Secretary or General?:  The UN Secretary-General in World Politics
Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics

Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics

Feb 12, 2007

Known as the most impossible job on earth, the tensions between the roles of being Secretary or General have confronted every UN Secretary-General. What will be Ban Ki-moon's strategy be?


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us this afternoon.
Today our discussion is on this book, Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics. Simon Chesterman is the editor of this volume and James Traub is one of the contributors.

On the stage of life, there are many roles that one may play, but on the world stage—that is, the UN—there is only one leading role, and it is the performance of the Secretary-General that matters most. Just how he interprets his role is a matter of discretion, and is the subject of this afternoon's discussion.

On stage, actors can identify with two starkly different approaches to their craft: either working from the outside to find a voice for their character; or preferring to work from the inside out, to locate the emotional core of the person they are playing.

At the UN, the Secretary-General has more options. Although he can work from within and act as the chief administrative officer of the organization, as described in Article 97 of the Charter, he can also look outside the organization and draw on Article 99, which empowers him to bring to the attention of the Security Council "any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." This latter section gives the Secretary-General a certain amount of political responsibility, which, depending on how he interprets this provision, can make him more than just an administrator.

Still, there is one more option, as highlighted by one of the contributors to this edited volume. Ian Johnstone writes that "the Secretary-General might be at his best and most effective when he uses the UN to crystallize emerging understandings among states and non-state actors, rather than striking out in entirely new directions."

Even though the Charter as drafted gave a dual role to the office of the Secretary-General, it is still up to the person holding his title to interpret whether he will act solely as a chief administrator, chief diplomat, or even as a world spokesman in the general interest of humanity.

On January 1, the UN shifted into a period of new leadership, as it welcomed Ban Ki-moon as its eighth Secretary-General. The role that this new Secretary-General will play has not been determined, and his performance will not be reviewed for some time.

This is a critical time for the organization and the world. The demands presented by intense globalization and the North/South divide, along with the continuous war on terror, are enormous. Inasmuch as there is no time for a dress rehearsal, nor a script to review and rehearse, I am confident that this edited volume, which talks about the challenges and difficulties experienced by each Secretary-General, will serve as an indispensable tool in assisting this new world leader as he performs one of the most impossible jobs in the world.

Simon Chesterman is the editor of this wonderful volume, which brings together the insights of senior UN staff, diplomats, and scholars to examine the factors shaping this unique office.
While he may be a first-timer presenting to the Carnegie Council, he is well-known around town for his erudition about international organizations, especially the UN.

And in this instance I am delighted to welcome back Jim Traub, a recidivist, who, having recently discussed his wonderful book on Kofi Annan at the Carnegie Council, now has quite a following.

Please join me in welcoming Simon and Jim. Thank you for joining us.


SIMON CHESTERMAN: Thank you very much. Thank you, Joanne. It's my first time presenting in this particular forum, but certainly not my first time at the Carnegie Council, an organization that provides an essential service to the broader UN, and in particular the New York community, in discussing issues of ethics and international affairs. In particular, my own interest in Just War theory has been greatly enhanced by a number of meetings here.

These outreach meetings, the work of Joanne, are also particularly important for people who don't have time to read books, although we nonetheless hope you will buy the book, even if not read it, and put it celebratingly on your shelf.

This is the start of the seventh week of Ban Ki-moon's term as Secretary-General, and it is almost exactly a decade ago that Sergey Lavrov, then the Russian Ambassador, now Foreign Minister, accosted Kofi Annan and said that Kofi Annan hadn't gotten very far with his reform agenda in six weeks; since it only took God six days to create the earth, what was Kofi Annan up to? Now, Kofi Annan, known to and loved by many in the room, was known for many things, but not one of them was a quick wit. Nonetheless, on this occasion he managed to come up with, for Kofi, a very impressive response, which was that "the Almighty had the great advantage of working alone, without committees and 192 Member States."

We are, I think, in the middle of what is in many ways a typical trajectory for the career of a Secretary-General at this very early stage. Going back through the appointment process, it is quite standard that you have this very underwhelming campaign, where ultimately—it's not really that anyone wins—someone fails to lose, and is then appointed. There's a process of rationalization as we think, "Well, it could have been worse"; and then, in the lead-up to the person taking office, there is this period of irrational exuberance, as we think, "Well, maybe this is the savior of the organization. Maybe everything will be turned around." Then, in the opening weeks, we are mugged by reality and things come crashing down.

Right now, we are at the point where we think—a number of people at least are saying—that maybe this is a terrible mistake, maybe the UN is in for an awful period. Now, obviously, it is way too early to make such determinations.

One of the things that I hope the book does is put the position of Secretary-General in context. We focus very explicitly on the political context within which the Secretary-General operates. The book is not playing the role fulfilled admirably by books like Jim's, assessing Kofi Annan's term and, in particular, trying to understand the nature of the individual and his relationship with the United States and the evolution of the UN in a very interesting period. What we've tried to do in this book is pull together a bunch of experts to look at the past six decades, so that the book, hopefully, will inform the way people think, not about the first six weeks of Ban Ki-moon's term, but the first six years, and indeed the full ten years if he stays on for two terms.

The Secretary-General is a unique figure in world politics. He is, at once, civil servant and a world diplomat. He is, on the one hand, the lackey of the UN Security Council and commander in chief—at least in theory, certainly not in practice—of up to 100,000 peacekeepers. He or she depends on states for both the legitimacy and the resources that enable the UN to function.

The tension between these roles—as the title says, the cliché of being secretary or general—has challenged every incumbent. The first, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, memorably welcomed his successor [Dag Hammarskjöld] at New York's airport back in 1952 with the words, "You are about to enter the most impossible job on this earth."

