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."

About the only thing clear from the start was that the office of the secretary-general would be an extremely important one. True to the optimism of the moment, the Western media tossed around all sorts of impressive candidates -- Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and the Canadian diplomat Lester Pearson. But when the question came to the Security Council in January 1946, Soviet vetoes forced the council to nominate a far less well-known figure: Trygve Lie, the wartime foreign minister of Norway's government in exile. He was appointed on February 1, 1946.


At first, the new secretary-general was not encouraged by the UN's 50 members to take any political initiative; if anything, the member states seemed nostalgic for the almost obsessive discretion of Sir Eric Drummond, the longtime British secretary-general of the League of Nations. Article 99 was not formally invoked until 1960. Lie spent his term fully occupied with putting the UN Secretariat together and finding a permanent home for the organization.

The Cold War and the nightmare reality of the U.S.-Soviet "balance of terror," however, soon imposed new demands on the UN. Far from realizing the San Francisco dream of an organized peace -- monitored and, if necessary, enforced by the five major wartime Allies (now the permanent members of the Security Council) -- the new organization became occupied with preventing a cataclysmic nuclear confrontation between its key members. By early 1952, the prospects of peace and progress at the UN had grown bleak. The Cold War had deepened and darkened. The Korean War dragged on. Secretary-General Lie had been repudiated by the Soviets for supporting the Security Council's action against North Korea. At the same time, he was trying to deal with an anticommunist witch-hunt, inspired by U.S. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, that was ravaging the morale of the UN Secretariat. In November 1952, after serving for over seven years, Lie resigned, giving the Soviet attitude as his main reason for leaving the job.

In early 1953, the overall situation began to improve. Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman as president of the United States, opening up the possibility of an armistice in Korea. Stalin died in March 1953, offering the hope of a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations. At the UN, after weeks of deliberation, the Security Council at last managed to agree on a successor to Lie. Trying to break a lengthy deadlock, the British and French ambassadors suggested that a list of four names be submitted to the Soviets in the hope that at least one might prove acceptable enough to be recommended to the General Assembly.

The list included a Swedish official whose gifts had greatly impressed the two ambassadors when they had worked with him on the European end of the Marshall Plan. Dag Hammarskjöld, Sweden's minister of state for foreign affairs, was virtually unknown at the time to other council members, but the Soviets accepted him. Hammarskjöld himself was unaware that he was being considered for the job until he received the council's telegram urging him to accept it. His appointment heralded a remarkably positive eight years at the UN. It also recast the function of the position of secretary-general in a way that radically and permanently increased its importance.

In the spring of 1953, the UN desperately needed new ideas and new personalities. Especially necessary was an international diplomat, accepted by both sides in the Cold War, who was capable of tackling the disputes that threatened world peace but that could not be handled by a divided Security Council. The demoralized UN, which had been designed for a completely different world, also badly needed a new leader who could reorient the organization and set new goals. This task included redirecting the UN's peace and security apparatus to make it capable of containing regional and postcolonial conflicts that might otherwise trigger the dreaded East-West nuclear confrontation. Another, less tangible need was to articulate what the UN could and could not do to reduce the risks of the arms race as the world rapidly underwent decolonization and began to test out the newly codified values of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The UN's members, including the permanent members of the Security Council, welcomed Hammarskjöld's arrival. Just 45 years old, the new secretary-general seemed very young and diffident. As a distinguished Swedish civil servant, he was considered unlikely to make political waves, take controversial initiatives, or incur the disapproval of one group of governments or another.

Hammarskjöld spent his first year gaining the confidence of member governments, reorganizing the Secretariat, and restoring its morale and discipline. He did not, in his own words, "jump up on the stage" to grab at political challenges, preferring to wait until a problem appeared that the secretary-general was uniquely well situated to tackle.

Just such an issue arrived in late 1954. Seventeen U.S. airmen -- the crew of a B-29 and four fighter pilots -- had come down in China in the later stages of the Korean War. The Chinese courts had condemned the airmen as spies. Washington had refused to have any contact with the recently installed government of the People's Republic of China. The U.S. government was in an uproar, and increasingly wild demands for action -- including a nuclear strike on the Chinese mainland -- were coming from Congress. The Soviet veto prevented any action by the Security Council. The UN General Assembly, in a resolution mostly devoted to a denunciation of the government in Peking (as Beijing was then called), requested that the secretary-general do what he could about the problem, a formula often used by UN organs in ostensibly hopeless cases.

