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The US Has a Lot to Lose at the UN

Washington's push to oust Boutros-Ghali puts more important goals at risk

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.

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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 Prez de Cullar, 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. This tradition, which has become a sacred cow at the UN, limits the choices of the Council to a specific region of the world. Second, the five permanent members actually make the decision for the Council, but conflicting political agendas rarely place the needs of the organization above narrow national interests. The politicization of the process has always ended in compromise and the election of someone who has little choice but to cater more to the interests of the major powers than those of the world organization.

Unfortunately, the process in 1996 is more of the same. Yet for the first time, the US is in the awkward position of lone dissenter on a second term for the incumbent. The message from Europe is for Washington to back down and offer Boutros-Ghali an extension in the job for a few years. Neither France nor Great Britain has been willing to help the US find a suitable alternative to Boutros-Ghali, while Germany, also on the Security Council, is known to support a second term for the Egyptian diplomat.

The message from Asia is not too different from the Europeans'. China has reservations about the interventionist direction of the UN under Boutros-Ghali's leadership, but as a supporter and champion of the third world in the Security Council it does not see any reason to replace the incumbent, especially with Africa and most of Asia in Boutros-Ghali's corner. Russia, Australia, Japan, and Korea have not been outspoken either way, yet it is clear that they are not too enthusiastic about the US position.

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What are the gains?

Besides deadlocking the Security Council and paralyzing the UN, what does Washington hope to gain by such a hard-line stance? Perhaps former Sen. Paul Simon's criticism of the administration's opposition to the secretary-general was right, and a reelected President Clinton will see the peril of this course for US interests and tell his people in New York to enter the back-room negotiations of the Security Council with a compromise. Though nothing, to date, indicates this will happen.

Obviously, it is not the time for the president to be sucked into a nasty confrontation with his European and Asian allies and partners over the UN secretary-general. The US debt to the UN is already a major source of friction in relations with most of the world. In fact, substantial arrears on UN dues were the main reason why the US was recently booted out of the UN Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, a key 16-member expert group that reviews the UN budget. America's stock at the UN is plummeting, and this battle over the secretary-general can only make matters worse for the US both inside and outside the UN. One or more of the other permanent Security Council members may well circumvent the US veto and go directly to the General Assembly for a vote, as the US did in 1951 to overcome the Soviet veto of Trygve Lie's bid for a second term.

Besides, Mr. Clinton has other important foreign affairs personnel issues to handle at the moment - filling the posts being left by Ambassador Mondale in Japan, Ambassador Pickering in Russia, and Secretaries Perry, Kantor, and Christopher in Washington. It would be better for the president to instruct his UN Ambassador, Madeleine Albright, to take a compromise position that would let the General Assembly re-elect the secretary-general for up to three more years, while pressing for more consensus with the other permanent members of the Security Council on UN reform and a more serious and rigorous approach for selecting Boutros-Ghali's successor.

*James P. Muldoon Jr. is a UN expert and foreign policy analyst living in Shanghai, where he is writing a book on diplomacy in the post-cold-war United Nations.

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