Monday, October 02, 2006

UNsuitable Candidates for US

Playing for time at the UN
By Ian Williams

Updated version of Friday's post, looking at the candidates..appeared in Asia Times

NEW YORK - There was a chance - albeit a very remote one bearing in mind the stately progress of United Nations Security Council deliberations - that by Monday evening New York time the council would be able to declare a new secretary general. For the first time, however, the council was to conduct a realistic straw poll, in which the veto-holders would have different-colored ballots.

Even at this late stage, the only assured result is that Kofi Annan's successor will be an Asian - even if there is some
uncertainty about which Asian it is. There is an increasing
likelihood that South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon will be the council's choice, but it is far from certain.

Ban ended up leading the pack, but with fewer votes than he earned in the previous straw vote on September 14. One delegate who once supported Ban has now lost interest and in effect abstained, while another voted to "discourage" his candidacy. But none of the other candidates could muster enough support to match Ban's 13 "encouragements". And none of the fearless delegations would actually admit to being one of the two nay-sayers.

But was that "discourage" vote a tactical offer to negotiate, or a flat-out veto? Was the loss of interest an invitation to try harder? Some delegations hinted darkly that the British and French were negotiating to overturn Annan's recent decision that removed their previous duopoly over peacekeeping and political affairs.

Or were delegates playing for time in the hope that former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai, battered by a coup at home and a poor straw-vote showing, would pull out? Would that clear the way for another candidate from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where Singapore, always productive of potential candidates, has two or three in hand?

In previous years, the Security Council would solemnly consider even self-nominations to the post. This time the council decided that countries had to nominate candidates. In some ways, this is antithetical to a core principle of the UN, since the secretary general is an international civil servant, above country.

The overt national sponsorship has led to what is almost a caste hierarchy for candidates, who have benefited from their governments' support for their campaigns. Rivals are already scrutinizing recent deals among India, South Korea and other voting powers for signs of undue influence reminiscent of a US election.

And perhaps to everyone's relief, it spared them considering voting against Aung San Suu Kyi of Myamnar, unlikely to get the generals' nomination and unlikely to get past ASEAN consensus.

Surakiart, Thailand's candidate, handicapped by the coup, was kept in the running by the military government's enthusiastic support for his campaign - which of course may actually backfire with some delegations and certainly must cause some chagrin to other ASEAN wanna-bes.

The second runner-up hitherto has been Shashi Tharoor, the Indian candidate currently heading the UN's Department of Public Information - and incidentally a prime mover behind Annan's original candidacy. He is clever and articulate - which in this race may well work against him - and, most damning to some, a UN insider.

But just as the sub-Saharans never really regarded former secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, as a genuine African, the concept of a secretary general from Asia was sorely tested by the candidacy of Prince Zeid of Jordan. He did surprisingly badly in the straw poll, perhaps because of fears of what the apocalyptic Christian right would make of a descendent of the Prophet sitting in the world's most prominent seat. But his poor showing had more to do with the fact that East Asians and South Asians don't really regard Arabs as Asians.

Jayantha Dhanapala, Sri Lanka's veteran disarmament diplomat, did surprisingly badly in the straw polls too, unless you consider that successful advocacy of disarmament does not always sit well with a select group that includes the world's leading arms merchants. Anyway, he took the hint and dropped out, just as two new candidates popped up - whom the British, French, and thus presumably behind the scenes the Americans seem to want to make space for. Ashraf Ghani, finance minister of Afghanistan, is articulate and opinionated (good opinions too!) to the extent of being Shashi Tharoor with a bonus calculator.

With Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, perhaps the only real question is whether the Russians or the Chinese would veto her first, but while she has an argument - gender balance suggests it is more imperative for a woman's "turn" rather than an Asian's - enough delegations are committed to Asia to scupper her chances.

The biggest objection to Ban Ki-moon, who allegedly has support from both China and the United States, is his perceived lack of charisma and his emphasis on harmony. US commentators seem to regard him as reliable, which means, from their point of view, pliable.

However, hearing him speak, one is struck by the resemblances to Kofi Annan at the start of his tenure. No one who only judged the public appearance of Annan would have suspected the way he expanded to fill the office. Being soft-spoken is not inconsistent with having firm principles.

As Ban evokes it in his stump speeches, being foreign minister of South Korea requires serious tightrope-walking skills, among the US, China, Japan and the North, but no one looking at Seoul's recent foreign-policy stances would see him as an enthusiastic cat's paw for the US administration, while many governments would prefer a pragmatic diplomat to a preachy secular pope.

However, that does not preclude, indeed rather requires, the moral stature gained from having what the late British foreign secretary Robin Cook termed an "ethical dimension" to the job.

For example, Ban expresses strong support for the International Criminal Court and for the Responsibility to Protect - the doctrine of humanitarian intervention adopted in principle at least year's World Summit. Neither China nor the United States is totally ecstatic about either concept, but both are perceptive enough to realize the slimness of the chances of any candidate who opposes bedrock UN decisions.

In fact, the US would be hard put to find any candidate even remotely morally, intellectually or politically acceptable to the rest of the world who would accept Washington's views on multilateralism.

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