During periods of international disaster, a troubled world feels the need for an outstanding full-time supervisor. At first, with the horrors of World War I still fresh in their minds, the founders of the League of Nations considered calling the head of their organization "chancellor." When World War II was at its height, the title "moderator" was suggested for the head of the future United Nations. In both cases, the wartime mood passed, and the more bureaucratic title of "secretary-general" was chosen.

From the outset, the U.N. secretary-general has been an important part of the institution, not only as its chief executive, but as both symbol and guardian of the original vision of the organization. There, however, specific agreement has ended. The United Nations, like any important organization, needs strong and independent leadership, but it is an intergovernmental organization, and governments have no intention of giving up control of it. While the secretary-general can be extraordinarily useful in times of crisis, the office inevitably embodies something more than international cooperation--sometimes even an unwelcome hint of supranationalism. Thus, the attitude of governments toward the United Nations' chief and only elected official is and has been necessarily ambivalent.


Fifty-one years ago at Dumbarton Oaks, when the Allied powers met to discuss some of the details of a future international organization, their ambivalence about the secretary-general's role was already evident. They strongly opposed a secretary-general directly elected by the General Assembly, and they defended the veto held by the Security Council's permanent members--Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia), and the United States--over the selection process. In fact, the permanent members have always controlled the appointment of the secretary-general, a responsibility that they have often failed to live up to. The founders of the United Nations were purposely ambiguous about the secretary-general's responsibilities. Despite President Roosevelt's vision of the job as a moderator, the primary function of the secretary-general as outlined in the U.N. Charter is to act as the chief administrative officer of the organization. Secondarily, he is obligated to carry out the decisions of the main organs of the United Nations. Only Article 99 of the charter opens the door to independent political action, and then not very wide. Under Article 99, the secretary-general "may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." If the secretary-general has any independent political role, this article provides the mandate for it.

When the time came to appoint the first secretary-general, governments were extraordinarily vague regarding the position's qualifications. In September 1945, for example, the U.S. representative on the preparatory commission, Adlai Stevenson, told Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, "We favor 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"--not exactly an overwhelming job description. (The idea of a female secretary-general was never even considered.)

After some eminent names--Dwight Eisenhower, Anthony Eden, Lester Pearson--had been bandied about and turned down by the Soviets, it became clear that the secretary-general's appointment would be a purely political decision, determined by what the United States and the Soviet Union could agree on--a lowest common denominator if ever there was one. Qualifications, stature, and leadership qualities would all be secondary considerations. This depressing reality dawned on me in January 1946, when the General Assembly was considering nominations for the first secretary-general. At that time, among other duties, I ran the speakers' list in the General Assembly. Stettinius came up to my table and asked me to identify Trygve Lie, who was then foreign minister of Norway. I pointed out Lie's ample figure to Stettinius, who then proceeded to the rostrum to nominate Lie as "a statesman well known to all." Even then, a sincere search for the best possible candidate was obviously not in the cards.

The job descriptions given by its various incumbents also show some ambivalence, born, no doubt, of bitter experience. Lie referred to it as "the most impossible job on this earth." Dag Hammarskjold said that the secretary-general was "a sort of secular pope, and, for much of the time, a pope without a church." U Thant, a courageous and modest man, said that the secretary-generalship was "the most varied, most interesting, and most challenging political job on earth." To Kurt Waldheim it was "at the same time one of the most fascinating and one of the most frustrating jobs in the world, encompassing as it does the height of human aspiration and the depth of human frailty."

The secretary-generalship, at least on paper, is indeed an impossible job. Quite apart from unrealistic public expectations, large responsibilities without significant power or resources, and the contrary attitudes of governments, the job comprises an unmanageable number of major functions. These include managing a worldwide secretariat and a global organization on a shoestring budget, a sizable part of which is usually overdue (the United Nations is not allowed to borrow); implementing the decisions of the Security Council and other organs of the United Nations; running peacekeeping and other highly sensitive field operations; being the world's mediator in an endless series of "good offices" missions involving quiet diplomacy all over the world; providing good offices in human rights and humanitarian situations; coordinating the so-called U.N. system of specialized agencies and major economic and social programs; representing the United Nations worldwide at conferences and regional meetings, and to the media and public; maintaining a watch on major developments of all kinds and alerting governments to them; generating ideas and strategies on global. problems; and being the world's number one fig leaf and scapegoat.