Now, through much of 2006, one of the most important topics on the agenda of the UN was picking the eighth Secretary-General. So what we at New York University tried to do was start a process of pushing the debate away from who it would be onto what the job should be. There were a number of other people who were trying to do the same thing. But, much like the UN Security Council, there's a great deal of excitement in talking about who sits at the table, because that's far easier to have a cocktail party conversation about, than actually working out what happens at the table.

Nonetheless, we tried, and I don't think we were particularly successful. Others tried, notably the Canadians with their non-paper, and a few others were trying to push things along. But ultimately the practice played out as it usually did.

Because I don't work for a government and don't work for the UN, I can say things like this. Basically what happened is, as usual, it was dominated by the P5 [Permanent 5 members], each of which holds a veto on the selection. In caricature, China wanted an Asian; Russia did not want an Eastern European; the United States wanted a reformer, but would only tell select people what they meant by a reformer; Britain wanted everyone to play nicely; and France wanted someone who could speak cocktail party French. So you end up with the question of what the Secretary-General's job should be being lost in the process.

As I've said, this tension within the job description can be summarized in the "Secretary or General?" title, but there are two other contradictions even within these distinct roles. On the one hand, the position is not really given authority either to be secretary or general. In turn—this is hardly surprising—the process of appointment is geared not towards selecting anyone competent in either area, but rather towards a political compromise.

So these three sets of contradictions in the nature of the role, the resources available to carry out its stated functions, and the manner of appointing a person to fill that role suggests the constraints of the office, but, as I hope to point out, may also point to some of its most important possibilities. I'm going to say just a few things about each of these contradictions.

The first, the tension within the formal responsibilities, has been brought out in Joanne's introduction. On the one hand, it's the chief administrative officer; on the other hand, this person is given the, in theory, extraordinary power in Article 99 of bringing to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten international peace and security, a potentially extraordinary power that Kofi Annan used on no occasion. He never formally invoked it. The theoretical possibility of its invocation is important, but he never actually saw fit to do so. Maybe we could talk about why that was the case.

The manner in which these, on the one hand, potentially large but ultimately vague responsibilities have been fulfilled over the past six decades has in the end depended as much on politics as it has on personality.

The Cold War severely constrained the ability of the UN to play a significant role in major issues of peace and security, yet created an opportunity for little-known Swedish Cabinet Minister Dag Hammarskjöld to carve out an independent space within which the S-G could conduct what he called "informal diplomatic activity."

The end of superpower rivalry created larger possibilities for the UN, but mismanaged expectations and Boutros-Ghali's abrasive manner led to a crisis of confidence in the organization's political role. It is common in these situations to blame Boutros-Ghali for a lot of things, but I think one thing on which he was exactly right is that a crisis for the UN in the early 1990s was in managing expectations, trying to avoid the assumption that the UN could be the solution to all the world's problems.

Boutros-Ghali's successor, Kofi Annan, was widely respected for his diplomatic skills, but tensions with the United States over the 2003 invasion of Iraq coincided with revelations of corruption and mismanagement in the UN Oil-for-Food Programme, severely undermining his own efforts at reform and, perhaps at least in the short term, his legacy, although later his legacy might be a bit better than some initial assessments.

The limits of the activism of a Secretary-General depend crucially then on relationships with the Member States, but also on personality. Many of us are in the process of trying to get to know Ban Ki-moon and work out what kind of Secretary-General he will be, and how he manages the personal relationships with the Member States is going to be key. One possibility of some of the difficulties in many ways of what he's confronting at the moment is that the absence of a leading American ambassador has created somewhat of a political vacuum. So, until Zalmay Khalilzad comes and reasserts the relationship between New York and Washington, I think things are going to remain a little bit in limbo, and then we'll see how Zalmay himself performs.

So what lessons could you take out of the ambiguities of the office? The two that I will pick in many ways are kind of obvious ones.

The first is that the Secretary-General needs to pick his battles, to focus on situations where the UN can make a difference. Successes up until now in this aspect of the role have generally coincided with unusually unified international community support—for example, in the early stage of the administration of East Timor; or things like supervising Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. And also, in situations where there has been minimal international interest, the "orphaned conflicts," where the UN can frequently play a very important role because it doesn't tread on anyone else's toes—such as peacemaking between Nigeria and Cameroon, or between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea—and the fact that these are not high-profile cases one reads about in the media is precisely why the S-G can play an important role.

Problems arise when the Secretary-General and his agents are thrust into highly politicized disputes, such as the Middle East peace process or Iraq, and the organization itself becomes a proxy battleground for the conflict.

So that's the first lesson: pick your battles.

The second is on the secretary side of things, to delegate effectively. Now we are in the process of a second experiment with having a Deputy Secretary-General, and it is also far from clear at the moment how successful that will be. But effective delegation may remove some of the strains of the office, perhaps enabling a deputy to take seriously the human resources component of the job, recruit high-quality senior staff, manage them effectively, and fire them when they don't perform. This, however, is unlikely to change the ambivalence of Member States on the question of whether the Secretary-General should be able to give orders as well as take them.

So that's just a sketch of some of the first set of contradictions within the office between secretary and general.

A second is that within either role there is a disjunction between the tasks assigned to the Secretary-General and the resources placed at his disposal by the political organs and Member States.

The Secretary-General is routinely given operational responsibilities without the means to carry them out effectively or successfully, with the Council and the Assembly making available political, fiscal, and military capacities entirely insufficient to accomplish objectives that may themselves be vaguely defined.

