Learning from the Past

Historically, UN Secretary-Generals have been selected through a process that is opaque, protracted, and usually bad tempered.

David Steven
Sep 24, 2015 · 15 min read

The charter calls for candidates “of eminence and high attainment” — a bar that all have met (though one had a secret and dubious past).

Though some have had jobs outside the world of foreign policy (as teachers, journalists and lawyers, or in academia), few have had experience relevant to running a body as complex and perplexing as the UN.

Read on for profiles of how each SG got, kept and sometimes lost their jobs, and for a flavor of what they achieved along the way.

Gladwyn Jebb (Left) Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

The British Exception

Hubert Miles Gladwyn Jebb

First term: 1945–1946

Described as “one of the world’s greatest diplomatic draftsmen,” Gladwyn Jebb, a British civil servant, played a leading role in designing the UN. Appointed as acting Secretary-General at the UN’s founding conference, he held the job for three months, allowing the Brits to annoy the Norwegians by claiming the first SG came from Yorkshire not Oslo.

Trygve Lie, Oslo Museum, CC BY 3.0

Dream or Nightmare

Trygve Lie

First term: 1946–1950

But the first SG with a proper mandate a Norwegian.

Initially, various names with star power were suggested in line with Roosevelt’s proposal that the UN should be led by a “world-famous moderator” (Dwight Eisenhower, Anthony Eden, Charles de Gaulle, etc.). But smaller countries were intent on establishing the principle that an SG should never come from one of the countries that dominated the Security Council, while the great powers soon realized they didn’t want an SG with the stature to tell them what to do.

The United States and Soviet Union blocked each other’s candidates, so a compromise candidate was needed. Trygve Lie — the Norwegian Foreign Minister — was seen a reasonable second or third choice by both sides, who also expected him to be eager to please and easy to influence. He was duly elected at the first session of the General Assembly in London on 1 February 1946.

Lie was taken aback to have been ‘catapulted’ into the role. “It was a challenge beyond my wildest dreams but it was a nightmare as well,” he wrote in his memoirs.

A Procedural Fiddle

Second term: 1950–1952

By the end of his first five year term, the dream had indeed turned to nightmare. Lie had tried to set an ambitious 20-year program for how the UN could help broker peace between the Cold War’s adversaries.

But the Soviets, in particular, were not listening. Enraged by the SG’s stance on the invasion of South Korea, they announced they’d veto Lie’s reappointment within the Security Council, while the Americans retaliated by refusing to consider an alternative candidate.

With the Security Council deadlocked and unable to make a recommendation, the General Assembly extended Lie’s term for a three year term, reasoning that the Council’s 1946 endorsement of Lie was still valid.

In retaliation, the Soviet bloc repeatedly denounced the SG for illegally occupying this post and shunned him and his staff. At the same time, Lie was struggling with a McCarthyite witch hunt for “disloyal US citizens” who were purported to have infiltrated the UN.

He resigned, without warning, a year before his term expired, leading to a “free for all” to find a replacement (and supposedly hoping that another stalemate would lead to the great powers begging for his return).

Dag Hammarskjöld. En minnesbok. Malmö 1961.

April Fool

Dag Hammarskjöld

First term: 1953–1957

The search for a successor to Lie kicked off with the usual flurry of veto and counter-veto. Once again, the Americans supported a Canadian, while the Soviets proposed the first woman SG: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the distinguished Indian diplomat and Nehru’s sister.

Gladwyn Jebb, by now the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN, claims he was the first to propose a compromise candidate to break the deadlock: “I have met a Swede I think could do, his name is Dag Hammarskjöld. I don’t know him very well, but I think he’s extremely competent.”

Hammarskjöld was proposed to the Security Council by the French, seconded by the Soviets and then supported by all Security Members apart from the nationalist Chinese government which abstained.

According to Brian Urquhart, who worked for Hammarskjöld and wrote his biography, “it was assumed — I think by most people in the Security Council who didn’t know Hammarskjöld — that they’d elected a nice, competent Swedish civil servant who wouldn’t rock the boat and wouldn’t be very independent and wouldn’t create trouble.”

Hammarskjöld, himself, had not been told he was being considered and heard the news from a journalist who had bumped into a Security Council member in the toilets. “This April Fool’s Joke is in extremely bad taste,” he said.

No Drama

Second term: 1957–1961

In a first, the Security Council was united in recommending Hammarskjöld for a second term. The SG had pushed the UN into peacekeeping and — true to his background as an economist — was looking to expand the UN’s role as a development actor, arguing that the UN could do more for Africa than countries providing aid on their own.

