Boutros Boutros-Ghali: The UN, the U.S. and the Seizure of Power
It was never going to be easy coming to office at the head of an organisation that persists in confusing and terrifying politicians in various degrees. The position of United Nations Secretary General has been gradually denuded of its influence, to the point where the current office holder, Ban Ki-Moon, remains but a passing, barely rippling murmur in foreign policy.
The years the Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali was at the helm – 1992 to 1996 – also saw the emergence of a supremely unfettered United States. The bully boy of the playground had lost contending playmates in the post-Cold War era. Whether they would provide constructive leadership through the mechanism of the UN was something he would always question.
When it became clear that Boutros-Ghali would be a contender for the Secretary General’s position, the Central Intelligence Agency got busy with its evaluations. It warned President George H. W. Bush in 1991 of the Egyptian’s “uncontrollable” and “unpredictable” tendencies. This was potentially troublesome, given Washington’s free hand in determining the global agenda.
Both sides of the aisles in Congress detested him, with the greater number coming from the GOP. The impression he left on US politics ran deep, so much so it became electoral fodder and a staple for shock jock commentary.
In 1996, Senator Robert Dole went so far as to mispronounce his name on the campaign trail while claiming that Boutros-Ghali was effectively running US foreign policy. Boo-Boo was being left out in the cold.
That year also saw the position of the UN being hijacked by the politics of funds due from the United States to the UN. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s reason for keeping the $1.2 billion owed to the UN away from its coffers was directly related to the insistence that Boutros-Ghali was weak, a non-reformer presiding over a largely obsolete organisation. Trim a bloated democracy, pan many of its running costs, and the operating funds would be forthcoming.
This proved to be a straw man’s argument, made even more ludicrous by the fact that Boutros-Ghali did succeed in cutting UN personnel from 12,000 to 9,000, with a reduction of the highest paid posts from 48 to 37. The operating budget for 1996-7 ended up being $117 million less than the previous financial year.
This was another example of the Clinton administration bungling, anticipating no fights, and refusing to keep the matter one of negotiations behind the scenes. But in a more profound way, it was an admission that the New World Order proclaimed by Clinton’s predecessor would defy the international community at various points. The thumping sound of unilateralism could be heard.
As Eric Rouleau would exclaim in Le Monde Diplomatique, “The sole remaining superpower has declared war on a man who enjoys the sympathy of the vast majority of the member countries of the UN.”
The techniques used to discredit Boutros-Ghali were straight from the school of playground politics, with generous lashings of innuendo. Robert Rubin, an associate of the then US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, attempted to muddy the waters with suggestions that Boutros-Ghali had misused public funds. He had done nothing of the sort.
Boutros-Ghali could count his admirers in the United States on one hand: the Representative Charles Rangle, and New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal, who did on occasion throw in the odd defence.
With good reason, Boutros-Ghali felt that a vendetta was afoot. China and Russia saw a different individual, one who would not be in the pocket of other powers, while France saw in him a spiritual follower, Sorbonne-educated and a true Francophone. It was US opposition to the renewal of his period in office that scuppered any prospects for continuation. This blatantly ignored the precedent set in 1950 when the Soviets vetoed the re-election of the US-backed incumbent, Trygve Lie of Norway.
Much of this was outlined in his memoir Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga (1999). It is a work that sees him relish being troublesome in an organisation where diplomacy counts. Not that he was prone to its practice. “There is something weird or even psychologically stunted about a world figure,” claimed Stephen Schlesinger, formerly of the UN Human Settlements Programme, “who boasts of his own offensive personal characteristics as proof of his leadership qualities.”
Within the UN’s structural context, Boutros-Ghali suggested the creation of a rapid reaction force in “An Agenda for Peace,” considered by some one of the best reform proposals out of a fairly poor bunch. It stressed the need for greater regionalism in implementing Security Council mandates, and an end to the financial problems of the UN structure through the levying of taxes. Such “preventive diplomacy” was dismissed in Washington circles.
Instead of such a force, a half-baked, hamstrung approach manifested in Bosnia, Somalia and Cambodia. In frustration, Boutros-Ghali would claim that the breaking up of Yugoslavia, “a rich man’s war,” was taking precedence over other areas of crisis. He was accused, in turn, of a Third Worldism.
All the way through, Boutros-Ghali would find the troublesome gorilla of Uncle Sam disrupting plans whilst hampering others. He, in turn, would respond, vacillating over the US suggestion to bomb Serb positions while angering Israel and the Washington lobby by publishing the findings of a UN inquiry that implicated the IDF in the killing of a hundred civilians who had gathered in a UN camp in the southern Lebanese town of Qana.
The nub of the matter was always the same: the degree of effectiveness from any UN mission can only ever be as complete as the will of its member states. A hostage to the power politics of the permanent five, and controlled by agendas outside its own operational remit, the UN remains very much the image of Boutros-Ghali’s legacy: ambitious on paper, diplomatically stunted and susceptible to manipulation.