The term of Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general expires at the end of next year. The campaign for pole position to succeed him has begun, if discreetly.
Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, famously said his was â€œthe most impossible job in the worldâ€. Required to be a politician, diplomat and international civil servant, he is the personification of the international interest and the voice of world conscience. He is elected to office as an individual, not as the representative of a government or a region, yet the regions demand â€œtheirâ€ turn in office. He must have the backing of all governments but owe allegiance to none. He can raise questions but not prescribe the answer, influence events but not control them.
The secretary-general must retain US confidence at a time when a rampant US does not find it easy to brook any opposition. But to be credible and respected in the rest of the world, the secretary-general must demonstrate independence of Washington, embraced but not suffocated by it.
On the one hand, the secretary-general’s authority is less than that of a cabinet minister. His role is to assist and facilitate the principal political organs in making informed and sound decisions, not to make decisions himself, to implement their decisions faithfully and report to them accordingly.
On the other hand, he has greater authority than the head of a national bureaucracy. He has no cabinet and minister as the final political and policy boss. He also has greater scope to expand power and influence through allocating resources among the departments and activities, appointing senior staff and inserting his own preferences and priorities when the Security Council and General Assembly are split.
He takes part in their debates and provides the logistical and intellectual basis for many of their decisions. He must retain the confidence of countries that constitute the voting majority in the General Assembly and those who control the Security Council. If the Security Council is united, he cannot be an alternative voice of dissent. If it is divided, he cannot be a substitute for inaction by a splintered council.
The most important political role of the secretary-general is to provide â€œsoftâ€ leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest.
Rumours of US backing for a candidate from â€œNew Europeâ€ have concentrated the minds of Asians who believe it is their turn for the next secretary-general. Asians must ensure they unite behind a competent candidate. Uniting behind a second- or third-best person simply for the sake of group relations would cost them their turn. Failure to unite behind a good candidate because partisan considerations trumped enlightened collective interest and vision would also cost them their turn.
So far, the French have made it known that they would veto any candidate for secretary-general who did not speak French. Whatever shall we do if Washington decides to veto anyone who speaks French?
Ramesh Thakur is senior vice rector of the UN University in Tokyo.