But it was Africa that was to prove the SG’s undoing. Hammarskjöld’s activism over the Congo crisis led to a breakdown of the relationship with the Soviets. “This useless lout sticks his nose into important matters that are none of his business,” Khrushchev ranted. “He claims power that he’s got no right to. We’ll give him hell.”

The answer, the Soviets believed, was not one SG but three, a ‘troika’ with a representative from the Communist bloc, the West, and neutral countries, offering “a definitive guarantee… that the work of the United Nations executive would not be conducted to the detriment of any of these groups of states.”

Khrushchev took to the floor of the General Assembly publicly to call for the SG’s resignation. A year later, however, disaster struck when Hammarskjöld was killed when his plane crashed over what is now Zambia. Investigations into his death rumbled on, in what is “one of the Cold War’s greatest unsolved mysteries.”

U Thant, LBJ Library photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto


U Thant

First term: 1961–1966

Once again, a new SG was needed at short notice and once again, there was gridlock, as the Soviets pursued their troika proposal with little success and various candidates were deemed unacceptable by one side or another.

Thant, Burma’s PR to the UN and a leading figure in the newly formed nonaligned movement, was heavily involved in attempts to find a candidate acceptable to both the Soviets and Americans.

But Thant’s name was itself thrown in the ring and he agreed to serve out Hammarskjöld’s term, being appointed without a veto as Acting Secretary-General, and then confirmed to serve a full five-year term the following year.

Thant played a disputed role in the Cuban missile crisis. He “provided the ladder down which both the Soviet Union and the United States descended” (Brian Urquhart). Though alternatively, “He didn’t really play any role except to antagonize both sides” (Thomas Franck).

He then became embroiled in a succession of other security crises (in his first term, notably and unsuccessfully in Vietnam and Kashmir), but also in Yemen where he showed the UN’s potential for preventive diplomacy. This inspired the British PR to serenade the Security Council with poetry (“Cheer next U Thant who never tires / In harmonizing our desires”).

Playing Hard to Get

Second term: 1966–1971

Thant’s stance on Vietnam had made him increasingly unpopular with the Americans. He also clashed with France and the Soviet Union on their refusal to fix the UN’s parlous finances, and accused the Security Council as a whole of treating him like a “glorified clerk.”

Tired of all this, Thant announced that he wasn’t interested in serving a second term. This had the paradoxical effect of convincing countries that every effort must be made to persuade him to change his mind, which he duly did with a little arm twisting.

Both the Security Council and the General Assembly were unanimous in support of his re-election. His second term was again marked with crisis. “The United Nations is a last-ditch, last-resort affair,” he complained.

But he also pushed the UN’s development agenda (UNDP was founded on his watch) and lay the groundwork for the launch of the United Nations Environment Programme, asking the General Assembly whether:

“We really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas.’”

Kurt Waldheim (left), Col. Hans Herbert Macholtz, a German officer (middle), and General of the 7th SS-Division, General Artur Phelps (right), Podgorica, Yugoslavia on March 23, 1943, World Jewish Congress

The Campaigner

Kurt Waldheim

First term: 1972–1976

Kurt Waldheim — Austria’s Permanent Representative to the UN — was the first to campaign openly to be Secretary-General, hustling for votes for many months in what became an increasingly crowded field.

Waldheim was initially vetoed by China and the United Kingdom. Max Jakobson, the Finnish PR was a strong candidate and had also campaigned vigorously. But a Soviet diplomat recalls that, as a Jew, “many Arab delegations were conducting an active campaign against Jakobson. Moscow had no wish to spoil its relations with the Arabs because of him.”

For the second ballot, the French had persuaded the Argentinian PR, Carlos Ortiz de Rozas, to step forward. He received the most votes in this and the subsequent ballot, but was vetoed by the Soviet Union’s PR (apparently because he “resented the prestige and popularity of the Argentinian.”) When the Chinese withdrew their veto of Waldheim, the Austrian was elected.

Amidst much anger that the Soviets had vetoed a qualified candidate from a developing country in favor of another European, Ortiz de Rozas staved off a threat of a mass abstention in the General Assembly through the ruse of turning an ovation for the departing Thant into a vote by acclamation for Waldheim.

“That prevented, for the first time, the voting process for the election of the Secretary-General from taking place,” he recalls.

Colorless Crowd-pleaser

Second term: 1976–1981

Despite some grumblings, Waldheim was elected for a second term without much serious opposition. China vetoed on the first ballot, but the Americans briefed the press that he had done “a fine job in an impossible situation.”

