The Next Secretary-General: How to Fill a Job With No Description

World War II ended in Europe in May 1945 and in the Pacific three months later. At almost the same time -- the high point of Allied triumph and cooperation -- diplomats meeting in San Francisco produced the United Nations Charter. This blueprint for keeping the peace in the future was based, not surprisingly, on the alliance that had just won the war. The drafters of the charter assumed that the Allies would stick together and become the backbone of the new world organization.

Things, however, did not work out that way. Growing U.S.-Soviet tensions soon fractured the alliance, and for the next 40 years the UN had to improvise other means of maintaining international peace and security. An important part of that improvisation was the expansion of the role of the secretary-general.

During the UN's planning stage, President Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the top UN official might be called the "moderator" (which also happens to be the title of the head of the Church of Scotland). The charter, however, simply described the secretary-general as the organization's "chief administrative officer." It also made just one provision for independent political action by the secretary-general: under Article 99, he was given the power to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security."

As for how long the secretary-general would serve, the kind of person needed, or the best procedure for finding such a person, the charter gave no guidance. As Adlai Stevenson, one of the U.S. negotiators at San Francisco, wrote to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius in September 1945, the United States favored "the choice of an outstandingly qualified individual, preferably a figure who has attained some international position and preferably a national of a small or middle power." This splendidly vague description reflected the general uncertainty about who should be chosen as the executive head of the new organization. As the time for the appointment drew near, in December 1945, the State Department, in an internal memo, mused, "A more common acceptance of the qualifications required for the Secretary-General would be helpful in arriving at a decision."

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