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September 28, 2006

Horse Race in Turtle Bay: The Next UN Secretary General
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Un_hq Today the NYT asked each of the declared candidates to succeed Kofi Annan to answer 2 questions:  1) the UN's biggest mistake; and 2) the area most in need of reform.  Answers are here

The replies are revealing in that they point to some of the fundamental questions that will confront the UN's new leader:  What role can the organization play in trying to modernize and stabilize the Middle East?  How should it balance the competing priorities of Member States, some of whom - like the US - want the focus to lie with peace and security, and others - from the developing world - who are clamoring for more resources and emphasis on development aid?  How should the UN deal with issues that are pressing for its members, but fall outside the world body's areas of demonstrated capacity and potential to succeed - should it focus on further building on what it does well, or shoring up its weaknesses?

By dint of its vast membership the UN is nothing if not multi-faceted, but the UN's spotty record makes clear that the organization needs to pick area to focus its attention and resources.  Here's what we can glean from the five would-be's who participated in the Times' query about where their priorities would lie.

Prince Zeid - The young and charming Jordanian not surprisingly focuses on the challenges in his own region, citing the rise of extremism in the Mideast as a challenge above all others.  That's a view shared by many in Washington, but that's not as prevalent in a world body that includes many countries for whom AIDS, trade and development issues are more central than the threat of terrorism.   This goes to a very basic divide at the UN between the US and some other Western countries that believe the organization's prime focus should be peace and security, and developing world nations that want more emphasis on economic issues.  I actually do think the UN has a potentially critical role to play in the Middle East, particularly if it can prove itself with a successful revamped UNIFIL in Lebanon.  One of the reason's for Zeid's initial appeal as a candidate was the idea that he might bridge the Islamic world with the West.

Dhanapala - The Sri Lankan singles out Darfur as the UN's greatest failing, putting blame not just on the UNSC members but also on the Secretariat.  He talks about the need for rapidly deployable humanitarian capabilities and troops, but sidesteps the fact that absent stronger political will in cases like Darfur, its not clear such arms would be mobilized even if they existed.

Ghani - The former Afghan Finance Minister talks about corruption and mismanagement at the UN.  He waxes forth on accountability and transparency, but offers no specifics on how to achieve them amid the UN's fractious membership and often hidebound decision-making processes.

Vike-Freiberga - The President of Latvia and the only woman in the race talks about the relatively newly consecrated "responsibility to protect" in international law, and about the Millennium Development Goals, a set of measures agreed to 6 years ago to address poverty and hardship in the developing world.  The direction she points is, in essence, the opposite of Zeid's.  As the only "Northerner" in the group, a message directed at the concerns of "the South" has a certain political logic.  The trick with the Millennium Goals is that they are enormously broad and ambitious and cover both areas, like children's health and vaccines, where the UN has demonstrated itself to be extremely effective, and much broader questions of socio-economic development in respect to which the world body's track record is far more mixed.

Tharoor - Debonaire longtime UN diplomat-cum-bureaucrat Shashi Tharoor addresses the problem of sustaining UN peacekeeping over the long-term.  From the standpoint of competitive advantages, this is an area where the UN plays indispensable role today and where, with augmented capabilities, it could do even more.  We've learned the hard way in Iraq the challenges posed by unilateral alternatives to UN-led statebuilding.

Results of today's straw poll among UN Security Council members are here.   South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon - who declined to participate in the NYT survey - has a big lead, but it ain't over til its over. 


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