author: Geoff Berridge
Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga
Question: When is a diplomatic victory not a diplomatic victory? Answer: When it is achieved by means of a veto in the Security Council of the United Nations. Nowhere is this maxim more tellingly illustrated than in the Council’s meeting in New York in November 1996 which voted on the issue of whether or not to give a full second term (five years) to the Secretary-General, the University of Paris educated Egyptian scholar-diplomat, Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Of the 15 members of the Council, 14 voted in favour and one voted against. Since that member was the United States this represented a veto – and that, to all intents and purposes, was the end of Africa’s first UN Secretary-General.
The US government had come to the conclusion that it did not want an independent spirit on the 38th Floor of the Secretariat and thought that ‘BB-G’ would make a useful scapegoat for the failures of US policy in the Balkans and Somalia. However, it had tried to avoid having to use its veto by going to extraordinary lengths to persuade his supporters to drop him. The State Department barnstormed an OAU summit, sent the Secretary of State himself on a trip to Africa, spread disinformation, and arm-twisted the other members of the Security Council. His official phone lines were tapped – or so he believes. The State Department even tried tempting him to stand down voluntarily with the offer of his own US-financed foundation and a new title – ‘Secretary-General of the United Nations Emeritus’. (Since this would signify ‘honourable discharge’ it was presumably intended to distinguish him from Kurt Waldheim, the predecessor with the somewhat questionable war record.) And yet, when it came to the vote on his future in the Security Council, not even the British supported the Americans – which tells us just what a diplomatic debacle for them this was.
But so what? As Boutros-Ghali says, ‘Only the weak rely on diplomacy [which] is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness’ (p. 198). Of course, he exaggerates – as the half of his own book that I have summarised above amply demonstrates – but there is a kernel of truth in this observation. And this book, by any standards, is a quite riveting account of how and why the United States tried diplomacy but in the end shrugged its shoulders and cast its veto against Boutros Boutros-Ghali – even though its vital interests were not at stake. It is also likely to make angry anyone who thinks – as I do – that the world diplomatic system can only suffer from the political emasculation of the UN Secretariat. I have added some references to this valuable memoir, with its account of the ‘UN-vanquished’ but its Secretary-General morally ‘Unvanquished’ (the title is a clever pun), on the Updating Pages for my textbook.
Review by Geoff Berridge