It is now approaching seven years since the Brahimi Report was penned, but salutary lessons from that report remain. Self-evident things, like the fact that the Secretariat, and in particular the Secretary-General, need to tell the Member States and the Security Council what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear; and that in extreme situations the Secretary-General should be in a position where he can say no to a completely unrealistic mandate.

Within this extraordinary power of Article 99 that Joanne first quoted—the ability to bring matters to the attention of the Security Council which "in his opinion may threaten international peace and security"—you would think that that opinion should be an informed one. And yet, through the history of the UN, there has been great resistance to giving the Secretary-General any kind of analytical capacity that would enable him to carry out that function effectively.

The simplest example of this is the fact that within the Department of Political Affairs' Asia and Pacific Division, the total number of professional staff who advise the Secretary-General on conflicts from the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, North Korea, Nepal—the total number of professional staff advising on all of these conflicts is fourteen, of whom I think one person speaks Arabic and none speak Farsi, Korean, or other relevant languages. It is an open question whether the fact that the Secretary-General speaks Korean is actually going to help or hinder the UN's ability to do things in North Korea.

So what lessons could we learn from here, from this disjunction between the responsibilities and the resources?

Well, the first has already been told to us by the Brahimi Report—not in such blunt words as Tom Franck and I argue in the volume—that the Secretary-General needs to say no. This is the simple word that will give a Secretary-General at least the possibility of exercising what limited political leverage he has, because in that sense the leverage that, indeed, the UN has is greatest precisely before the UN commits itself to a course of action. So it is at moments such as the negotiation of the role for the UN in Iraq under Kofi Annan's term, or the number of peacekeepers assigned to a particular operation, where the responsibilities are that the Secretary-General can play a backroom leadership role in making sure that the UN is not being set up as a fall guy to take responsibility for failures of what are in essence the failures of Member States.

This demands also a tradeoff, however, between what one might think of as the high-level political role and the administrative independence. One idea, just to throw it out for discussion, is that you could at least imagine Ban Ki-moon deciding—and it's not too late to make this sort of decision—that he would eschew the grand political role that Kofi Annan played—not all aspects of the political role, but tell the United States, for example, that this is not going to be the type of Secretary-General who will say that the war in Iraq was illegal, or who will take the lead on the reform process, because that's the role of Member States. But you eschew that political role in order to receive greater administrative independence and the ability to say, "Yes, disarmament is important, but that doesn't mean that the Department of Disarmament Affairs should remain as a department, because the UN simply doesn't play a lead role in issues of disarmament, and so it's appropriate to move that around." Or, even more extreme and something I expect Ban Ki-moon would never say, that the Department of Economic and Social Affairs doesn't play a meaningful role in the current international order and should be reallocated accordingly, that other organizations play a lead role. Neither of these statements would be to suggest that disarmament or economic and social affairs are not important to the mission of the UN, but that the mission of the UN should be determined by what in part it can do rather than what administrative structures existed before the S-G took office.

The third contradiction is between the process of appointment and what type of person one might actually want to be appointed. I'll be very brief on this, although Colin Keating's chapter in the book is an important one that we hope will inform debate in five or ten years, whenever this becomes an issue again, certainly that we'll have a lot more notice than the nine-to-ten months this year, as this became an issue.

In essence, it's a political process, rather than a professional process, but it's one that is geared towards choosing the weakest, rather than the strongest, candidate. This is not to disparage any of the eight individuals who have held the office of Secretary-General, but I think anyone who has studied it closely would agree that those who have stood tallest in the role have tended to be those who most exceeded expectations. Dag Hammarskjöld, frequently cited as one of the greatest, was, as I said before, a little-known Swedish Cabinet Minister who was certainly not intended to play the role on the world stage that he played. And it's worth remembering that Kofi Annan was picked, in part, because the United States wanted him as an "American man" in some ways—and it's obviously not what they ended up getting. So those who are judging Ban Ki-moon at this point, perhaps it's a little bit early to make such conclusive determinations about the next decade.

So what can a Secretary-General do, given all these contradictions, from what Shashi Tharoor in his chapter in the volume very memorably terms "the platform and the straitjacket of the office?" I'll leave it to you to define what one might see in the fact that Shashi was actually petitioning to occupy that straitjacket at one point.

The first thing I would say is that it's a unique platform, and that's kind of obvious. Kofi Annan's legacy, I think, is not going to be Oil-for-Food, or indeed even the failure to intervene in Darfur or the Iraq war. I suspect a decade from now we will think back on this period as the period of responsibility to protect and, hopefully, the Millennium Development Goals.

So this unique platform provides an opportunity to push an agenda that no one state can push, although the politics of that need to be managed carefully.

One possibility for Ban Ki-moon is something he raised with George Bush: climate change. Exactly what role the UN should play I think needs to be worked out very carefully, but that would seem to be a quintessential opportunity for the UN to transcend the national interest.

The second conclusion I would draw is that, even if you can't force Member States to do the right thing, even if you can't force them to say yes, whether in Darfur or actually meeting the Millennium Development Goals, you yourself in the capacity of the Secretary-General have the ability to say no when presented with unrealistic political objectives or inadequate material support for a mandate, and to avoid giving the UN's legitimacy to something that will actually undermine the authority of the UN in the future.

Dag Hammarskjöld's defiance of the Soviets may be an example of such a stand historically. The end of Boutros-Ghali's first term and Kofi Annan's second perhaps may be an example of its price.

