The year 1992 began at the UN with a furtive change in the lineup of national flags along First Avenue: the Russian Federation’s red white and blue (the old czarist colors) replaced the hammer and sickle of the dissolved Soviet Union. The change was made quietly to avoid the uncomfortable issue of Charter amendment from cropping up, and with it, the Pandora’s box of demands that the Security Council membership be expanded. But the vast shifts in power affecting every aspect of multilateral relations could not be hidden. The countries of the former Eastern Bloc were in a titanic political and economic descent — the world economy shrank for the first time in 46 years as a result — and a one-Super-Power world was a reality for the first time since the heyday of imperial Britain. At such a time of change, the Secretary-General should ideally have been someone attuned to every twitch and nuance in multilateral realities, but the UN had no such luck.
The Organization of African Unity proposed four men to succeed Perez de Cuellar. In a succession of straw polls in the Security Council beginning on 21 October 1991, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and Bernard Chidzero of Zimbabwe emerged as the leading candidates. The latter had worked with UNCTAD. Boutros-Ghali had no experience at all of the UN, and he was 69 years old, a point rubbed in by supporters of Chidzero. (Britain’s UN envoy, David Hannay, a dead ringer for the acid Humphrey in the popular BBC sitcom Yes Minister! joked to journalists that Boutros-Ghali was the “only man I’ve ever met who bounds up when you’re introduced to him and declares how well he is feeling.”) In the straw poll on 21 November Chidzero’s support sank to an unexpected 7; he was evidently done in by a joint decision of France and the Non-Aligned countries. Boutros-Ghali, with 11 votes in favor (none against and 4 abstentions) was picked to be the sixth Secretary-General.
He came from one of Egypt’s most prominent families: Coptic Christian by religion, a scholar and professor of law by training and temperament, a gentleman of effervescent wit and sophisticated taste. His wife was Jewish, and he had been at President Anwar Sadat’s side on his historic trip to Israel. He had been summoned by Sadat after two Foreign Ministers resigned rather than endorse the opening to Israel, and Boutros-Ghali remained at the Ministry through Egypt’s hard years of ostracism and vilification. Only when the UN job hove into sight did he get the title of Foreign Minister. It is significant that until he became Secretary-General, Boutros-Ghali had always been in charge, never in command.
The new Secretary-General’s lack of knowledge of UN realities became obvious at his first Press conference, when he declared emphatically that only Security Council resolutions under the enforcement provisions of the Charter were binding. It had to be “clarified” by a Spokesman within the hour. Another indication was the Secretary-General’s peculiar lack of respect for Ambassadors from developing countries. “I spent exactly 120 seconds in his office!” Ambassador Nugroho Wisnumurti of Indonesia told journalists after he presented his credentials. “I wasn’t even asked to sit down!” African Ambassadors noted the Secretary-General’s tendency to lecture them; they asked that a liaison officer be appointed in his office to deal with African issues but nothing happened. Evidently, Boutros-Ghali’s believed he was on par with Heads of State and Government and preferred to work through them rather than the Ambassadors at the UN. This was a profound miscalculation, for Ambassadors run the UN; the politicians in national capitals depend on their advice. Quite unnecessarily Boutros-Ghali turned what should have been his friendly home base into hostile territory.
Relations with Washington became rough after Bill Clinton took over. The Secretary-General’s June 1992 Agenda for Peace report, declaring that the UN’s security arm had “emerged as a central instrument for the prevention and resolution of conflicts and for the preservation of peace,” might have found a favorable echo from a Bush White House that had okayed intervention in Somalia. But after 16 US Rangers were killed and 70 wounded in a fire fight in Mogadishu (October 1993), Washington’s support for UN peacekeeping in Africa evaporated. That lack of support was undoubtedly a factor in the UN Secretariat’s flawed and muted response to the early warning it got from its Force Commander in Rwanda about preparations for genocide. If a loud alarm had been sounded, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.
In Yugoslavia, the US push for strong action by NATO against the Serbs was opposed by Britain, France and Russia. The Secretary-General, dependent on large European contingents for the viability of the UN presence in the Balkans, sided with them. The emboldened Serbs continued with ethnic cleansing and in the “protected zone” of Srebrenica, massacred thousands of Muslims. Perez de Cuellar’s observation in his memoir that “no international crisis has been the result of Secretariat incompetence” was not true under his successor.
In almost every area, the Secretary-General’s lack of experience with multilateral complexities took a toll. He engineered a major and largely meaningless restructuring of the Secretariat within weeks of taking over. He lost the trust of UN staff by telling The New York Times that change in a large bureaucracy required “stealth.” He appointed a disproportionate number of well connected Americans to top UN jobs, displeasing Europeans who paid, in sum, significantly more into the UN budget than did the United States. By the end of his first term, Boutros-Ghali had managed to alienate most of his constituencies. When the United States announced that it would not support him for a second term, he made a final miscalculation by trying to stay. It took a US veto, days of embarrassing negotiations and a frank phone call from Security Council President Paolo Fulci of Italy before Boutros-Ghali “suspended” his candidacy.
The assessment above should not be taken to mean that Boutros-Ghali was not liked. He was an energetic, good-humoured individual, always ready with a quip to break the ice or lighten an awkward situation. The main problem with him as Secretary-General was an inability to come to grips with the realities of a very specialized environment.