during this episode.

This catastrophe, and the television pictures of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets by jubilant Aidid supporters, had a devastating effect in Washington. Clinton’s self-defensive reaction was to blame the UN by implication for what had in fact been entirely an American operation, and others made a show of intense displeasure with the secretary-general. “Now that the manhunt has failed,” The Economist wrote, “and too many Americans have been killed in the course of it, somebody has to be blamed: so finger the UN in general, and Mr. Boutros-Ghali…in particular.”

For the US the result of the Delta Force tragedy was not only the withdrawal of all its troops from Somalia, but the end both of “assertive multilateralism” and of American support of UN peacekeeping as well. Only a week later, the USS Harlan County, carrying American and Canadian soldiers to join the UN mission in Haiti, was ordered by a nervous White House to turn tail and go home because of a reportedly hostile demonstration on the dock in Port au Prince, a humiliation both for the US and for the UN.3

Much worse was to follow the next year, when the UN Security Council, under US leadership and in spite of Boutros-Ghali’s plea to increase the small UN force in Rwanda to 5,500 soldiers, instead reduced it to a token force of 270. Thus the Council stood apart from the genocide that was gaining momentum throughout the country just at the moment when it might still have been possible to stop much of the slaughter. Nearly one million Rwandans died before the Security Council was finally shamed into acting.

As the years went by there seemed to be fewer and fewer issues on which the US and Boutros-Ghali could agree. Even the appointment of a new executive director of UNICEF caused friction because Clinton’s candidate was a man and Boutros-Ghali was determined to appoint a woman, Carol Bellamy.

In May 1996 there was a major row over an incident at Qana in south-ern Lebanon in which Israeli forces shelled a UN post, killing some one hundred Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge there. The UN military mission sent to investigate the incident concluded that it was “unlikely that the shelling of the UN compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.” Since Boutros-Ghali faced possible reelection in only six months, it took considerable moral courage for him to publish an objective military report that was bound to infuriate both the Israelis and the United States. Albright’s spokesman, James Rubin, excelled himself this time, saying that Ambassador Albright was “so devastated that the Secretary-General chose to draw unjustified conclusions about this incident that can only divide and polarize the environment rather than the practical lessons that could prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”

Clinton administration officials had wanted no report at all, fearing that criticism of Israel would damage Shimon Peres’s chances for election as prime minister, and they credited Boutros-Ghali with contributing to his defeat. That the secretary-general has an obligation to the 185 other UN members to tell the truth as he sees it about a major incident involving the UN seems not to have mattered to Washington.


The mood was turning increasingly nasty, as disparaging stories about Boutros-Ghali were leaked to the press. “I had, I read, entangled the United States in Somalia and taken command of its forces there,” he writes.

I had prevented President Clinton from bombing to stop the perpetrators of war crimes in Bosnia; I had tried to impose global taxes in order to aggrandize my power at the United Nations; and I had blocked the admirable efforts of the United States to reform the United Nations…. I was portrayed as responsible for America’s lack of faith in the United Nations and the Congress’s unwillingness to pay the huge American financial debt to the United Nations.

After several attempts to get Boutros-Ghali to state publicly that he would not seek reelection, Warren Christopher, on June 19, 1996, announced to The New York Times the “irrevocable” decision of the Clinton administration to veto his reelection. This decision would normally have been announced when the Security Council took up the matter in the fall. There could be little doubt that the main reason for the timing of the announcement was to take away the popular, UN-bashing, “Boootrus-Boootrus” issue from the Republicans during the presidential campaign.

For Americans, The Economist wrote, “the interventionist adventure swiftly turned sour, and they trained their frustration on the UN and its less-than-tactful boss, a man who does not often suffer fools.” Certainly Boutros-Ghali’s relationship with Madeleine Albright, and to a lesser extent with Christopher, turned increasingly sour. Boutros-Ghali was evidently unsuccessful in concealing his opinion that Albright was not, by his standards, an accomplished diplomat; his efforts to win her over only made things worse. A recent biographer quotes one of her aides as saying, “He tried to charm her, which was obnoxious.” He tended to kiss her hand, and even to call her “Sweetie.” (Can this possibly be true?) He came on as both patronizing and ingratiating.4

Albright was certainly infuriated by Boutros-Ghali’s frequent disagreements with US policy and seems often to have taken them personally. “She is looking bad in D.C.,” one of her aides told Boutros-Ghali’s staff after the secretary-general rejected the Clinton candidate for director of UNICEF. When Boutros-Ghali’s chief of staff asked Edward Gnehm, Albright’s deputy, what exactly the US had against Boutros-Ghali, Gnehm replied, “He would not do what we wanted him to do as quickly as we wanted him to do it.”