The UN, as Hammarskjöld famously once said, was created not to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. The Secretary-General, although appointed by 192 governments, has no democratic mandate and cannot take decisions for the almost 7 billion people now embraced by the phrase "We the people of the United Nations." The office is, nevertheless, a unique position from which to promote issues that transcend the national interest, to mobilize opinions and resources for crises triggering insufficient political will. And even if he—or eventually she—cannot force the right decisions when confronted by opposing governments, it's the job of the Secretary-General to make it harder for an international community to make manifestly wrong decisions or to take no decision at all.

With that, I'm looking forward to Jim Traub. Those of you who are organizing meetings like this, I highly recommend you include someone as a critical discussant who's got a chapter in the book and a vested interest in it doing well, although not as well as his own book of course.

JAMES TRAUB: Yes. I have maybe one-twentieth of an interest in this book doing well as I do in my own.

Thank you, Simon. Simon had asked me to, in effect, do the opposite of what the two of us did at an earlier event when it was my book in question, which is to give a critique of what he had said. It was easy in my case, because not only Simon but the other discussant thought what I had said was so incredibly stupid that I gave them an enormous amount of material, and by the end I too thought what I had said was fairly stupid.

Simon hasn't given me anything like that kind of opening. I mean I really have nothing to disagree with from what he said. So rather than do that, I just wanted to step back a little bit and talk about what maybe unifies all these issues, and then just mention a few areas that I think are worthy of pushing a little harder on and asking questions about.

The thing that struck me in all of these three different contradictions that Simon was talking about is that they all spring from the fact that while most of us here will probably have a rather activist view of what it is the UN should be, what it should strive to be—in the words of a book about the UN "to deliver us from evil," this sense that that's what it's there for—the reason for these underlying contradictions that beset the office of Secretary-General is that that's not what the members want it to be. We are always brought back to the fact that, when push comes to shove, when it comes to a really supreme moment of decision, the UN almost always gets the short end of the stick. That's not because, let's say, everyone agrees that they don't want their freedom of action to be limited by the UN. It's simply that what they want out of the institution is so mutually contradictory that it tends to be pushed into a kind of lowest common denominator status.

Clearly, the United States, as the world's supreme power, does not want to have its own freedom of action limited. I think the same could easily be said of Russia. The same probably could not be said of Britain and France. The Europeans are part of the core of good citizens, of which there are—I don't know how many; forty or fifty or something—maybe there are, say, a quarter or so of the members of the institution—who would share what might be the kind of rough average consensus of view that we would have here in this room. Then, you have an enormous number of developing countries who want the UN to do their particular thing, which has mostly to do with social and economic development, but are profoundly suspicious of the political agenda that a Secretary-General might choose to have, and above all that the five members of the Security Council have, and above all that the United States has in their view.

So the Secretary-General, I think, is a victim of this kind of lowest-common-denominator dynamic. When, for example, Ban says that he wants to bring harmony into the organization, I assume he means it, but it can't help but sound naïve, because what he's saying in effect is, "I want to find the place where all 192 members can more or less sufficiently agree that we can then move forward." Well, Kofi Annan spent ten years trying to locate that place, and it turned out to be really, really tiny.

So I think one question that we're constantly facing, and that is common to all three of the issues that Simon talked about, is: To what extent can a Secretary-General push against this fundamental fact, and to what extent is it even a good idea to push against this fundamental fact?

Thus, for example, Simon pointed out that Kofi Annan never invoked Article 99—which is true, though I'm not sure if that's so germane. He essentially sent himself on a couple of missions. That certainly would be a supreme embodiment of what Article 99 is about.

When he went to Iraq in 1998 to try to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors back in, he did it with the approval of the Security Council, but this clearly was an active initiative on his part when the institution was blocked. At the end of his reign, when he went to the Middle East in order to try to find a way of settling the war in Lebanon on terms acceptable to all, that again was certainly what Article 99 had in mind.

But the question that's raised by each of these jaunts is: Are they expressions of futility? That is, how often do they work?

Certainly, if you go back over time and look at U Thant's attempt to insert himself into the dispute over the Vietnam War, and Pérez de Cuéllar's attempt to settle the Iran-Iraq war, one tends to find that the more impressive, adventurous, dramatic undertakings that the Secretary-General has made tend to fail.

As Simon said, they succeed in these very second-order ones, and that's absolutely true. But that then entails a recognition—Nigeria and Cameroon, yes; Middle East, probably not—and that's obviously a really disappointing outcome if you care about the institution.

And so, to what extent is that changeable? To what extent does a Secretary-General have the power or should he harbor the ambition to try to change that? That, I think, runs through all of our discussions about this.

Then, there are some kind of democratic questions which Simon raised. For example, the selection process: there was a lot of hooha about being more open and transparent and democratic and so forth in choosing a Secretary-General this time, and it did mean that they came to fora like this one and did their little song and dance. But the truth was, as Simon said, it was pretty much the same closed decision process as always.

Well, is that bad? That is to say—of course it's bad, it's undemocratic—but what I mean is if we had had a more democratic process, would we have been likelier to have a better outcome?

If, for example, we agree—and I certainly agree with Simon—that it's a lowest-common-denominator process where you only get an effective person by accident, would we be likelier to have an effective person if the process were not simply dominated by these five characters but in fact were much more open to the membership generally? I'm very skeptical of that.

A few other things:

This whole question of saying no; I think this is absolutely right. It's also telling, that when we think about the kind of power a Secretary-General has which has not been exercised enough, it's the power to not act—again, not of encouraging recognition; that a Secretary-General has to be more ambitious about exercising his power to not act. I think that's true, though (a) I see it in these somewhat discouraging terms; but (b) it's fascinating to play out in your mind what would happen if a Secretary-General said no in circumstances where probably he should.