Hammarskjöld, to general amazement, announced that he would go to Peking. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is said to have asked him if he was really going to talk to those people. The Chinese themselves might well have objected to Hammarskjöld's visit, given that the General Assembly resolution had strongly condemned their actions. But Hammarskjöld forestalled this objection with a diplomatic invention of his own, what became known as "the Peking formula." He explained that when world peace was threatened, the secretary-general had the right and the duty to do what he could to help find a peaceful solution. He thus separated himself from the denunciations of the General Assembly resolution.

Over the next six months, Hammarskjöld engaged in intensive negotiations with a fellow intellectual, China's premier and foreign minister, Zhou Enlai. The four fighter pilots were released first. The case of the B-29 crew, which had almost certainly been conducting an intelligence mission, was more difficult, but at the end of July 1955, as Hammarskjöld was celebrating his 50th birthday alone in a small fishing village in southern Sweden, Zhou's telegram finally arrived. The B-29 crew members were on their way out of China. Peking expressed its appreciation to Hammarskjöld and wished him a happy birthday.

This episode is worth remembering because it was a turning point in the history of the office of the secretary-general. It established Hammarskjöld as an invaluable resource for a world living under the shadow of possible nuclear war. His gift for negotiation, his incisive intellect, his growing moral authority, and his personal style and flair would keep him in intense demand all over the world for the all too brief remainder of his life. "Leave it to Dag" became a familiar slogan in the media. Hammarskjöld's first practical diplomatic success opened a vast new field of action for the secretary-general. It confirmed that the secretary-general was in a unique position to tackle dangerous problems that had defied the efforts of others. The Chinese affair also convinced the Eisenhower administration that a strong and independent secretary-general, even though the United States might sometimes disagree with him, was of far greater value to Washington than a lackey.

Hammarskjöld followed up his first success by developing ways that the UN could play an active role in containing conflicts in the field. Once again, a major and very dangerous international emergency soon provided the opportunity for a radical step forward. In 1956, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, Israel, the United Kingdom, and France invaded Egypt. Their action split the Western alliance and seemed likely to provide the perfect pretext for Soviet intervention in the Middle East. Securing the early withdrawal of the invading troops came to seem the only way to keep the Soviets from getting involved. Hammarskjöld was charged with negotiating a cease-fire and securing the departure of the British, French, and, later, the Israeli forces. To this end, Lester Pearson, then the foreign minister of Canada, proposed a new arrangement, a UN Emergency Force (UNEF), to facilitate the troop withdrawal and to temporarily take over the occupied territory, including, eventually, the Sinai. Although the Security Council was paralyzed by British and French vetoes, the General Assembly approved the plan. Few people, however, believed it could be implemented quickly or effectively.

Yet thanks to the intensive efforts of Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche, the UN undersecretary-general for special political affairs, and to the enthusiasm of the countries that were asked to supply troops, the first UNEF was deployed in Egypt just nine days after the plan was approved by the General Assembly. Hammarskjöld's own determination to formulate a sound legal and political basis for this new form of UN activity made UNEF a useful working model for subsequent peacekeeping operations. The fact that the secretary-general was in daily control of soldiers in the field added yet another important dimension to the office. Hammarskjöld would continue his experiments in the diplomatic and military pursuit of peace in Lebanon, Indochina, the Middle East more generally, and the newly independent Congo.

Hammarskjöld died in September 1961 in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as he headed to peace talks between UN forces in Katanga and the mercenary-led army of Moise Tshombe, the region's secessionist president. The UN's operation in Congo, begun the year before, was by far the largest, most complex, and most violent peacekeeping mission the organization had ever undertaken. Hammarskjöld's conduct of it, often carried out in the absence of instructions from the divided Security Council, had stretched the independence of the position of secretary-general further than either French President Charles de Gaulle or Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was prepared to tolerate. Hammarskjöld spent the last year of his life ostracized by two permanent members of the Security Council and fighting to preserve the integrity and independence of his office and of the UN Secretariat.


In his more than eight years as secretary-general, Hammarskjöld managed to convert the office from a predominantly administrative and bureaucratic post into an open-ended political, diplomatic, and humanitarian one. This model has been followed and developed by his successors in their different ways and according to the particular challenges of the time.

