Personal target of a superpower

April 21, 2000

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the only secretary-general of the United Nations to be denied a second term; his re-election was blocked in the Security Council solely by the veto of the United States, all other member states voting affirmatively. It might be rude to suggest that only a loser would entitle his memoir Unvanquished, but there appears one example after another during Boutros-Ghali's term as secretary-general when he found himself frustrated by his inability to prevent the US from making the UN a scapegoat or otherwise abusing its pre-eminent position.

The challenges to the world organisation during his tenure, 1991-96, were among the most difficult of the UN's first half-century, and would have stretched the talents of any secretary-general. Boutros-Ghali, however, seemed possessed of a personality that almost invited the endless disagreements of the long-running saga he recounts in this lively and well-written, if somewhat petulant and self-centred, account.

Friction between the US and the UN, especially over the financial crisis caused mainly by the American failure to pay huge back-dues, was not new, but the battle with Boutros-Ghali was more intense and sustained than it had earlier been with Javier Perez de Cuellar or is now with Kofi Annan. While American refusal to pay UN bills was largely due to opposition in a Republican-dominated Congress, it was with a new and vacillating Democratic administration that Boutros-Ghali had to deal, and his experiences with secretary of state Warren Christopher and ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright were consistently unhappy.

As a former Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs, Boutros-Ghali was no stranger to the tough world of big-power diplomacy, yet he often expressed irritation at positions the US took on UN operations. When in the wake of the 1993 Somalia fiasco it was clear that the US would not pay for any more unpopular peacekeeping operations, he commented: "The United States had spent $1 billion a day on weaponry during the cold war; by comparison, peacekeeping was cheap."

Boutros-Ghali seems unable to understand that domestic political realities are inseparable from American foreign policy positions, and he confuses the desirable with the possible. Believing that the secretary-general should be independent and decisive, he resented what he thought was the American view that he was nothing more than the UN's chief administrative officer. Yet from the outset the UN has been an intergovernmental organisation, one in which the great powers have always insisted on retaining the veto when selecting the secretary-general.

It was with regard to Bosnia that America's "two-faced" policy of refusing to put troops on the ground while being willing to operate from the air was most detrimental to the UN as an organisation and to the people involved in the conflict. Washington's repeated blaming of the Bosnian situation on the UN's failure to use force was indeed a bum rap; until the American-sponsored Croatian assault on the Serbs in 1995, there was nothing to induce the Serbs to negotiate and it was not within UN capabilities (curtailed by the great powers) to prevent successive catastrophes.

In what might be considered a preview of Nato's later difficulties during the 78 days of bombing over the Kosovo issue in 1999, Boutros-Ghali asks:

"Why was Bosnia a failure? Because the United States was so deeply involved politically and so deeply determined not to be involved militarily."

The list of complaints is long. Boutros-Ghali argues that he was unfairly accused of ambitions he never held, plots he never hatched, exercising authority he did not pretend to assert, and other injustices by a hostile America for which there was "little need for diplomacy; power is enough". He boldly asserts that an active secretary-general will come under fire from both sides when he performs his role well, and quotes the 1995 judgement of The Economist that "Boutros-Ghali is the most effective head of the United Nations in history, and the Americans hate him for it." The dislike he mentions was blatantly obvious; the effectiveness was less so.

Unvanquished provides a sharp, if one-sided, picture of an interesting personality who never doubted his abilities, even while struggling against the inevitable once American opinion had turned against him. By the time of his bid for re-election, the US was making a "massive vituperative propaganda effort. It was hard for me to believe that I was the target of this huge effort by the world's only superpower."

What will surprise international relations scholars and historians, however, is Boutros-Ghali's surprise, for by then the handwriting had long been on the wall in bold, black letters.

Robert McGeehan is a teaching fellow at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London.

Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga

Author - Boutros Boutros-Ghali
ISBN - 1 86064 497
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £19.95
Pages - 352

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