Simon rightly raised the most kind of piercing example of this, which is in April and May of 2003—or May of 2003 really—after President Bush declared mission accomplished and Iraq was supposedly at peace, and then the question was: "Well, okay. Is the UN going to go back in?" The UN went back in forthwith because the members said, "We want the UN to go back in."

Now, the institution was violently opposed to doing so, because there was tremendous embitterment at the United States; there was the feeling that they were being press-ganged into this; it wasn't clear what they would do. The resolution that authorized them to go back in essentially said "they may do this," "they can do this," "they can help with this," but it didn't really give them any clear authority. That was a case where a Secretary-General would have been well-justified in saying no, and I know many people in the institution who wish he had.

Well, Kofi Annan took the point of view: "First, I can't say no if the members tell me to go because I'm a lackey of the members"—though he wouldn't use that word. And second, from a strictly political point of view, what if he had said to the United States, "Sorry, you guys really acted badly and I don't think you have the right to tell us what to do when you've already screwed us until now, and we're not going?"

Well, obviously, if Kofi Annan had known that twenty-two members of the institution would be killed in a bomb blast several months later, he would have thought very differently about it. But, given where he stood then, ought he have said no? What would have happened if he had said no?

And of course, this goes again to the weakness of his position. So the question that raises is: If you don't so internalize your weakness and if you behave in a more forceful way, a more forceful but also a prudent way, does that mean that in fact you can expand the boundaries of that position; or would that simply bring home to you as it did to Boutros-Ghali when he quite forcefully told the West that Bosnia was a rich man's war and the UN didn't belong there, and he was swatted out of the way and it diminished his authority—would that, therefore, simply bring home to you the limits of your position? I don't know the answer to that.

In any case, that I think contains some questions, which I'd love to hear your answer to.

JOANNE MYERS: Why don't you respond?

Just maybe three things.

On this question of saying no, I think there is a difference between publicly saying no and privately saying no. The way I can imagine things working in the situation you're describing is, certainly, if the Security Council passes a resolution, the Member States give orders, the Secretary-General in the Charter does the bidding of the members. But it's in the lead-up to that, it's as those negotiations are happening.

One example of the Secretary-General getting involved in such a way is in the efforts to extend the immunity of the United States and others from the International Criminal Court, which in 2004 coincided with the revelation of Abu Ghraib. The Secretary-General came out and, not in a very controversial statement, said something to the effect that "this is not the time for the United States to be seeking special treatment." Essentially, that stiffened the spine of a whole bunch of Member States and the issue dropped from the agenda. It hasn't cost the United States, I don't think, in the medium term.

But on the specific case of Iraq, there was a different way the Secretary-General could have said no—and, indeed, was being advised to say no—which was on the grounds of security concerns. This is now all public, but there were internal recommendations that the UN should have evacuated, and the fact that that didn't happen was precisely for political reasons—it wasn't a requirement that he not say no, but it was a political decision. I am sympathetic to that decision, that the Iraqi people were better off with the UN helping than without them.

Sergio [Vieira de Mello] was a dear friend to many people in the UN, and I think to many people in this room. But did he achieve anything in Iraq? Yes. I think the Iraqi governing council and the structure of that and some of the things that worked briefly in 2003 were Sergio's doing. Is it worth his life and the life of the others? No. That's a much more difficult calculus to answer.

So that's what I mean by saying no.

On the question of a harmonizing role—I'm based in Singapore and running a program for New York University in Singapore, and now there is a lot of discussion, not much within Asia but elsewhere, about whether the fact that it's an Asian Secretary-General means anything. I think the fact that he is Korean is relevant, but the fact that he's Asian is not particularly so.

It is, however, coincidental that he talks in the language of harmonization, and the main reference there appears to be to U Thant, who also talked about the harmonizing role of the Secretary-General.

Certainly, it's a different decision-making process, and it's interesting talking with people, but also reading the popular press, as journalists clearly are trying to work out how to deal with this character. I think people sometimes like using the word "inscrutable" for clichéd reasons. But it is a different decision-making process, and I think in some ways that's entirely appropriate, and something that, if anything, Kofi Annan had a world of respect for. However, if anything characterized the reform process, it was a failure to harmonize, a failure to divine the political will of Member States and an effort to impose a compromise from above—but then he realized that there is no "above." So that's probably an appropriate move on Ban Ki-moon's part.

Then finally, on the appointment process, I won't go into the details of some of the proposals that are fleshed out in the book, which include things looking more like a confirmation process or a professional process.

But in the course of doing this work, I finally came to the conclusion that it is, as you said, impossible to appoint a good Secretary-General or a great Secretary-General. But it is possible to make one. Indeed maybe—you don't necessarily have to answer it right now—as we collect some questions, one of the interesting things that comes out in Jim's own book is the extent to which Kofi Annan wasn't appointed as a great Secretary-General but became certainly a good one, and maybe in retrospect we'll think a great one. The office itself transformed the individual. And so, seven weeks into his office, I think it's way too early to determine how Ban is going to be operating some years from now.

But I'm much more interested in having a conversation with the rest of you than just with myself.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I was interested that Joanne and then you, Mr. Chesterman, mentioned the conversation that the new Secretary-General has had with George Bush about climate change, because there is a UN model that has been very successful, and that's the Law of the Sea Conference. In spite of the fact that the United States hasn't ratified the Conference, the rest of the world really has, or at least the rest of the world that counts in anything to do with the oceans or climate change. Is that model of the UN convening power for an international conference which then deals with these issues a model that might be useful?