For his part Boutros-Ghali, quite aside from his strong doubts about the wisdom of some American policies, was irritated by Albright’s attempts to dictate whom he should (and especially whom he should not) see in Washington, and where he should go, even trying to stop planned trips to Somalia and North Korea. Article 100 of the Charter provides that member states should “respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not…seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.” Albright’s mission does not seem to have been aware of it.

Readers of Boutros-Ghali’s account will often find it difficult to fathom why a workable compromise could not have been reached on many of the points of disagreement with the US. The United States was, after all, the most powerful member and supporter of the UN and the largely unquestioned leader in the Security Council. The secretary-general was dependent on US support for many of the important activities of the UN. The Clinton administration, particularly after the 1994 elections, faced a hostile Congress and tailored its policies in the UN accordingly. Both the secretary-general and the US ambassador should have been able to work together to make the best of these hard realities. Instead, if Boutros’s account is accurate, the clash of their personalities more often than not made a difficult situation worse.

According to another recent biographer, Albright decided in the fall of 1995 that Boutros-Ghali must go, and this “won her and the White House points with Congress.”5 Her decision unleashed a major campaign of derogation, apparently masterminded by James Rubin. According to Sylvana Foa, Boutros-Ghali’s onetime spokeswoman, Albright knew that she needed the support of the ultra-conservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, to become secretary of state, and “Boutros’s head on a silver platter was the most easily palatable thing she had to give him.”

Those in the Albright camp, on the other hand, maintained that their only concern was for the future of the UN, and that Boutros had become, in the words of Rubin, “a symbol of UN arrogance and UN incompetence.”6 The US claimed—and told Boutros-Ghali when he asked why they were so opposed to him—that there would be no possibility of the Congress paying up the UN dues as long as he remained in office. (Kofi Annan, whom the United States backed as Boutros-Ghali’s successor, has now been in office for two and a half years, and the dues are still unpaid. A recent proposal to settle the arrears, the Helms-Biden formula, may not commend itself to other UN members because it does not pay the debt in full, and also imposes unacceptable conditions on a partial payment.)

Virtually all other members of the UN were shocked by Warren Christopher’s statement of June 19, 1996, that the US would veto Boutros-Ghali’s reelection. This was regarded as an insult to the world organization by the “single remaining superpower.” France, China, and Russia publicly supported Boutros-Ghali and made statements on his behalf to the United States. Britain sat on its hands. The entire African bloc and many other governments expressed strong support for him.

If the United States had stated its position on Boutros-Ghali in the normal course of events, as the end of his term approached, after explaining its reasons carefully to other governments, it is likely that it would have achieved its objective without much resentment. Boutros-Ghali was neither an ideal nor a universally popular secretary-general. He was perceived by many as arrogant, pedantic, and too much impressed by his position. Instead, for example, of developing a close working relationship with the Security Council, as his predecessors had done, he rarely attended its consultations, appointing instead his own “ambassador” to represent him. He also gave the impression that he was far from perceptive of US political realities. Kofi Annan was a respected and eminently acceptable successor. But even the governments, officials, and others who had been lukewarm about Boutros-Ghali rallied to support him after what they regarded as a high-handed insult by Washington. Presumably the domestic political reasons for announcing the veto in June were overriding.

Boutros-Ghali himself clung to the belief that the US opposition to him would diminish after the presidential election, but he was wrong. The campaign against him—he was called “the most reviled man in Washington,” “more a general than a secretary,” etc.—gained new force. James Rubin even threatened anyone connected with the UN with dire punishment for supporting Boutros-Ghali and called in reporters to denounce as “scandalous” the UN press office’s alleged involvement in Boutros-Ghali’s “campaign.”