The secretary-general is an international civil servant with 185 masters who is also periodically expected, especially when everyone else has failed, to be a leader. As U Thant put it, "The secretary-general's activity will usually seem to some governments too much, and to others too little. He must thread his way through the jungle of conflicting national policies with the U.N. Charter as his compass, and, if he is lucky, with a directive from one of the main deliberative organs as his guide." When crises arise, the secretary-general may be the world's last hope. He must be prepared to act without regard to political reputation.


The main factors in the development of the office of the secretary-general have been the incumbents' personalities and the political climate in which they worked. The secretary-general is now recognized as the world's foremost honest broker, but this was not originally the case. In 1946, governments were extremely reluctant to delegate political responsibilities to the secretary-general. When discussing the ideal secretary-general, the British reverently invoked the almost obsessive discretion of Sir Eric Drummond, the British secretary-general of the League of Nations, who never made a public statement or addressed a public meeting of the league in his entire time as secretary-general.

The sad history of the League of Nations indicated to the U.N. founders the potential importance of a strong chief executive for the new world organization, and the paralysis of the Cold War soon made a more active political role necessary. It was difficult, however, for the secretary-general to avoid confrontation with the Soviets or Americans when they disagreed on the appropriate course of action in an international crisis. Lie's break with the Soviets over the U.N. operation in Korea and Hammarskjold's problems over the Congo attest to that. But the Cold War also made a nonpartisan third party indispensable to avoiding total paralysis in the Security Council during a crisis. Consequently, and with the genius of Hammarskjold, the activist role of the secretary-general evolved.

After failing to agree on a score of other candidates, the Security Council in early 1953 appointed Hammarskjold to succeed Lie under the delightful misapprehension that Hammarskjold was a nonpolitical technocrat. Hammarskjold soon showed his mettle. In his first triumph, during one of the Cold War's more dangerous moments, he secured the release from China of 17 U.S. airmen who were prisoners of the Korean War. He subsequently developed the secretary-general's negotiating role, as well as the concept of fielding U.N. peacekeeping forces, first deployed on a large scale in the Suez crisis in 1956. Thus Hammarskjold pioneered a new role for the secretary-general as negotiator, crisis manager, and director of active peace operations.

Hammarskjold paid a heavy price for his activism, He fell out of favor with the United States over Guatemala in 1954, and with the French and the British over the Suez operation in 1956. In the Congo, he infuriated both the Soviets and the French, alienating President Charles de Gaulle for good by his actions when the French clashed with newly independent Tunisia over Bizerte. Hammarskjold believed that the independence, integrity, and activism of the secretary-general and the international secretariat were vital to the future of the United Nations. In fighting to preserve and develop those attributes, he suffered many setbacks in his final years in office.

Hammarskjold was a practical visionary who regarded his task at the United Nations as "working on the edge of human society" to promote the "creative evolution" of human institutions. His aim was the gradual construction of a reliable and just world order through the establishment of international legal precedents and case law, especially in emergency situations. The United Nations would thus be gradually transformed from an institutional and diplomatic mechanism into a constitutional and operational system better equipped to deal with the world's problems. In the daily frustrations of the post-Cold War world, it is worth reassessing our progress toward this ambitious goal.


Hammarskjold's death in Africa in September 1961 left the United Nations split on Cold War lines. His successor, U Thant, picked up the pieces and reunited the organization. Of all the secretaries-general, he has been the most unjustly judged. This is perhaps not too surprising. In U Thant's view, moral issues overrode political ones. He was a person of great honesty and courage, and he was not always appreciated in the cynical world of international politics. He brought the U.N. involvement in the Congo to an end. He played an important role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis. He was also instrumental in securing a cease-fire in the ominous war between India and Pakistan in 1965. On his own initiative, he made a prolonged and spirited effort to bring the Vietnam War to an end. But the collapse of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Middle East in 1967 and the ensuing Six Day War overshadowed all the positive achievements of his stewardship. He served as a convenient scapegoat on that occasion, although he was the only world leader to go to Cairo to try to persuade Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to reconsider his fatal demand for the withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeepers. Despite a Security Council hopelessly divided along Cold War lines, he made valiant efforts to stave off catastrophe.