Yes, in essence. However, it's easy for someone like me to say that the UN could play a leading role in climate change, but it needs to do so very carefully. By the way, I haven't taken permanent residence in Singapore, I'm not a Singaporean citizen, but nonetheless I do take some pride in the fact that Tommy Koh, a Singaporean, played a major role in shipping things through.

The Law of the Sea example is a good one in terms of the UN being the forum for a major normative shift, but I don't think people give the UN credit. Actually, I don't even know who would have started it first; I don't think Kurt Waldheim took any credit for it, nor did Pérez de Cuéllar, although he might have; I don't recall.

But the question in terms of what role the UN could play on an issue like climate change—there's some discussion now that Ban Ki-moon should convene a summit, which could be useful—or it could be counterproductive if certain Member States don't participate.

The key dilemma or the key issue should be whether the UN is actually going to add something. At the moment, I think there is the possibility that it could, if it can move away from the Kyoto divisions and, in particular, start a conversation with the United States involved. The danger, of course, is precisely the same as the appointment process, that it will drag everything down to the lowest common denominator.

So I think what needs to happen is probably Ban Ki-moon needs to have some very quiet conversations and use the convening power of the office to work out which way the political winds are blowing and which way they could be gently directed, without assuming that he is in a position to turn it around completely, which would lead to frustration and disappointment.

Let me also add one thing to that, which is that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC Report , which is the quadrennial report of climate scientists, and which just came out last week, is a UN report. It's a report by a UN-mandated body. Now, that is, in effect, a kind of norm-setting—that may be not quite the right word—certainly a standard-setting function. It's a critical function, because since the report comes from the UN and therefore comes from everybody, and because of the particular nature of the report, which is the whole world of climate scientists in effect— when that report came out and said what everybody in that world already knew to be true, it mattered enormously.

So when they said that it is extremely likely to the point where it's not worth disputing anymore, that the additional heating of the globe is being caused by human agency and not by natural variations, it settled the argument. In that sense, you could say the UN has already had an important role in doing that.

Now, the question Simon raised is: How much can they actually move it forward by having its much more formal political function of bringing everybody together and seeking consensus?

I'm skeptical because I think we are at a kind of supreme political moment, where my guess is that there has to be a certain kind of sequence of events. And the sequence probably has to start in the United States, because the fact that the United States is a conspicuous holdout from the Kyoto standards and refuses to make difficult decisions to limit its carbon emissions, gives license to the major developing countries, which also don't want to have to bite the bullet on this.

So my guess is that until the United States—and it's not going to be very much prodded to action, I'm guessing, by UN action, though perhaps there are things that could happen—until they act, there is not going to be sufficient impetus for China, India, Brazil, and others to act. That's the sequence, I think, that has to happen.

I was in Geneva at the end of last year when Kofi Annan gave a farewell talk to the staff of the Secretariat there. He reflected that he thought that the Trusteeship Council could come to an end and be replaced by a civil society forum. As someone who works on the civil society side of the United Nations, I'd be very interested in your comments on what emphasis you think the new Secretary-General should give to strengthening the relationship between the United Nations and civil society.

The United Nations is a club of states, and it is very difficult for the UN to break out of that framework. So what tends to happen now—and I know you've been at some of these meetings—is whenever there is a big meeting of states, there is a social forum or a civil society grouping that happens beforehand and an effort to try to inform that decision-making process.

I am not sure about replacing the last vestige of colonialism with civil society. It might be an interesting, ironic twist. I'd certainly favor abolishing the Trusteeship Council. The reason, of course, why the Trusteeship Council wasn't abolished after Palau became independent in 1994 was a mix of things. It's only half of one person's time to answer inquiries from academics like me who call up to find out what is going on. There's no business on its agenda. But every now and then someone suggests that maybe it could be a trustee of the environment or something. So I'd probably want to separate these things out.

Having some sort of more structured participation of civil society organizations I think makes a lot of sense—but not necessarily in a formal decision-making structure, because the one thing that defines nongovernmental organizations is they are not governmental organizations, that they don't have a formal responsibility to a set of actors. So they are useful and important in terms of getting voices that are not typically heard to be heard.

But there are always questions of legitimacy. Whatever one thinks of the UN, its legitimacy comes from being a club of states. So certainly, I think, having more structured participation would be useful.

I'm not sure, from what I've seen, that Ban Ki-moon is going to be the leader of a charge to bring civil society formally into the UN, but I am sure he'll be interested in hearing what they have to say.

JAMES TRAUB: I'd like to take the other half of that question, because I don't really have anything to say about the real question you wanted to know the answer to, but about the idea of eliminating the Trusteeship Council and so forth.

It would be a good thing if the UN could eliminate something. Its inability to eliminate anything is really a kind of perfect indictment of its administrative sclerosis.

The funniest one to me is that —and I mention this passingly in my book—as part of the reform process, Kofi Annan and his aides looked for something really vulnerable that nobody cared about that they could eliminate. The Trusteeship Council was one thought, but the fact that it was proposed to convert it into something else already shows you the difficulty of eliminating even something quite vestigial.

The most vestigial thing that they could find was the so-called Military Staff Committee, which consists of the military attaches of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, who at one time were supposed to be the UN's joint chiefs of staff, who would prosecute the wars that the UN fought in order to preserve world peace. Well, that ended basically with the Cold War. These guys basically convene, they say, "Is everybody here?" "Yes." "Okay, meeting adjourned," and they leave.

Every two weeks.

JAMES TRAUB:Every two weeks.

It doesn't even professedly perform a function.I was able to sit in on meetings on the thirty-eighth floor. I was at some meeting when this issue came up.

