Is the UN Secretary-General more Secretary or General? This volume, edited by Simon Chesterman, suggests that the Secretary-General is both.
On the one hand, the role requires the Secretary-General to be a conciliator and secretary to the powerful nations of the world, which has shifted from the Cold War’s bipolar axis to a unipolar world led by the United States. Secretaries-General such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who ignore their role as secretary to the interests of the powerful permanent members of the Security Council, have found at personal cost the consequences of ignoring this role. A systemic truth has been built into the UN system, whereby the interests of powerful permanent members of the Security Council must be managed and kept in mind at all times by the chief administrative officer of the UN—interested readers should particularly read James Cockayne and David M. Malone’s chapter on Secretary-General relations with the Security Council.
On the other hand, the Secretary-General is also a general, not in a military sense but in the context of norm entrepreneurship. The office can be used as a moral “bully pulpit”, to use the phrase of Quang Trinh, a contributor to the volume, to build and develop cultural-moral norms that can be codified into action at the international level. Kofi Annan most successfully performed this role in his guise as “Prophet” of the global South, or alternatively as a secular “Pope” speaking on moralistic and proselytising human rights issues (to use the insightful labels of contributor Adekeye Adebajo). Annan used his office to drive for the adoption of responsibility to protect and the Millennium Development Goals; while the ultimate contribution of these norms are contested, Annan’s support for them is remarkable in redefining the role of the Secretary-General beyond that of a simple “Mediator”.
It should be noted that each contributor has similar yet different perspectives on the legacies that each Secretary-General has left behind. The focus on the personal histories of each Secretary-General is inevitable, given the role that the individual personality of a Secretary-General has in determining the conduct of their office. Edward C. Luck, for instance, would disagree with my assertion that Annan was a successful Prophet and Pope; he argues that both Annan and Boutros-Ghali pushed too hard with ambitious agendas while at the same time criticizing a lack of commitment by Member states, leading to empty posturing and hyperbole by state parties and the UN Secretariat at the expense of focusing on achievable accomplishments. Conversely, the second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, is praised for creating an independent role for the office through the force of his personality, manifested in his “Peking Formula” and defying the Soviet Union through remaining politically celibate without being virgin (pp. 33–46).
Overall, this volume is a valuable edition to the corpus of work on the chief diplomat of the United Nations. It is the latest in the line of works to focus on the institution of the Secretary-General, rather than on individual histories of the persons who have filled that role. Like previous works, such as the edited collection of Benjamin Rivlin and Leon Gordenker,Footnote 1 this collection fleshes out various aspects of the political role of the Secretary-General. The administrative aspects of the role are not discussed in this volume, as acknowledged in Chesterman’s Introduction and in Kofi Annan’s Foreword—the focus remains on the political aspects of the Secretary-General’s work, and underlines the enduring interest surrounding the political role of the office that sits at the apex of the UN Secretariat.
The value of this volume is that it brings together the latest scholarship on the office of Secretary-General while remaining accessible to the reader with no previous knowledge of the role. For the advanced reader, this volume updates perspectives on the office to include commentary on recent problems and scandals, such as the Oil for Food Scandal and failed attempts at reform of the UN system and Security Council. Indeed, the expectations and responsibilities surrounding the office of Secretary-General are legion. Chesterman and Thomas M. Franck conclude that the Secretary-General is neither secretary nor general, given that the office is assigned various responsibilities without the operational capacity to carry them out successfully; they admonish future Secretaries-General to learn to say “no” to impossible tasks (pp. 236, 239). Ultimately the final decision on the future role of the Secretary-General should be left to the reader, who is urged to read this accessible, interesting, and useful volume on “the most impossible job on this earth” (p. 1).
1. RIVLIN, Benjamin and GORDENKER, Leon, The Challenging Role of the UN Secretary-General: Making “the Most Impossible Job in the World” Possible (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993).