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Reflection on the Career of First UN Sec-Gen Post-Cold War

Reflection on the Career of First UN Sec-Gen Post-Cold War

Saturday, 7 January, 2023 - 18:30
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

The centennial anniversary of the birth of former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was last December. This provides an occasion to reflect not only on the career of a public figure with a unique experience at the national, regional, and international levels but also on the role of the UN Secretary-General during a time when the international system is in a state of flux.

Boutros-Ghali has had an illustrious career replete with diverse experiences rarely found in any Egyptian, Arab, or African public figure. He was a distinguished academic, Editor- in Chief of two prominent publications, minister of state for foreign affairs, UN Secretary-General, Secretary General of the Francophone, and lastly the first President of the Egyptian Council on Human Rights.

Boutros-Ghali could not have held these diverse positions if he had not possessed special personal qualities ( leadership, flexibility, independence, creativity, and perseverance). It is ironic that these very qualities are the same that prevented his re-election as UN Secretary-General.

But also Boutros-Ghali became UN Secretary-General amidst exceptional international conditions. He was the first Secretary General elected after the end of the Cold War. This was the time when the line was blurred between internal and international crises, the Balkans being the main example. Under his watch, there was also Somalia, Rwanda, the initial phase of the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, Lockerbie in Libya, and the Qana report which was the first report that held Israel responsible for attacking a UN facility in Lebanon. In short, the UN was simultaneously faced with more but also different crises than it had ever before.

Boutros-Ghali has had important intellectual contributions concerning the UN's role in the post-Cold War emerging international environment. He produced the Agenda for Peace, the Agenda for Development, and the Agenda for Democracy. All these initiatives tackled critical yet controversial issues, especially the relationship between the maintenance of international peace and security, development, and human rights. To this day this triangular relationship represents the main challenge facing not only the UN but the international system as a whole.

He predicted the problems that have and continue to stand in the way of the UN in effectively discharging its role. In particular the disparity between the ambitions of member states and their reluctance to provide the required resources to see them through. That is equally true with regard to the maintenance of international peace and security as well as development. He has also broadened the concept of “ Preventive Diplomacy “ and introduced the idea of “ Peace Building “ in post-conflict situations ( that was implemented in Cambodia and Timor ). He also expanded peacekeeping operations to allow for the protection of humanitarian assistance.

This was later developed into the concept of the Responsibility to Protect R2P, which justified international interventions in internal crises without the consent of host governments. Also with the objective of improving the performance of the United States, he generated a plethora of ideas, such as decentralization of decision-making by moving many functions away from headquarters to the field and unifying and streamlining UN representation in developing countries. Many of his ideas were adopted by his successors.

Also during his tenure, a variety of international conferences took place on issues that have come to form the international economic and social agendas to this day. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which laid the foundation for international efforts in the area of climate change. The 1993 Vienna Human Rights conference. The Cairo 1994 Population conference. The Copenhagen Social Summit and Beijing Women’s conference were both held in 1995.

Boutros-Ghali operated in an exceptional environment. This environment was the result of the interaction of multiple factors, some related to his personal qualities and others from his professional experience and yet others were influenced by international conditions.

The most important of these factors can be summarized as: He was the first UN Secretary-General to be elected from a country that has a tradition of an energetic foreign policy, taking clear and mostly independent positions and initiatives on a variety of international issues. This was reflected in his proactive stance.

He was also the first UN Secretary-General to be elected after the end of the Cold War, a condition that theoretically was expected to provide a wider margin for action, which he tried to make use of. The reality however proved to be the opposite. The United States would not allow that.

The UN financial crisis was exacerbated as a result of the unprecedented proliferation of peacekeeping operations and the reluctance of member states, in particular the United States, to provide the necessary funds. Putting aside the tenures of the first two Secretaries General Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold, he was the only Secretary-General not to have a direct experience with the UN secretariat.

During the tenure of the first two secretaries-general, the secretariat had not yet achieved an established modus operandi. All the other secretaries-general were familiar with the way the secretariat operated. U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Perez de Cuellar, and Ban Ki-Moon all served as permanent representatives of their respective countries. Antonio Gutierrez served as High Commissioner for Refugees. Kofi Annan was a staff member for decades. This was both an advantage as well as a disadvantage. An advantage in the sense that it allowed Boutros-Ghali to think and operate without the usual restrictions international civil servants operate under. A disadvantage in the sense that he lacked experience in dealing with a large and powerful multinational bureaucracy with diverse affiliations.

Finally but probably more important, he did not have the support of the United States. The Bush administration preoccupied with establishing itself as the sole superpower after the end of the Cold War had a clear preference for Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Under pressure from Africa and France, it reluctantly allowed his election to go through. This reluctance gradually turned into outright hostility during the Clinton administration.

Perhaps the critical factor that influenced Boutros-Ghali’s tenure as UN Secretary-General was his relationship with the United States. The latter’s attitude towards the organization has been ambivalent since its establishment, taking a sharply negative turn during the Reagan administration. At the time the increasingly the influential right wing of the Republican Party portrayed the UN as an international plot designed not only to undermine American supremacy in the world but also as a means to undermine its sovereign powers. Regrettably, no US administration has been able to totally reverse this perception amongst the public.

The Clinton administration’s top priority was domestic affairs. The slogan upon which the President Clinton was elected was “It's the economy, stupid “. What remained from the administration’s attention was focused on securing American hegemony in the post-Cold War international order.

It was thought it could be achieved through constraining both Russia and China in a relatively short period of time before the leadership in both countries is stabilized. At the time leaderships in both countries were in a state of transition. Russia from Gorbachev to Yeltsin and China from the founding generation ( Deng Xiaoping) to a new one (Jiang Zemin).

The result was incoherent policies that produced a multitude of failures such as in Somalia and the Balkans. It was therefore politically expedient to attribute such failures to the United Nations and its Secretary-General. The situation reached its zenith during the 1996 presidential campaign. Nonetheless, it is important to note that President Clinton in its early months permitted a fairly large margin of maneuver to Boutros-Ghali. This, however, was quickly reversed once the administration settled in power.

Ultimately the adversarial relationship between Madeline Albright and Boutros-Ghali was his undoing. Albright as the US Permanent Representative needed to embellish her credentials as a candidate for the position of Secretary of State by preventing the re-election of Boutros-Ghali.

Ultimately, in a precedent, he failed to be re-elected due to an American veto, although he received the remaining 14 votes in the Security Council.

History will ultimately judge the legacy of Boutros-Ghali. Along with the first two Secretaries-General, Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold, he was unable to complete the customary two terms of the UN Secretary-General. Trygve Lie resigned because he was unable to effectively perform his duties due to his deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union as the result of the UN intervention in the Korean War. Hammarskjold was killed when his aircraft was mysteriously shot down in Congo.

Moreover, both Hammarskjold and Boutros-Ghali were elected in exceptional international circumstances. The first started his second term after the end of the colonial era as the result of the 1956 Suez War. The second after the end of the Cold War. Both adopted an expansive interpretation of the role and authority of the Secretary-General.

Probably the most important legacy of Boutros-Ghali is that he might be the most ambitious and audacious Secretary-General in the sense that he challenged the limits to his authority that the major powers, particularly the United States, were prepared to accept. He also challenged the comfort zone in which UN staff members had operated for decades.

In conclusion, the lessons derived from Boutros-Ghali’s experience is that when there is a single superpower the role of the United Nations is weakened. Also, the best means to control the organization is to undermine the role of its Secretary-General and politicize the secretariat.

Now that the international system appears to be moving towards Multipolarity, there is still hope for the United Nations to fulfill the role envisaged by the authors of its Charter.

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