The Clinton administration was desperate to see a quick end to the controversy over Boutros-Ghali, but Madeleine Albright’s frantic effort, against all established custom, to get the Security Council to deal with the question of reelection two months early, in September, fell on deaf ears. “The more she spoke rudely to other countries’ representatives,” Boutros-Ghali writes, “the more political approbation she received from her own countrymen.” Albright and Christopher made further efforts to persuade Boutros-Ghali to back down, at one point offering him a one-year extension and, at another, proposing to set up a foundation for him and give him the title of “Secretary-General of the United Nations Emeritus.” Boutros-Ghali turned these propositions down. “An American official remarked,” the Times reported, that “hostility toward the United States has never been so palpable, as diplomats around the world watched the Clinton Administration attack Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s record with dwindling credibility…. Until Mr. Boutros-Ghali was judged a potential political liability in an American election year, Administration officials had no serious complaints about his relations with Washington.”

When the Security Council did finally take up the matter in mid-November, it voted fourteen to one against the United States in favor of a full second term for Boutros-Ghali. After that, however, the powerful reality of the US veto, heavy-handed pressures by the US on friendly countries,7 and threats to the Africans that they would lose the secretary-generalship altogether began to take hold. The American candidate, Kofi Annan of Ghana, was a seasoned and highly regarded member of the Secretariat, and the support for Boutros-Ghali began to fall away. According to his memoir, Albright now attacked him with every possible weapon, from slurs to hints of scandal, implying that the US “has something on him.” Her behavior, he writes, made him determined to continue his doomed candidacy to the bitter end.

On December 5, President Clinton named Madeleine Albright as secretary of state. Boutros-Ghali immediately realized that, in spite of continued support from many world leaders including the presidents of France, China, and Russia, and Nelson Mandela, the game was over. Asked what his reaction was to Albright’s promotion, his spokesman said, “He is delighted for his dear friend Madeleine Albright, with whom he has always had warm and cordial relations.” Kofi Annan was unanimously nominated by the Security Council on December 13, 1996.


Boutros-Ghali, for all his shortcomings, was widely recognized, in The Economist’s words, as “a principled and independent-minded intellectual [who] responded with spirit, struggling with the ill-defined mandates handed down to him by the Security Council.” He fell afoul of the “single superpower,” which refused to allow him to continue as UN secretary-general. It was a traumatic experience, which he has tried to exorcise by writing a public account of it. But his story also has important wider implications.

In 1960, when Nikita Khrushchev, in an abusive and insulting speech to the UN General Assembly, demanded Dag Hammarskjöld’s resignation, Hammarskjöld replied, in part,

It is not the Soviet Union or, indeed, any other big powers who need the United Nations for their protection; it is all the others…. It is very easy to resign; it is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wish of a big power. It is another matter to resist…. I have done so before on many occasions and in many directions…. If it is the wish of those who see in the Organization their best protection in the present world, I shall now do so again.8

Both Hammarskjöld and Boutros-Ghali apparently believed that independent execution of the UN’s decisions, the effectiveness and welfare of the UN’s soldiers and civilians in the field, and respect for the concerns of all the UN’s members had a higher priority for the secretary-general than the invariable approval of one powerful country. Both paid a considerable price for this belief.

In 1960 there were two superpowers and a sort of crude balance between them. In 1996 there was only one superpower, which was, apparently, determined to have the world organization, or at least its staff, do its bidding. “The UN,” Rubin told the Democratic National Convention, “can only do what the United States lets it do.”

The idea that a single great power, however benign, should impose its will on all the other members of the world organization is, of course, against every intention of the UN Charter. Even if that power is the United States, basically a decent and benevolent country, the concept is an unhealthy one both for the United States and for the community of nations. The US insistence on getting rid of Boutros-Ghali against the wishes of virtually every other member of the UN was a chilling reminder of what the “single superpower” could do in the United Nations.

There will not be a “single superpower” forever. The global structure of power will inevitably change as other large countries become stronger. The United States would be wise to use its unique current position to help build a strong international order, whose rules of behavior, decisions, and actions will command universal respect, no matter how global power may be distributed in the future. An independent and skilled UN secretary-general would be an essential part of such an international order. It is therefore a dangerous mistake to downgrade or demonize his office.

The concept of a universally representative international organization, with the ability to act on behalf of the world community in critical situations, is an old and honorable one. It presents immense difficulties but also essential long-term advantages. It is certainly worth fighting for. The dominance of one nation is not, and cannot be, a substitute for it.

This Issue

August 12, 1999