«U Thant Electing U Thant By Hammarskjöld’s last year, the Secretariat was in crisis. The Soviets and the French had both fallen out with the ...»
In 1962 he was praised for his role in diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, adding greatly to his prestige and facilitating his 1962 appointment.58 He was also involved in mediation in the IndiaPakistan war of 1965 and in lesser known yet successful roles in Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere.
Thant’s attempts to broker talks between Hanoi and Washington in 1965 and 1966 came to nothing, and his early public criticisms of the war in Vietnam, a crisis that worried him immensely, led to US opprobrium. His handling of the withdrawal of UNEF in 1967 was heavily criticized and together with the split over Vietnam and the new Third World majority in the General Assembly, helped drive the Secretariat and Washington further apart. Yet, by associating himself with the interests of the Third World and by speaking out openly against the Vietnam War at a time when peace movements throughout the West were gaining 45 steam, he was able to find a public niche for the SecretaryGeneralship during a period of protracted Security Council deadlock.
Perhaps even more than Hammarskjöld, but building on the latter’s “Peking Formula,” Thant carved out a role for the Secretary-General as mediator independent of the Security Council or General Assembly. In Yemen for example, he not only forged a peace agreement, but even deployed a peacekeeping operation (borrowing troops from UNEF), gaining Council authorization only afterwards. Reflecting on his good offices role, he later wrote in his memoirs that there were occasions “when the Secretary-General could act without the guidance of the principal deliberative organs.” He described the role as a “moderator,” a term previously coined by President Roosevelt.59 The Reappointment of U Thant As the end of his first proper term approached in 1966, U Thant said that he was not interested in reappointment. But as the deadline came closer, he hinted that he would accept a second term (perhaps of less than five years) but only on certain conditions. His position was left vague, even to his closest advisors.
Earlier, the Soviets told Thant that the terms for their support for a second term would include diluting the powers of C.V.
Narasimhan (who was then Under-Secretary for General Assembly Affairs and Chef de Cabinet) and the creation of an advisory board to counsel the Secretary-General, which would include Bunche, Rolz-Bennett, and Narasimhan (his three most senior advisors) but also Aleksey Nestorenko, the Soviet Under-Secretary for Political and Security Council Affairs whom they complained was never brought to the 38th floor. Ideally, they also wanted the retirement of Bunche and Paul Hoffman (at the UN Special Fund) and for more senior positions for the Socialist bloc.Thant told the Soviets that if they had a better candidate for the Secretary-General position, they should propose him.At the time Robert Gardiner of Ghana, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Max Jacobson of Finland and Sadruddin Aga Khan of Iran were all mooted as possible successors.
Thant seemed to want to stay, but also to find a way of doing 46 this which strengthened rather than weakened his office. By remaining enigmatic to the very end about his willingness to
accept a second term, he seemed to have received what he wanted:
full control over his senior appointments, an uncontested reappointment, an interim statement by the Security Council reaffirming their faith in him and a statement by the President of the General Assembly acknowledging the responsibility of the membership to resolve major issues such as the financial crisis.60 Although the USSR was lukewarm, they could not decide on a different candidate and did not want a fight over the issue. In October, the Security Council approved Thant’s reappointment in “the higher interests of the Organization.”61 By this time Ralph Bunche wanted to retire from the UN, in part to devote himself more fully to the civil rights struggle at home (he had been a tireless civil rights advocate his entire adult life). But Thant pressured him to stay, saying he would himself leave if Bunche did, a sign of the extent to which Thant had come to depend on Bunche’s judgment and immense capability.
Thant with Ralph Bunche, 1965
47 The New General Assembly Majority and the Challenge of Finding (and Keeping) Good Staff Thant took office at the beginning of a sea-change in the UN’s membership, with dozens of newly decolonized Asian and African countries swelling the ranks of the General Assembly. Until the early 1960s, the United States and its Latin American allies enjoyed a majority in the Assembly and thus controlled the Secretariat’s budget. Now, there was a “non-aligned” majority and from the beginning, Thant came under pressure from these new member states to make the Secretariat more representative. By the time he left, the Secretariat was indeed much less Western in composition, but the absence of a proper personnel strategy and supporting mechanisms meant that the incoming staff were of an accidental quality, some excellent and others below standard. An opportunity to fix the geographic balance while increasing quality across the board was missed.
In 1962, there were approximately 1,500 professional posts and the Soviets were well below the range of 170-220 to which they were entitled. Moscow gave Thant lists of eighty positions it wanted for Soviet citizens and seventy serving officials for whom it sought promotions. The Soviets also proposed the placement of all staff on short-term contracts.62 A General Assembly resolution called on Thant to press for a more equitable distribution of staff, but the Soviet bloc abstained, saying it did not go far enough.63 In the face of such pressures, Thant declared that the administrative and financial integrity of the UN “must be zealously maintained.” He assured staff that any change would be achieved through attrition and he would not allow the interests of the career service to be undermined.64 Yet the make-up of the staff did indeed change quickly and the early 1960s saw in particular a significant increase in the proportion of African staff (partly the result of a 1965 mission to stimulate African applications). From 1963 to 1966 alone there was a fifty percent increase to 125 African staff, 23 in senior positions.65 Faced with this influx, long-term employees felt insecure. Particularly grating for some was the appointment of less experienced or seemingly more junior recruits at higher positions. There was an 48 49 The Growth of the UN Membership (often misjudged) perception that the geographical diversity of the UN was undermining the overall quality, as - it was argued - the educational levels of the new staff from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were not equivalent to those from Western Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the total number of staff was growing rapidly, and was over 8,000 by the end of the 1960s.
