Kofi’s successor

It is time to end the Buggins’ turn way to pick a UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, steps down in December, and the race to succeed him is still wide open. The process of choosing his successor is anything but clear: by tradition a candidate “emerges” from discussion in the Security Council, and the name is then put to the General Assembly for approval. In practice, the successful contender is chosen after heated wrangling, horse trading and threats by the veto-wielding members to block anyone they do not like. In 1996 the arguments went on until mid-December: Mr Annan had barely two weeks to prepare for his new job.

The candidates this time have declared their hand earlier, and there have already been two straw polls in the Security Council, with a final informal vote on Thursday. So far Ban Ki Moon, the South Korean Foreign Minister, appears to be ahead, winning 14 of the 15 votes in the last ballot. He seems to be pulling ahead of the slightly foppish Shashi Tharoor, of India, the UN Under-Secretary for Public Information, and has clearly more traction than the other declared candidates: a former Afghan finance minister, Jordan’s UN ambassador, the President of Latvia, a former Sri Lankan UN under-secretary for disarmament and the former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, whose chances have been damaged by the Bangkok coup.

Mr Ban appears to have won the unofficial endorsement of Mr Annan, who has just promoted his campaign manager. He has started making statements designed to appeal to China and America, talking of making the UN “more effective, more efficient and more relevant” to tackle terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while saying that he could act as a bridge between developed and developing nations.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Mr Ban has the job in the bag. He is counting on the Buggins’ turn tradition in the UN, which assumes that it is Asia’s turn to provide the new secretary-general. That tradition is as irrelevant as it is limiting. John Bolton, the US Ambassador to the UN, has already stated publicly what many others believe: that the job should go to the best-qualified person, regardless of origin. This is the argument of the impressive Latvian President, who should not be disqualified either by being a European or a woman. If there is to be any turnabout in UN fortunes, its members should be looking to turn around the opaque and unsatisfactory way in which its top administrator is chosen.

Any candidate must understand the challenge: putting the UN house in order will take courage, political will and an integrity that is proof against institutionalised bureaucracy or political pressure. The secretary-general has come to be seen as the world’s top diplomat; but the job specification is to run the UN, a role that has been badly neglected. The idea that Mr Ban is entitled to the job is absurd. The exotic field, the Latvian President aside, is not particularly impressive, and he would be a winner by default rather than chosen with enthusiasm. The UN and the world deserve better.