"Well, we can eliminate the Military Staff Committee, right?"

"Sir, I think not," said an aide.

"Well, why not?"

"Well, sir, the Russians don't want to eliminate it."

"Well, why not?"

"They think it works fine as it is."

Well, if you can't get rid of the Military Staff Committee and you can't get rid of the Trusteeship Council, it's possible you can't get rid of anything.

SIMON CHESTERMAN: Those of you who follow the UN closely will know that there is a P4 [Professional staff person grade 4, on an ascending scale of 1-5] and a General Service Staff full-time working on the Military Staff Committee, who I've interviewed.

But just as a counter to that, one example of something that was abolished, of course, was the Commission on Human Rights, to create the Human Rights Council.

Two reasons why that was possible. One was that it was just essentially a repackaging of one organization, the fifty-three-member Commission being radically reduced to the forty-seven-member Human Rights Council. But the other reason why that could happen was the opposition of the United States. And so if you really want to bring about reform in the UN, you need to get the United States opposed to it, and then something can go through.

With Bolton's replacement by Zalmay Khalilzad, do you see an evolution in the American attitude towards the organization, maybe out of frustration or fear that the Middle East is spinning out of control, Iraq, or anything else?

SIMON CHESTERMAN: Probably this goes to the subtext of at least what I heard in Jim's comment about climate change, that things need to change in the United States, that people are now waiting—and two years is a long time to wait for a change of administration—that things will then improve.

One of the things that Ed Luck in his chapter in the book is very clear on is the idea that Democrats love the UN is a questionable one. The United States has consistently had this tension between isolationism and engagement with the rest of the world. So I don't see the recent history of tension with the UN as being particularly unusual in all sorts of ways. I think it was exacerbated by the individual concerned, but at the same time I think in many ways it was useful to have someone here who had the ear of people within Washington—not necessarily the correct ears—and we can talk about style.

But will Zalmay Khalilzad make a difference? I suspect he will—not that he will be a convert in advocating that Washington sign up to the International Criminal Court, for example. But you've got someone who is a Muslim, who has performed I think pretty well in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has really demonstrated a personal capacity to handle a very delicate political situation with some ability it seems. I think that's going to be enormously helpful in representing the United States within the UN.

And that's obviously important to the UN. The UN needs the United States to work. That relationship, however, needs to be managed very carefully. One of the perils of the relationship is epitomized by the fact that Kofi Annan was at the same time regarded in Washington as a thorn in the side of the United States and around the rest of the world as a pawn of the United States. So how Ban handles his relationship with George Bush and whoever becomes president in the future is going to be central, and the go-between in many ways will be the U.S. ambassador. I think the sooner we can get a U.S. ambassador confirmed, the better.

One of the main reasons why the reform process derailed in the way that it did was, in part, the fact that there was no American voice here. That's bad partly because America needs to be part of the conversation, but it was bad also because it's pretty clear that a number of states were happy to sit back and wait, knowing that the United States would come in and take out some of the ridiculous things that had wormed their way into the reform process.

Just a couple of things:

One is that actually the reform process was probably a rare example of an event that really could have been changed depending on the personality of who the American ambassador was. Normally, I deprecate that idea. I think one makes too much of who the ambassador is.

That was a case where, because it was purely institutional business, the ambassador had a lot more latitude than he normally does. A kind of average ex-professional diplomat, or at least such an ex with some kind of political influence in Washington, actually arguably could have made things much better than having Bolton.

I think the issue behind that, though, is: Is the appointment of a somewhat more diplomatic diplomat a sign that Washington is more interested in diplomacy? My guess is probably not. These things tend to be influenced by a million different considerations and are kind of a poor ideological weather vane.

But I think what is true is—here maybe Simon and I would disagree—that first term, by the standards of America's highly volatile relationship with the UN, was so extreme that it takes nothing more than a kind of "tick back" to just kind of the usual tension to actually produce a positive difference.

And so, clearly, Bush's second term has been less violently exacerbating or frictional, whatever the word is, than the first term was. The sign of that so far is the way in which Iran diplomacy has been conducted, though my guess is that that also could turn out to be the next Waterloo, because if this Administration decides that Iran's behavior is intolerable, then suddenly its patient diplomacy through the Security Council is going to come to an end and it is going to do something which will outrage the whole world all over again.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you think possibly that Ban's appointment of an American for Under-Secretary for Political Affairs is in some way to placate the Americans?

JAMES TRAUB: Yes. It's quite remarkable. I think that's an astonishing thing to do, although I have to say I know nothing whatsoever about this individual. But to appoint an American, I think, as the first ever head of political affairs, and given the way the world feels about the way America conducts its political affairs, is really remarkable, although I can't say I know what his thinking behind that is.

Do you know anything more about this?

I suspect there are people in the room who know far more than me. I probably ought to be a bit careful about this, but the impression I get is that there were—I don't think it's a matter of placating the Americans. I think there's at least an element of doing what he was invited to do.

It's still a remarkably overt way of doing what he was invited to do.

QUESTION: Professor Chesterman, you have written about intelligence in Shared Secrets and a few years ago, Walter Dorn, in International Journal of Intelligence, wrote about the unwillingness and the inability of the United Nations to deal with intelligence accurately and adequately.

What have you found in dealing with the UN and in looking at it on how it really either does not, or is unwilling to use intelligence?

SIMON CHESTERMAN: Thank you. That's a fascinating question from an entirely different part of my area of interest. I've got a piece, which I'll share with you later on, that transformed usage of intelligence in the post-Cold War era, a piece I wrote about, if only to use the title, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold War." But it's a fascinating issue.