The challenge was clear. Many of the career UN old hands – overwhelmingly Western – were retiring and these needed to be replaced with a more geographically balanced cadre, but one of equal if not better quality. From the 38th floor, where Narasimhan had a carte blanche in administrative affairs, no solution emerged for a system to identify, encourage, recruit, and train the best candidates from around the world, only a good deal of horse trading and attempts to balance member state pressures.
An additional problem that many saw was the Secretariat’s relatively low salaries and limited career prospects.66 For example, a junior economist joining the UN in the 1960s was paid approximately $8,000 a year, about half of what he (rarely she) would be paid at the Secretariat of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and significantly under the average professional salary in New York City of around $13,000.67 Clerical staff received only about $5,000, a fairly modest sum even for the time.
In December 1968 a study requested by the General Assembly urged the UN to take steps to obtain qualified staff members and not allow standards to deteriorate. A panel of seven experts, under Narasimham, asserted that the Secretariat faced “serious problems in finding qualified officials” and recommended a long-term recruitment plan be carried out as a matter of priority.68 There were then 7,300 staff members including 2,500 professionals. The “seven wise men” suggested a talent search on university campuses to find gifted young people, on-the-job training and mid-career refresher courses (with training programs outsourced to universities and foundations), job rotation and controversially, regular changes at the top-level. These were good suggestions, but they apparently never got off the ground.
Meanwhile, the influx of new staff also brought about a particular mix that still defines the political culture of the Secretariat today. The older careerists in the Secretariat, for the most part liberal or left-leaning Americans, Canadians and Western Europeans, were now joined by men (rarely women) from the developing world, generally from the new political class in those countries, producing the range of social democratic, statist, and Third World nationalist and anti-colonialist sympathies which to some extent predominate to this day.
Staff from communist countries were however in a very small minority and remained generally at the margins of the Secretariat.
This was partly because of their low number, and partly because they were seen as agents of Moscow. It was alleged that Soviets in the Secretariat were frequently bypassed, or snowed under with pointless work that kept them apart from meaningful information and decision-making. Georgy Arkadiev, Under-Secretary for Political and Security Affairs, had had regular skirmishes with Hammarskjöld over this issue, but Thant discontinued his services after he was seen openly sending notes of guidance to the Soviet ambassador in the Security Council.
The 1960s was the beginning of increasingly negative, though sometimes exaggerated, portrayals of the Secretariat. For example, in his memoirs of his time at the UN, one Under-Secretary from the 1960s (the Brazilian Taveres De Sá) described the Secretariat as driven by cliques, constrained by bureaucratic time-wasting and obstructiveness and primarily engaged in “pointless” memowriting. He accused some of the upper echelons of being primarily interested in their own power and privileges and described the typical staffer as lazy, corrupt, and self-indulged, with a “problem for every solution.”69 In July 1963, there were even allegations of a call-girl ring operating in the building.Thant denied the claims in relation to the Secretariat, but said he could not speak for member state delegations.70 Another Restructuring By the late 1960s, the growth of Secretariat staff and functions had made the upper echelon unwieldy. The original model of eight Assistant Secretaries-General reporting to the Secretary-General 51 had now ballooned into thirty-four senior staff including fourteen Under-Secretaries in New York, five heading up the regional commissions and fifteen others at the helm of other offices.
Following a review in 1967, Thant proposed a reduction in top posts through the creation of two levels – Under SecretariesGeneral (USGs) and Assistant Secretaries-General (ASGs) – with proper geographical distribution at both.71 Eleven USGs would report to him and would be expected to maintain, in addition to their line functions, an overview of the UN’s activities more generally.The ASGs would have departmental, but no system-wide responsibilities. Thant also asked for a raise for his senior staff to $33,500. Less interested than Hammarskjöld in administrative matters and with no desire to deal with these issues directly through the 38th floor, he combined the duties of Director of Personnel and Controller into a single USG in charge of finance and administration. Bruce Turner of New Zealand, a career UN official, was appointed to the new post.
In contrast to the membership’s close scrutiny of other administrative questions, the ACABQ refrained from commenting on the proposals. One member said that the Secretary-General had the right to make such changes and this seemed to be the feeling all around.The General Assembly approved them without opposition.72 The new system reversed Hammarskjöld’s reorganization of 1955, though Hammarskjöld himself had suggested the idea of two categories in the year before his death. The system was used to differentiate the seniority of former Under-Secretaries rather than to create a new tier within departments; the only department that had both a USG and an ASG was Economic and Social Affairs. In the Department of Political and Security Council Affairs, there remained a Soviet head, now called a “USG” (Alexie Nesterenko) and an American “Director” of Political Affairs.
52 The Secretariat by 1971, reflecting Thant’s structural changes 53 The Secretary-Generalship in the 1960s Thant was the first Secretary-General to take over the Secretariat after the West had lost its majority in the General Assembly and was thus becoming increasingly skeptical of the organization. The Soviets were already deeply skeptical, having fallen out with both of Thant’s predecessors, forcing Lie to resign and ceasing to recognize Hammarskjöld.Thant’s tenure represented a turn by the Secretariat towards the Third World – the newly decolonized majority in the General Assembly – and an attempt to find a tenable position between the West and the Soviet bloc, in part through a more visible association with the Third World’s development and related concerns.
By Thant’s reappointment in 1966, the idea of the troika was dead.The office of Secretary-General was also increasingly treated with the sort of pomp never before given to the head of an international organization. For example, in 1962, President Ben Bella and his entire cabinet met Thant on his arrival at Algiers, together with a 21-gun salute, in part as a show of thanks for his efforts towards Algerian independence. In 1964 Thant was accorded the equivalent of a state visit to Washington by Lyndon
U Thant with Bertrand Russell in London
54 Johnson, complete with a Marine honor guard and a lavish dinner.