“The most impossible job on earth” was how the first United Nations secretary -general, Trygve Lie, described the post to his successor, Dag Hammarskjold, in 1953. Time has not made the job any easier.
The framers of the UN Charter gave the secretary-general two distinct functions: He or she is the “chief administrative officer of the Organization” and also an independent official whom the General Assembly and Security Council can entrust with certain unspecified (but implicitly political) tasks. Each holder of the office must demonstrate whether he or she is more “secretary” than “general.”
Paradoxes abound. The secretary-general is expected to enjoy the backing of governments, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, but also be above partiality to any of them. He establishes his credentials by bureaucratic or diplomatic service, but, once elected, must transcend his past and serve as a voice of the world, even a “secular Pope.”
The secretary-general is entrusted with assisting member states to make sound and well-informed decisions, which he is then obliged to execute, but he is also authorised to influence their work and even to propose actions that they should undertake. He administers a complex organisation and serves as head of the UN agencies, but must exercise his role within budgetary and regulatory constraints imposed by the member governments.
True, the secretary-general has an unparalleled agenda-shaping authority. But he does not have the power to execute all his ideas, and he articulates a vision that only governments can fulfil. He moves the world, but he cannot direct it.
Hammarskjold, at the height of the Cold War, argued that an impartial civil servant could be “politically celibate” without being “politically virgin.” The secretary-general could play a political role without losing his impartiality, provided he hewed faithfully to the Charter and to international law.
But once a secretary-general is named, what can we expect from him or her? The perception has gained ground in recent years that the Perm Five want a quiescent administrator who will not exceed his brief. But we do not have to look that far back to find an example of a secretary-general who expanded the possibilities of his remit beyond this minimalist notion.
With the Cold War’s end, Kofi Annan was one secretary-general who went further than his predecessors in using the “bully pulpit” of his office. He boldly raised the question of the morality of intervention and the duty of the individual to follow his conscience, and he challenged member states to resolve the tensions between state sovereignty and their responsibility to protect ordinary people.
Yet it is true that often, a secretary-general can raise an awkward question but not dictate the appropriate answer. Annan’s historic speech on intervention made before the General Assembly in 1999 set a thousand flowers blooming at think tanks and among Op-Ed columnists, but did not lead to a single military intervention to protect the oppressed. The UN is often seen embodying international legitimacy, yet the secretary-general’s pronouncements often have less impact on the conduct of member states than the Pope’s strictures on birth control.
The secretary-general knows that he can accomplish little without the support of members whose inaction on one issue or another he might otherwise want to denounce. He cannot afford to allow frustration on any one issue to affect his ability to elicit cooperation from governments on a range of others. Annan once made the point by citing an old Ghanaian proverb: “Never hit a man on the head when you have your fingers between his teeth.”
Today’s single-superpower world also means that the secretary-general must manage a relationship that is vital to the UN’s survival without mortgaging his own integrity and independence. The insistent demands of some in the United States that the UN prove its utility to America — demands that could not have been made in the same terms during the Cold War — oblige a secretary-general to walk a tightrope between heeding American priorities and the preferences of the membership as a whole. Paradoxically, he can be most useful to the US when he demonstrates his independence from it.
No secretary-general has enjoyed real independence from governments: The UN operates without embassies or intelligence services, and member states resist any attempt to acquire such capabilities. A secretary-general’s reach thus cannot exceed his grasp, and his grasp cannot extend across the member states’ frontiers — or their treasuries.
Indeed, the next secretary-general will command great diplomatic legitimacy, and even greater media visibility, but less political power than the language of the UN Charter suggests. To be effective, she — since all signs point to the likelihood of a “she” — must be skilled at managing staff and budgets, gifted at public diplomacy (and its behind-the-scenes variant), and able to engage the loyalties of a wide array of external actors, including non-governmental organisations, business groups, and journalists.
From India’s point of view, she must be careful not to put a foot wrong on sensitive issues like Kashmir; to recognise India’s legitimate desire to play an influential role on the world stage, including on the Security Council; and to appoint effective Indians to senior positions in the UN system. She also must convince the nations of the developing South that their interests are uppermost in her mind while ensuring that she can work effectively with the wealthy and powerful North. She must recognise the power and the prerogatives of the Security Council, especially its five permanent members, while staying attentive to the priorities and passions of the General Assembly. And she must present member states with politically achievable proposals and implement her mandates within the means they provide her.
Above all, the secretary-general needs a vision of the higher purpose of her office and an awareness of its potential and limitations. In other words, to be successful, she must conceive and project a vision of the UN as it should be, while administering and defending the organisation as it is. Truly an impossible job.
Shashi Tharoor is member of Parliament. Views expressed are personal.