The end of the Cold War and the liberation of the Security Council from ideological stalemate resulted, in the 1990s, in a wave of multifaceted UN operations. These operations were mostly conducted within the borders of individual countries and were far more complex than the UN's original peacekeeping operations, which had aimed to contain conflicts between states. Most of the new missions were successful. Three -- those in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda -- were not.

The UN also branched out into the business of peace building. Its humanitarian operations took on a wider and more ambitious scope. The Security Council pushed the organization into managing other emergency programs, such as the $64 billion oil-for-food program in Iraq. This vast operation was originally hailed as a remarkable success. It was later the subject of a grossly exaggerated "scandal" from which the UN and its leadership are still trying to recover.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose term of office ends in December 2006, has been an extremely active international leader in the manner of Hammarskjöld. He has involved himself in a series of political, military, and humanitarian emergencies and has also made imaginative efforts to bring the UN into the twenty-first century. After the Rwandan genocide, he eventually succeeded in getting the UN's members to accept, in principle at least, the "obligation to protect" peoples suffering from inhumane treatment or genocide, even when inflicted by their own government. The difficulty of applying this revolutionary principle in practice is all too apparent in the current tragedy in Darfur. Some of Annan's proposals for reform -- the introduction of the Peacebuilding Commission and the replacement of the discredited Commission on Human Rights by the Human Rights Council, for example -- have been accepted. He has failed, as everyone else has, to find an acceptable formula for reforming the Security Council. Efforts to give more administrative authority to the secretary-general and to stop interference and micromanagement by member states have so far come to grief on the rocks of North-South disagreement, a phenomenon that has complicated other efforts at reform as well.

The Security Council has to recommend, and the General Assembly to appoint, Annan's successor by the end of this year. It is generally agreed that this person will have to be a man or woman of exceptional gifts and character, but little has been done to make the haphazard lottery that passes for a selection system more efficient. There is still no formal procedure for searching for, nominating, or vetting candidates, nor, as yet, is there any provision for the Security Council to interview aspirants to this vital post. There is a fairly widespread view that the next secretary-general should come from Asia, but that should not exclude an exceptional candidate from another region. Unfortunately, but as usual, a crop of self- or state-nominated candidates have already come forward, discouraging the council from conducting a more serious search for the right person.

With less than six months to go, improvements in the selection process are unlikely this time around, although many suggestions have been made: limiting the next secretary-general to a single seven-year term; creating a search and nominating committee; abolishing regional preferences; giving a greater role in the selection process to the General Assembly; requiring that all candidates publicly circulate a statement setting out their agenda, priorities, and proposed modus operandi; and many other ideas.

What sort of person should the UN pick? The post of the secretary-general is unlike any other. Those who occupy it may grow and develop to an unexpected extent in the job, but such a development cannot be reliably foreseen at the time of the appointment. No one, perhaps not even Hammarskjöld himself, foresaw his transformation from accomplished national civil servant to charismatic world leader and visionary. The office of the secretary-general is a combination of a number of full-time jobs, and candidates cannot possibly be expected to be qualified for all of them. The emphasis in the search must therefore be on basic personal qualities and the capacity to respond to challenges rather than on specific qualifications, on character and potential rather than on specific experience.

History has shown that a great secretary-general not only is important for the UN but also is a priceless asset for the world at large. Such a man or woman might come from almost anywhere, but it is virtually impossible to spot such potential in advance. Even in national politics, it is notoriously difficult to foresee at the outset who will become a leader of historic importance. Since the oil-for-food debacle, it has been suggested that the next secretary-general should be a management-oriented CEO. But management is only one part of a very complex and predominantly diplomatic job, and that task should be handled by the deputy secretary-general, a post created in 1997.

The secretary-general's office carries with it great responsibility and expectations but little power. In such a position, it takes a large and unusual personality to exercise the inspiring, moderating, consistent, and, when necessary, practical and ingenious leadership needed in a world beset by new and extremely difficult problems. The members of the Security Council, with the help of the UN's other members, should -- provided they devote enough time, thought, and mutual consultation to the matter -- be able to agree on a new secretary-general who can rise to the many challenges that, sometimes unexpectedly, come with the job. Time will show whether their choice will make a real change in the way the world deals with the problems of peace, justice, standards of living, and human rights.

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  • Brian Urquhart was Undersecretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1986. His most recent book is "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey."
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