U Thant's successor, Kurt Waldheim, and his rival, Max Jakobsen of Finland, were the first candidates to campaign actively for the office, setting a disastrous precedent that has been followed ever since. Since that time, self-appointed candidates have lobbied for the post, confusing and monopolizing the already feeble efforts of the Security Council to recommend a suitable candidate to the General Assembly. Waldheim was neither an inspiring leader nor an original thinker, but he maintained stability throughout the tumultuous 1970s. He reestablished peacekeeping as an indispensable diplomatic tool of the United Nations after the 1973 Middle East war. After Waldheim left the United Nations it was discovered that he had misrepresented his war record, and he became the subject of universal opprobrium in the West. It would have been perfectly possible to verify Waldheim's war record before he was appointed secretary-general, but nobody bothered. Indeed, but for China's veto, Waldheim would have been elected to a third term with the active support of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. The whole Waldheim episode speaks volumes about the quality and spirit of the appointment process--no open search procedure, no vetting of candidates, and a list virtually restricted to those who have declared themselves. In such circumstances, it is something of a miracle that the United Nations has been as well served as it has.

Waldheim's successor, Javier Perez de Cuellar, was a quiet and experienced diplomat who presided skillfully over the transition into the uncertainties of the post-Cold War era. He kept on good terms with all governments and was a well-liked but not striking international figure. His strongest suit was quiet diplomacy, which by definition does not gain public acclaim or recognition for its practitioners. After years of frustration, he enjoyed considerable success in the short-lived and illusory renaissance of the United Nations in the early 1990s.

The present secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has inherited the morning-after hangover from that false renaissance and the difficult problems of policing the tumult of the post-Cold War world. Like his predecessors, he is criticized for being both too activist and too passive. Compounding his difficulties, he has also been obliged to reorganize the secretariat when the organization is more heavily involved than ever in field operations. In a discouraging political climate, he is courageously fighting to keep the organization on course and enhance its effectiveness.

In the post-Cold War world, the secretary-general is perhaps less essential as a political intermediary than before. As the operational director of the United Nations, however, he (or in the future, let us hope, she) will undoubtedly have a huge and expanding task, with inadequate resources and often with inappropriate mandates. In an age when the media have a commanding position in international life, the secretary-general is also increasingly in demand as a spokesman for the United Nations and the emergent "international community.

In a period of resurgent nationalism and ethnic strife, growing distrust of international institutions, and diminishing support from governments, the secretary-general is busier--and perhaps lonelier--than ever. The original spirit of international solidarity embodied in the U.N. Charter has weakened in recent years. The essential institutions of an effective world community, based increasingly on law, are urgently needed. However, the inclination of U.N. members appears to be a continuation of ad hoc crisis management, which is often too late and sometimes inappropriate, ineffective, and expensive. A crisis of credibility has resulted. For this failure to adapt, the secretary-general will continue, unjustly, to be held accountable.

The United Nations now deals less with conflicts between states, for which it was established, than with civil and ethnic conflicts, for which it was not designed. Most of the critical situations in which the United Nations is now involved do not impinge on the national security concerns of the major powers. They concern, in the main, humanitarian issues. Altruism is a far weaker catalyst for international action than the threats to international peace and security that demanded U.N. action during the Cold War. This does not mean that the United Nations will not continue to be in demand when governments need a dumping ground for an urgent yet unwelcome problem, but it makes the secretary-general's capacity for effective action more uncertain.


It remains to be seen whether U.N. members have any interest in improving the selection process for the secretary-general. Miraculously, the process thus far has produced no outright disasters, but it would be rejected as a bad joke by any serious institution in the private sector. It requires neither a search procedure nor an interview with the appointee. At a minimum, the Security Council and the General Assembly should define the essential qualifications necessary in determining the best person for the job. Ability, authority, and leadership capacity, rather than political convenience, must take priority if the United Nations is to shoulder its increasingly vital responsibilities and make the necessary transition to a very different world in the 21st century.

A few obvious changes would substantially improve the selection process. it Besides initiating a more thorough search procedure, individual campaigning should be barred. The veto should not apply to the Security Council's recommendation of a candidate, and the ban on candidates from the five permanent members of the Security Council should be lifted. The temptation to run for a second five-year term can only disrupt the performance of an incumbent secretary-general. A single seven-year term would allow plenty of time to carry through serious policies without the pressure and distraction of a time-consuming reelection campaign. It should become the rule.

For all the burdens and difficulties of the position, the secretary-general, as the executive head of a world organization representing all governments, has a unique responsibility to foster the "creative evolution" of human institutions of which Dag Hammarskjold spoke. The office and its incumbent will continue to be a central element in what is our only long-term hope, and probably our only alternative to a decline into chaos: the development of a global society based on the rule of law.

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  • Brian Urquhart is a Scholar in Residence at the Ford Foundation. His most recent book is Ralph Bunche: An American Life.
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