The United Nations has long rejected the idea that it uses intelligence. Nonetheless, peacekeeping operations, having a Department of Political Affairs, means you are handling material that would otherwise be called intelligence, but in the UN peacekeeping is referred to as "military information" or just "analysis." So there's a lot of intelligence there.

I highlighted the minimal analytical support the Secretary-General has in the Asian-Pacific Division of DPA; but efforts, such as the Brahimi Report's recommendation to set up an information and strategic analysis secretariat, were rejected also.

Nonetheless, intelligence is more and more frequently used in the UN, whether it's Colin Powell briefing the Security Council on the reasons why the United States must invade Iraq, or early warning about exactly what is happening on the ground in Darfur, or evidence being let in international criminal tribunals, or the maintenance of targeted financial sanctions lists and the basis on which individuals are listed or delisted.

So I think there is a recognition that intelligence plays an important role, but there is great resistance to using the term. Perhaps the clearest evidence that this is changing is precisely in the creation of a focal point within the targeted financial sanctions, to at least try and deal with queries and resolve, or at least defuse, some of the tension created by the freezing of assets of individuals with no recourse to challenge them, even though it's a completely inadequate practice that they have established to deal with that.

That's a very interesting and important question.

JAMES TRAUB: Just a minor footnote to that. There is a separate issue of intelligence that comes from one Member State. That particularly raises hackles, meaning, for example, American surveillance photos, things like that.

The place where this has come up is in the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, where when North Korea was found to be cheating on its non-proliferation responsibilities, the United States had all these surveillance photos that proved—it's complicated, but it basically proved that they have planted a whole bunch of trees to hide a huge nuclear processing plant. The members violently resisted the idea that they should all be gathered in one place to look at American surveillance photographs—that was completely inappropriate—even though it presented absolute proof that the North Koreans were cheating. Finally, they overcame their resistance and they brought them all into a room, and they listened, and a collective gasp went up when they saw these pictures. From that moment the crisis began to unroll. That was late 1993 or early 1994 or so.

QUESTION: I believe I heard you both agree that the Secretary-General needs to pick his battles. Can you name four or five key areas of interest where he should be donning his general's hat?

JAMES TRAUB: You go first, Simon.


The sort of thing we talk about in the book: such as climate change, pharmaceutical use in the developing world, issues like that; the Millennium Development Goals are, I think, a good example historically. But otherwise, in terms of the general's hat, as it were, where the Secretary-General can play a lead role is going to be the orphaned conflicts of the world. Maybe Darfur is a good example.

There is the possibility of—I can't see this actually working, but it would be worth trying—talking to the Chinese and explaining. China plays an increasingly important role in the UN. Of the P5, it has the largest peacekeeping contingent, which is extraordinary, more than any other P5. But if it is going to play this lead role, then it needs to realize that it can use that role constructively and gently try and push things. Is the Secretary-General going to be able to turn China around from policy A to policy B? No. But he might be in a position to help persuade them that it is in their own interests to pursue a slightly different policy with respect to Khartoum.

As for the specific conflicts where the Secretary-General will play a role—much of Kofi Annan's time, as I understand it, was spent on the telephone with various leaders, in particular in African countries, because Africa is the only continent where conflict has not been diminishing over the last few decades, talking to them, getting them to talk to one another. That's where the Secretary-General can play a major role.

As we've said, there are the Nigeria-Cameroon type disputes of this world, which will not be on the front page of The New York Times, but that's precisely why the Secretary-General can play such an important role in conflicts that are enormously important to the people concerned. The fact that they're not important to Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and so on is the reason why there is that space for him to play that role.

JAMES TRAUB: Well, since Simon talked about picking your spots as general, I want to talk about the spots he can pick as secretary, because that matters also.

My prediction—and I'm sure you will all have a chance to find out how wrong it is sometime soon—but my prediction is that, for all the talk about harmony, this Secretary-General will actually prove to be a less emollient figure and more astringent figure, and one who operates much more against the grain or the culture of the institution than Kofi Annan did.

I think that he is going to seek to make his mark in an institutional way—that is, in terms of the culture of the institution—whereas Kofi Annan made his mark in terms, for example, of setting the kinds of norms that Simon talked about. Now, I personally think that the norm-setting thing in the end is going to make the world a better place more than making the UN's own internal culture more effective, and I think it is probably even harder to make the UN's internal culture more effective, but my impression from what Ban has done so far is that that's what he wants to do.

So if that's what he wants to do, it will be very interesting to see if he can push real change through the Secretariat in the areas where he has control, in terms of the way decisions are made, in terms of—actually, it's not totally within his own power to change—as Simon mentioned, he wants to eliminate the Disarmament Agency because it doesn't do anything, and he wants to have two Under Secretaries-General for the Peacekeeping Department. The details don't matter—of course they do, but for my purpose they don't matter.

The fact is he wants to push internal change, whether because Koreans believe in efficient organizations—I don't know—that's the way he is; that's what he wants. If he can show that it is possible to actually move this quite paralytic-seeming institution, that's going to give him a lot more power to go to the members and say, "Good. Now you have to do what only you can do to make this institution better. You've got to give me more authority, though I want you to hold me more accountable. You've got to give me more authority over budget, over personnel, and so forth." That's going to be a really interesting dynamic to watch because that raises a very different set of hackles from the ones we've talked about otherwise. But the resistance is going to be very stiff.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, whether he wears the hat of a secretary or a general, I think hats off to both of you for presenting the Secretary-General in such an interesting way. Thank you, Simon.


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