The Spine

Rat Race


Kofi Annan is leaving. Yippee. It's not that he's leaving on his own. His (second) term is up and no one really wants him to stay, except maybe the Arabs, for whom he has done relentless service. In any case, there are seven candidates to succeed him. One of them, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the president of Latvia who lived for half a century in Canada, has not a chance. One reason is that she's not Asian and, according to the rules by which the United Nations plays, this is Asia's turn. Sorry. There's another reason, of course, and that is that she's Latvian and the Russians would never tolerate a neighbor in so significant a position.

You recall--OK, you don't recall--when Kurt Waldheim was in the running (this was Europe's turn) to be the fourth secretary-general of the organization. One of his opponents was the foreign minister of Finland, Max Jakobson, a socialist and not a cold warrior, although he was a Jew. That certainly didn't help him. But what killed him with Moscow was that he came from Helsinki. He might have had memories from the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1940. Well, that's the anxiety, more or less, which Putin and company might have about anyone from Latvia, one of what we used to call, justifiably, "captive nations." The Soviet Union and the United States much preferred Dr. Waldheim, although they knew he had been a Nazi before and during the war: not a Nazi soldier, but an officer who did more than slapping innocent people around. (By the way, that story was first told in our pages by both the eminent novelist and one-time U.N. staffer Shirley Hazzard and me.) Also, of course, both the Soviets and the Americans had real dirt on Waldheim and they could blackmail him.

There are six other candidates for the post, and The New York Times today printed on its op-ed page little student-council speeches from five of the seven. The former foreign minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan, did not send in his spiel. Presumably, he was otherwise engaged in saving his ass in Bangkok. The Sri Lankan, the Jordanian, the Indian, the Afghani, and the Latvian participated in the exercise. The most persuasive of these five were the first two. In any case, they are all interesting--in any way you use the word. The New York Times capsulated quite efficiently the electoral process in the intro to the symposium, and it makes the Electoral College seem simple and direct.

Five candidates, seven candidates. There must be a front-runner, and there is. It's Ban Ki-moon, the foreign minister of South Korea. Why does Russia prefer him to any of the others? They may be too friendly to the United States. But, of course, South Korea is an ally of the United States. So it's a bit weird. Why does China prefer him to the others? Well, among the others, it's Shashi Tharoor, the Indian under secretary-general who is in second place in the arcane system of polling. For the Chinese, an Indian would be a disaster, a loss of face, a mortifying embarrassment.

Ban Ki-moon is the beneficiary of these calculations. (It is not yet clear whom the United States will support or at least whom it might veto. Maybe it will veto no one, even though the Korean seems to scream out to be vetoed.) Here is Ki-moon's big plus: he promises not to upset the apple cart although it surely does need upsetting. And he does make some positive promises, and these congeal as assurance that the higher bureaucracy of the secretary-general's office will remain in power. They are the ones who have run the United Nations into the ditch, into the pit. They are the ones who have been corrupt, indifferent to human suffering, hostile to the democracies. When Ban Ki-moon is elected, they will sleep soundly for at least five years and maybe ten.

There was an interview by Mark Turner with Ban Ki-Moon published in yesterday's Financial Times. Notice how calm the S.G. aspirant is with regard to the bloody pasts of Rwanda and Darfur:

On the other hand, he displayed a growing mastery of UN vocabulary. Phrases such as "ownership", "gender mainstreaming", "equitable geographical distribution" and, of course, "the common good of the international community", peppered his replies. That said, the word "genocide" appeared to elude him--with regards to Darfur and Rwanda--although he did call for "bolder measures" to ensure events like the 1994 "massacre" in central Africa were not repeated.

Then read the whole piece. It reeks of moral indifference and bureaucratic indulgence. Yuk.

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