Pleasing everyone was a core Waldheim skill, with Ortiz de Rozas commenting that “as a personality Waldheim was really colorless [and] didn’t have any distinctive traits that would alienate this or the other delegate.”

Unfortunately for the UN and for the office of Secretary-General, however, Waldheim’s Nazi past was not investigated at the time and did not emerge until he had become Austria’s President.

“It would have been perfectly possible to have established what his war record was before appointing him to the job,” Brian Urquhart argues, “but nobody bothered.”

Pérez de Cuéllar, National Archief, CC BY 3.0

The Disappointed Pianist

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar

First term: 1982–1986

The incorrigible Waldheim vigorously campaigned for an unprecedented third term as SG, but the African countries — supported by China — argued that the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, Salim Ahmed Salim, should be given a chance.

Waldheim was furious at being opposed (asked about Salim’s prospects, he “looked as if he had eaten something unpleasant and replied stiffly that he did not want to discuss the matter”). Once again, the Chinese veto came into play. This time, rather than folding as Western governments predicted, the Chinese stuck to their guns, vetoing Waldheim 16 times. The Americans vetoed Salim — a “dangerous radical” — 15 times (and the Soviets were thought not to be keen either on a candidate seen as too close to China).

Deadlock led to innovation: the introduction of informal ‘straw polls’ that allow Security Council members to encourage or discourage a candidate to stay in the race. It also led to another search for a compromise candidate. Two emerged at the head of the pack: Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan from Iran and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar from Peru. With the former vetoed by the Soviet Union, the latter was elected.

Pérez de Cuéllar said that he’d have preferred to be a concert pianist than a Secretary-General: “I wanted to play piano, but in my country, that was only for girls.”

Playing Hard to Get (again)

Second term: 1986–1991

Like Thant, Pérez de Cuéllar expressed reluctance to serve more than one term (and had recently undergone major bypass surgery). The UN was, he found, a world “where the truly significant is sometimes lost in the flood of words and paper.”

Hesitancy, of course, guaranteed that he would be elected for a second term unopposed. In 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall opened up new space for the UN, and he played a role in resolving the Iran-Iraq war, in tackling insecurity in Central America, and in expanding the UN’s humanitarian role.

“We are clearly witnessing what is probably an irresistible shift in public attitudes toward the belief that the defense of the oppressed in the name of morality should prevail over frontiers and legal documents,” he said.

But Pérez de Cuéllar also found that the UN was becoming an increasingly complex organization to manage, with some believing that he lacked the skills to play the role of chief administrative officer as laid down in the charter.

He faced constant battles to fund the organization, with growing arrears driving it close to bankruptcy. He complained that his staff were buried under a welter of administrative processes that stopped them “finding solutions to problems in the world.”

They accused him of failing to find solutions, and leaving the UN with “morale is at its lowest ebb ever.”

Pereira, Fernando / Anefo, Nationaal Archief, CC BY 3.0

Africa’s Turn

Boutros Boutros-Ghali

First term: 1992–1996

After Pérez de Cuéllar, African countries were adamant that it was Africa’s turn to take the top job at the UN.

France was determined the SG should be a French speaker, sending potential candidates scurrying off for immersion courses in the language. The UK touted Gro Harlem Brundtland, who had recently brought the concept of sustainable development into the UN, but then began to campaign hard for Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Bernard Chidzero. France campaigned even more vigorously for the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, creating what the UK PR called “an unfortunate appearance of throwback to the days of Anglo-French rivalry over Africa.”

The US was opposed to the idea of regional rotation, but didn’t want to get caught being mean to Africa and was half-hearted in its support for alternative candidates such as the Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney. Instead, its delegation played for a stalemate, hoping that this would lead to the usual search for a compromise candidate.

This time the tactic backfired as France persuaded Chidzero’s supporters to switch to Boutros-Ghali. The US abstained in the final vote.

Africa Progress Panel, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Accidental SG

Kofi Annan

First term: 1997–2001

Boutros Boutros-Ghali briefed the press that he would reform the UN through a mixture of “stealth and brutality,” but instead managed to compile a growing list of very public enemies.

The most implacable of these was the US PR, Madeleine Albright. Her vendetta with Boutros-Ghali was legendary and deeply personal, with the SG consistently underestimating his adversary (“poor girl, she is out of her league”) and Albright allowing her obsessive determination to deprive him of a second term to lead to complete American isolation.

It was not supposed to be this way. The Clinton administration had laid its plans early, hoping to persuade the SG to go quietly, using his age (74) as an excuse and even offering him the made-up position of SG emeritus. The Americans even had a preferred candidate in mind — a little known Under-Secretary General called Kofi Annan — who they hoped would prove acceptable as another African (from south of the Sahara, this time) who spoke passable French.

