You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Bill Clinton of the U.N.

The eager-to-please Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

For at least six months before the United States announced it would veto his nomination for a second term as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali had been running hard for re-election. Not only had he been courting his traditional patrons, the French and the Chinese, but in his travels in the Third World, particularly in Africa, he had repeatedly characterized his tenure at the U.N. as a work in progress. He needed, he insisted, another term to finish the job. "Every U.N. secretary-general has received two terms," Boutros-Ghali has said publicly. "Should I—the first African—not get a second?"

Boutros-Ghali once said, in a since oft-quoted remark, that he imposed discipline on his subordinates through "stealth and sudden violence," and tales of his high-handedness—and of that of his top aide, Haitian diplomat Jean-Claude Aime—abound. Recently, even the most senior U.N. officials have had to clear speaking engagements with Aime's office. Those viewed as potential rivals for the Secretary-Generalship have often found their requests denied, sometimes at the last possible moment. According to a number of U.N. officials, even Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian Under-Secretary-General who currently heads the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations and whom the U.S. favors to replace Boutros-Ghali, is not exempt from these restrictions. Ostensibly, Aime's installation as gatekeeper stems from the need to have the U.N. "speak with a common voice." In reality, it's to help re-elect the Secretary General.

At Boutros-Ghali's United Nations, as at the old Soviet Politburo, even officials who disagree privately with the Secretary's decisions have publicly hewed with craven uniformity to the party line. Long ago, Boutros-Ghali forced out the most independent spirits at the U.N., such as former Assistant Secretary-General for General Political Affairs Giandomenico Picco. Others, including some who have been publicly loyal but are still seen as too autonomous, such as Alvaro de Soto of Peru, who negotiated the Salvador peace accords, are, by many accounts, increasingly marginalized. Still others hold their tongues. "This was never a place where people spoke frankly," said a senior U.N. official, "but under Boutros-Ghali the fear is palpable." And for good reason: stealth and sudden violence work.

IN HIS SINGLEMINDED pursuit of re-election, Boutros-Ghali resembles no one more than President Clinton. Each administration has distinguished itself by its consistent privileging of the search for political advantage over the commitment to any firm set of principles. It's not that the U.N. Secretary-General has no principles. Rather, like Clinton, he seems too willing to shift them according to the prevailing winds. "Politics is policy," the in-house slogan of the 1996 Clinton campaign, has been, for Boutros-Ghali, the operating principle of his tenure.

At the beginning of his term, for example, Boutros-Ghali thought the great powers wanted an expansive new definition of U.N. peacekeeping, one that threw out the old notion that blue helmets could be deployed only after cease-fires had been arranged. He produced An Agenda for Peace, a document that made such sweeping claims for the U.N.'s role that it fueled the paranoia of the American right. Then, after the Bosnia and Somalia debacles, An Agenda for Peace suddenly acquired a postscript that effectively retracted all the grandiose claims the Secretary-General had put forward less than four years before. Remarkably, the postscript was added without even acknowledging that the U.N. had failed in either place. (For Boutros-Ghali, the U.N. never fails. If anything, the world fails it.)

Such maneuvers are vintage Boutros-Ghali. On the one hand, he occasionally offers up florid Bandung-style rhetoric (the West was hard on him, he once claimed, because he is seen as "a wog") and claims to be a man of the disfranchised, even though his grandfather was prime minister of Egypt and his brother is said to be one of that country's richest men. Yet, as the few remaining hard-left officials within the Secretariat point out privately, his tenure has been marked largely by his unwillingness to antagonize any of the permanent five members of the Security Council. Again like Clinton, he has been too eager to please.

As Bosnia and Rwanda demonstrated, the U.N. Secretariat does not know what it stands for. In Bosnia, it chose peace at all costs, even at the price of justice. In Rwanda, its representatives collaborated with a regime many of whose leaders were publicly planning a genocide. The problem was that what the Americans wanted in Bosnia was different from what the French and the British wanted. And in Rwanda, the French government actually sided with those perpetrating the genocide, while the Americans wanted no part of an intervention. So the U.N. Secretariat in both cases felt it had to do as little as possible, in a vain effort to offend neither the Americans nor the French. In other instances, too, when major rifts have opened between the Americans and the British and French, or between the Americans and the Chinese, Boutros-Ghali tried to satisfy all parties. He has gotten into trouble because he hasn't quite known which great power to be servile to without offending some other power whose interests he also wanted to serve.

Of course, the job of Secretary-General is not well defined in the U.N. Charter. The Secretary-General is expected to be, simultaneously, a world leader, the premier international civil servant, a voice of moral authority standing for ideals of the U.N. Charter and a politician responsive to both the great powers and the numerous poor nations that make up the bulk of the membership. One almost feels sorry for Boutros-Ghali—were it possible, that is, to forget his assertion to the Sarajevans at the height of their city's siege in December, 1992, that he could easily list ten places in the world where people were far worse off.

