On Tuesday, Nov. 19, the United Nations Security Council met in closed session. Although curtains were drawn to prevent outside photography and an aura of secrecy surrounded the meeting, its outcome was no surprise. The council voted 14-1 to re-elect Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The sole dissenting vote — enough, under U.N. guidelines, to veto a second term for secretary general — was cast by the United States. The veto was a calculated political maneuver by the Clinton administration — one designed to help the president win this fall’s election, but which will cost the United States dearly in international affairs.
On the campaign trail, Republican challenger Bob Dole routinely attacked the United Nations, mocked Boutros-Ghali and inaccurately asserted that the secretary general had the power to send U.S. troops into combat. True to form, Clinton quickly appropriated his opponent’s stance. He vowed in June to block Boutros-Ghali from a second term, citing the secretary general’s lack of progress toward reforming the United Nations’ elephantine budget. Whether the issue had any noticeable impact on the election is doubtful, but Clinton kept the campaign promise.
While this instance of the president’s headlong rush to the right went largely unheeded over the summer, its consequences have now arrived. To the rest of the world, the American veto smacks of heavy-handedness, if not brute arrogance. Boutros-Ghali reacted with public outrage, and the rest of the Security Council seems determined to stand up to the bully on the block.
The Clinton administration hoped that by announcing its opposition to Boutros-Ghali so early, his support would be undermined and an opportunistic challenger would emerge. The reverse has happened. Africa, determined to keep the top post, has united behind the Egyptian secretary general. “We have a list composed of one person, Dr. Boutros-Ghali,” said the Botswana representative to the Security Council last week. The united front comes in spite of lingering opposition to Boutros-Ghali in his native Egypt, where his role in Anwar Sadat’s treaty with Israel and identity as a Coptic Christian in a Muslim nation have long created dissent. In the face of such unity, any U.S.-backed successor will be instantly shot down.
Germany, France, Canada and many other countries with no political advantage in Boutros-Ghali’s reelection have asked Clinton to back down. The near-unanimous support for the secretary general transcends political boundaries largely because Boutros-Ghali has performed admirably. Despite debacles in Bosnia and Rwanda, the secretary general has earned the respect of the world, only to fall victim to an American campaign ploy.
Most egregious is Clinton’s rationale for the veto. As the United Nations’ greatest debtor, the United States is the chief obstacle to the reform it demands. At $1.4 billion, the United States owes the equivalent of the U.N. annual budget. Yet Boutros-Ghali has made progress in reforming the United Nations. “In fact, reform … has gone ahead at fair speed, which means rocket speed by the standard of international bureaucracy,” said an article in The Economist. America gave you a second term to finish the reforms you began, Mr. President — don’t you owe Secretary General Boutros-Ghali the same opportunity?