International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: After Annan
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2006
HONG KONG It is natural that Asia should want an Asian to be the next secretary general of the United Nations - the first since the Burmese diplomat U Thant occupied the post from 1961 to 1971.

But there is a real danger of the appointment becoming an unseemly battleground of competing Asian national interests that will end either with the appointment of a safe nonentity or of a candidate from Eastern Europe. That is unless the permanent members of the Security Council who have veto powers over the appointment can come to an early agreement.

So far four candidates from Asia have gone public with their aspirations. All have their drawbacks as well as strengths. First in the field was Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai of Thailand. His officially sponsored candidacy was more the product of the ambitions of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to raise the nation's profile, than of his own standing as a diplomat.

In theory, Surakiart's candidacy seemed fine. Thailand is a medium sized country with good relations with both the United States and China and he received assurances of support from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But Thaksin himself is now embattled. Muslim countries dislike his crude approach to Thailand's troubled south. Thailand also already has a high-profile international figure, former WTO head Supachai Panichpakdi, running the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Surakiart is only 48. He has no UN experience and he is not well known in New York. His candidacy was not helped when a Thai paper quoted a memo from the Thai Embassy in Washington suggesting the United States was not in favor of him.

Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon of South Korea looks like an altogether stronger candidate. Ban has a lot of negotiating experience - he has played a major role in talks on the Korean nuclear crisis. He has strong management skills and he did a stint as Seoul's ambassador to the United Nations.

China may agree to Ban, despite Beijing's links with North Korea, but Ban has had a difficult relationship with the United States as Seoul has sought to engage Pyongyang.

There are others who feel that Koreans are altogether too pushy to be entrusted with this job and that making the appointment an issue of national pride is the contrary to its spirit. A Korean also heads the World Health Organization - the country is not lacking in high-level UN posts.

Those looking for a more traditional appointment may favor Sri Lanka's Jayantha Dhanapala who has a long record of UN service; he has held the job of undersecretary general for disarmament. He is well liked in Washington where he also served as ambassador.

Old UN links may seem a disadvantage with reform high on the future agenda, but Secretary General Kofi Annan made the transition from career UN civil servant to leader very successfully. Dhanapala's low profile outside the United Nations may be an advantage, but the timing may be off as many in East Asia feel underrepresented in international bodies.

A fourth possible candidate from Asia is Foreign Minister Josť Ramos-Horta of East Timor. He has a Nobel Peace prize to his name as well as a post-independence record of constructive dealings with former enemies in Jakarta. But he is viewed as insufficiently Asian by many Asians to get their support and his role in Timor's independence struggle is more appreciated in the West than the East.

It is quite likely that as discussions get underway other names will come up as acceptable compromises. One such is Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore who spent many years as a diplomat at the United Nations and whose personal profile might override misgivings over his role as chief ideologist for an authoritarian government. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore is another possibility.

For sheer stature, Eastern Europe has two possible who outrank any of the Asian candidates: Former President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland and President Vaira Fike-Freiberga of Latvia. But they would represent a departure from the tradition of appointing diplomats. They would have to overcome Russian suspicions and China would have to agree with the United States that rotation of the job to Asia is not essential.

Bringing a view from a prosperous and relatively peaceful Asia to conflicts in the Middle East and Africa might be advantageous. Asia needs to feel that it has a larger role in institutions shaped in 1945. But two other things count as far as the future of the world body is concerned: an ability to lead and an ability to keep the United States on board.

Whoever wins, it will not be easy to follow in Annan's footsteps. Despite the oil-for-food scandal and lack of progress on UN reform, he may well have done more to bolster the international standing of the organization than any secretary general since Dag Hammarskjold.