ALTHOUGH IT IS not surprising that the U.S. should want to replace Boutros-Ghali, it is unclear what kind of a successor can be found. The process of choosing a Secretary-General is, after all, idiotic. The Security Council's struggle to agree upon a candidate combines the secrecy of Vatican succession with the backroom dealmaking of 1920s American political conventions, and the subsequent presentation of the candidate to the General Assembly for ratification exhibits all the democracy of the old Soviet Union. The process, in other words, is geared to producing disastrous choices like Boutros-Ghali or, before him, Kurt Waldheim, who, it should be remembered, was only narrowly prevented from winning a third term.

The Clinton administration did not make up its mind about a course of action until June. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, had long been opposed to renomination, but others, at the State Department and the National Security Council, were uncertain. Some considered tabling altogether the discussion of Boutros-Ghali's re-election, which formally takes place in December, until after the United States' own November elections. Some within the administration clung to the hope that the Secretary-General would take himself out of the running.

When it became clear that Boutros-Ghali wouldn't step down voluntarily, it was, by most accounts, domestic policy considerations that prodded the Clinton administration to act quickly. Bob Dole had already used Boutros-Ghali's unpopularity with the American public to useful effect during the Bosnia debate, and he was poised to do so again. For the Clinton re-election team, the Secretary-General's renomination needed a "proactive" response.

Initially, the U.S. had sought a deal. In a private meeting with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Boutros-Ghali, who five years ago agreed to serve only one term, was offered another year in office if he would not seek a full second term. The extra year would allow a longer and less contentious search for a consensus candidate. To the surprise of Christopher and his aides, Boutros-Ghali rejected the offer out of hand. And he apparently did so with such haughtiness that even the usually phlegmatic Christopher lost his temper. It was Christopher who insisted the U.S. announce its intention to veto Boutros-Ghali's candidacy. The decision was leaked in a background briefing by a senior State Department official that some have alleged was Christopher himself.

The Clinton administration had defused a Dole campaign issue, and both Christopher and Albright were satisfied. Yet the Americans managed to botch the diplomatic end of the process by failing to alert the French of their decision. French officials are furious. Boutros-Ghali, who once studied at the Sorbonne, has always enjoyed firm French backing. And yet the Chirac government learned of the U.S. decision only shortly before it was leaked to the American press. This needless offense to the most pro-American French government since the days of the Fourth Republic, a government with which the U.S. is involved in a great many important negotiations, was so hapless as to be incomprehensible.

Nor is it certain that the candidate American officials favor, Kofi Annan, will win French and Chinese backing. Washington is assuming that the Third World will not back an aristocratic Copt over a sub-Saharan African. But Annan is widely seen, in the words of one European diplomat skeptical about his chances, as "Washington's African." Whether China and France will support him remains to be seen. And even though the Clinton administration has opposed Boutros-Ghali, the inept way it handled the announcement does not inspire confidence in its ability to push Annan's nomination through.

There are compromise candidates who might step in, as dark-horse candidate Javier Perez de Cuellar did in 1981 when Kurt Waldheim, backed by the Chinese for a third term, and the U.S.-supported Tanzanian diplomat Salim Salim were deadlocked. The most likely such candidate is Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Ogata has disavowed interest in the post, although it is unclear how she would respond were she subject to intense pressure to run. But, while Ogata's personality and character would be crucial assets for the job, it is not clear that anyone, even someone far more morally and temperamentally suited to it than Boutros-Ghali, can do the job of Secretary-General as it is presently understood.

This is why it is more than a little disingenuous for American officials now to complain about Boutros-Ghali, all his faults notwithstanding. For Boutros-Ghali is the product of a U.N. system the U.S. government doesn't want changed. The U.S. and the other great powers want an official whom the public will admire, who will seem to stand for something morally and who will be a good administrator. They also want someone who will cover up for them, do what they tell him or her to do and put the best face on decisions of the international community—such as allowing the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi to continue unimpeded or allowing a prolonged siege of Sarajevo—that are utterly indefensible morally.

These are irreconcilable requirements. Perhaps the world will be lucky and Ogata will accept the job. Even Annan, for all his limitations, is certainly preferable to Boutros-Ghali, if only because he would arrest the demoralization of the Secretariat staff that Boutros-Ghali's tyrannical and capricious management has engendered.

To throw up one's hands about such an appointment, even if the U.N. isn't the central institution its apologists claim it to be, hardly seems sensible. And yet there is little reason to imagine that BoutrosGhali's ouster will bring about real reform anytime soon.

This article originally ran in the August 5, 1996 issue of the magazine.