But Boutros-Ghali dug his heels in, gathered prominent champions such as Nelson Mandela, and hoped that the US would relent once Clinton had emerged from his election battle with Bob Dole (the later was deriding the SG on the campaign trail). Albright was unbendable though. Newly nominated as Secretary of State, she was forced to stand alone in the Security Council and veto the SG, uniting the vast majority of the UN membership in fury.

Annan, meanwhile, was running a stealth campaign to replace his boss, a man who had kept him in the background and was now deeply resentful that Annan was “climbing the stairs and is ready to take your job.” Annan dispatched his right hand man, Shashi Tharoor, to butter up PRs upset by Boutros-Ghali’s habit of going over their heads to their bosses in capital.

Over time, African resistance to a new SG was gradually worn down, aided by a threat from the US to open up the race to non-African candidates. Over a series of straw poll votes, the front runners were Annan and Amara Essy, the Ivory’s Coast’s foreign minister. The French, still bruised over Boutros-Ghali’s treatment, consistently vetoed Annan. The US and UK vetoed all other candidates. The French nearly persuaded Russia to turn against Annan, but the Americans persuaded Boris Yeltsin to step in. After three days, the French decided to end their isolation and Annan was elected by acclaim.

The Americans patted themselves on the back getting a SG who owed them everything, with Annan soon complaining about Madeleine Albright’s habit of calling him up in the middle of the night to tell him what to do. She never understood, he said, that he needed to be responsive to other member states as well.

Another Cup of Kofi

Second term: 2002–2006

In June 2001, well in advance of the end of his term, Annan was endorsed for re-election by the Security Council “by acclamation with support of all members.”

As he started his second term, Annan was at his zenith, the “social star of New York society” and soon to receive the Nobel Prize for revitalizing the UN. He had reformed the Secretariat, shored up funding, expanded peacekeeping, and ushered the UN through the Millennium Summit, leaving the world with the MDGs — a set of global goals — that provide structure and coherence for efforts to tackle poverty.

Soon, though, he was to fall out with the Bush administration over Iraq and was to become mired in the Oil for Food scandal through the actions of his son, Kojo. Harried by the US PR, John Bolton, he faced sustained pressure to resign, but rallied against what his supporters claimed was a US-led “lynch mob.”

Marcel Crozet / ILO, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Invisible Man

Ban Ki-moon

First term: 2007–2011

Bolton regretted the US failure to force another SG out, but began to plot his eventual replacement with Ban Ki-moon, a low profile diplomat from South Korea who he had worked with earlier in his career. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice liked Ban too, feeling he was the best hope that the US had of avoiding a troublesome SG.

Ban was in with a good chance given that the Security Council broadly agreed that it was now “Asia’s turn,” although the Eastern Europeans thought they should be given a shot (and proposed a woman, as well). In the end, four candidates made it to the starting line (with a fifth late entrant) in what seemed an open race, given that Bolton was carefully shielding the US preference. Joining Ban as the front runner was Shashi Tharoor, who ran a quixotic and unexpectedly successful campaign.

Bolton was unimpressed (“Tharoor was never going to make it, although he was the last person in New York to figure that out”), while the South Korean government put an enormous amount of energy into ensuring their foreign minister got the job. Eventually Tharoor pulled out (without informing his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Ban was given the job.

Bolton wasted no time sitting Ban down to tell him what his priorities were: “this was a lot to absorb, especially just a few moments before the General Assembly’s formal election, but I was confident Ban was listening carefully.”

Return of the Invisible Man

Second term: 2012-present

Derided in a leaked memo as an “invisible Secretary-General” who had pushed the UN towards irrelevancy, Ban had little trouble persuading the Security Council to support his election for a second term.

That term is now reaching a crescendo, with the post-2015 summit, which will set new global goals to replace the MDGs and the climate summit in Paris, which will attempt to forge a global deal to stabilize the world’s climate.

But the fight to replace Ban is already on, with a growing number of aspirants throwing their hats into the ring.

Have the Americans, or another of the P5, again already anointed a candidate? Will deadlock lead to another accidental SG emerging late in the day and agreed behind closed doors? Or could tentative moves towards transparency bring the whole process out in the open?

David Steven is editor of UNSG2016. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, and a senior nonresident fellow at The Brookings Institution. You can find him on Twitter, Medium, Global Dashboard and download his publications here.

David Steven

Written by

International relations, global risks, & resilience. Also Pakistan, Nigeria. Find me at: Center on International Cooperation, NYU; River Path; Global Dashboard.

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