The UN’s Top Job: A Review
by Bhaskar Menon on 28 Mar 2015 0 Comment

Lucia Mouat, who was the correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor at the United Nations when I first met her, has a new book out on the eight men who have been Secretary-General, The United Nations’ Top Job: A close look at the work of eight Secretaries-General. Her timing is excellent, for an increasing number of people will want the essential background the book provides as the UN prepares to pick a new head before the end of 2016.


The book begins with a chapter providing a conceptual overview of the job of Secretary-General, often referred to as “the world’s top diplomat” and less grandly, in the words of its first incumbent as “the most impossible job in the world.” Both descriptions are accurate, for the Secretary-General must moderate the never-ending global dialogue at the UN while trying to herd its cats into effective action.


In both roles, the Secretary-General is at the mercy of an unforgiving process entirely owned by a handful of powerful governments and he (perhaps she after the next selection) has little leeway.


The book’s review of the track record of the eight Secretaries-General is extremely kind to the member States most responsible for the widely perceived failures of the organization, especially the five Permanent Members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russian Federation, United States). A corrective account might look at some of the following problems:


Trygvie Lie (pronounced Lee), a Labour politician from Norway, never knew what hit him after Britain engineered a “special relationship” with the American military-industrial complex and launched the Cold War months after the creation of the UN. His firm support of the Korean War won instant Soviet disapproval while the McCarthy-era inquisition of American staff made a mockery of UN independence. After the United States side-stepped a Soviet veto to get Lie a second term through action in the General Assembly, no Eastern Bloc diplomat would even shake the Secretary-General’s hand at social functions. He endured it for a while and then resigned.


Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold succeeded Lie because the Permanent Members of the Security Council thought he was a quiet, unassertive bureaucrat who could be controlled easily. Instead, they got a man with a powerful moral conscience and sense of mission. When Hammarskjold went to bat for the newly won independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo he entered the “license to kill” zone of the European imperial Powers; while on a peace mission to the region his aircraft crashed, killing all on board. There was immediate talk of a conspiracy engineered by Britain but no conclusive evidence; new findings indicating the craft was shot down has led the UN to reopen the investigation in 2015.


U Thant of Burma got the UN top job with American support that overrode imperial Europe’s dislike of his role in the UN Committee on Decolonization and a Soviet bid to replace a single Secretary-General with an ideological “Troika.” However, when the Secretary-General began speaking out on the escalating Viet Nam War, the Johnson administration came down on him like a ton of bricks. The Secretary-General declined a second term and accepted it only after a written assurance from the United States that he could speak his mind. The freedom to do so was curtailed by mouth cancer that was diagnosed during Thant’s second term.


The Big Powers ensured that the next incumbent would be incapable of causing any trouble by selecting Kurt Waldheim of Austria, a Nazi SS officer accused of war crimes during World War II. Only an overt conspiracy among the major Cold War intelligence agencies can have allowed him to lie about that record, and they exacted a heavy institutional price from the UN. Under Waldheim spies and informers proliferated throughout the Secretariat and its appointments and promotions bodies became increasingly incapable of enforcing the “highest standard of integrity” ideal set by the Staff Rules. Waldheim would have got an unprecedented third term if Beijing, newly on the Security Council, had not vetoed him.


Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru is perhaps the most successful Secretary-General to date because he had the integrity and diplomatic skill to take advantage of the winding down of the Cold War to negotiate and oversee the end of long-running proxy conflicts in Namibia, Cambodia and Central America. He did little on crises where the UN had little purchase (Middle East, African resource wars and the Balkans). Despite his success the organization came close to bankruptcy as the Reagan administration pushing for “reforms” withheld ever larger chunks of its mandatory contributions to the organization’s budget.


Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt had a disastrous one-term stint as Secretary-General marked by messy UN involvements in the Rwanda, Iraq and the Balkans. He was followed by UN insider Kofi Annan who parlayed his role as head of peacekeeping operations into the top job. His most significant success was getting the United States to return to full funding of the UN budget. However, relations with Washington suffered after the 2003 suicide bombing of the UN office in Baghdad. Things became irreparable after Annan told the BBC in 2004 that the American-led war on Iraq was “illegal” under the UN Charter.


Ban ki-moon of South Korea, the incumbent Secretary-General, is generally regarded in UN circles as a bit of a buffoon, an impression reinforced by his irrepressibly corny sense of humour. (At his first meeting with the UN Press corps he sang “Ban ki-moon is coming to town” to the tune of the Santa Claus ditty.) According to John Bolton, the temporary American Ambassador at the UN when the Security Council picked Ban, his best quality was low wattage.


Mouat’s book rakes up little of this muck, for it is very much in the American liberal mainstream that sees support of the UN as a moral duty.


I do too, but my loyalty is to the ideal of peace for which the UN stands; to go beyond that and turn a blind eye to what has been happening to the organization does it no service, especially when the fading elites of the old world order are maneuvering desperately to turn the clock back to their imperial heyday.


Bhaskar Menon is a senior journalist; he blogs at and

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