Mission Impossible?

Shashi TharoorLast month, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, opened the Committee on Information meeting at the UN urging reforms to restore public trust in the world body’s ideals and its actions. 

“One of our key challenges, therefore, is to close this gap and once again make the UN not only a symbol of our collective hope, but also a powerful instrument for translating that hope into everyday reality.”

Last week, Mr. Tharoor offered a penetrating look inside the UN that helps close the gap between the “ideal” and the “reality” of the office of the UNSG.  Tharoor’s acclaimed eloquence was undiminished in his bestowal of “the most impossible job on earth” – the reality part – with a sense of glory and reverence – the ideal.

“True, the secretary general has an unparalleled agenda-shaping authority. But he does not have the power to execute all his ideas, and he articulates a vision that only governments can fulfill. He moves the world, but he cannot direct it.”

As he described in each paragraph one impossible challenge after another, he yet left the reader inspired by those willing and entrusted to hold the office.

“The secretary general knows he can accomplish little without the support of members whose inaction on one issue or another he might otherwise want to denounce. He cannot afford to allow any frustration on any one issue to affect his ability to elicit cooperation from governments on a range of others.”

With three declared candidates and several potential but unannounced others (including Tharoor?), a number of reformers have lamented the lack of a formal job description for the UN’s top post. In closing, Tharoor offered a list of qualifications which makes any further effort pointless. 

“To be effective, [the UNSG] must be skilled at managing staff and budgets, gifted at public diplomacy (and its behind-the-scenes variant), and able to engage the loyalties of a wide array of external actors, including non-governmental organizations, business groups, and journalists.

He also must convince the nations of the poor and conflict-ridden South that their interests are uppermost in his mind while ensuring that he can work effectively with the wealthy and powerful North. He must recognize the power and the prerogatives of the Security Council, especially its five permanent members, while staying attentive to the priorities and passions of the General Assembly. And he must present member states with politically achievable proposals and implement his mandates within the means they provide him.

Above all, the secretary general needs a vision of the higher purpose of his office and an awareness of its potential and limitations. In other words, to be successful, he must conceive and project a vision of the UN as it should be, while administering and defending the organization as it is.

Truly an impossible job.”


An open thread for readers: Which of the declared or undeclared candidates reflect these qualities or skills? Any? None?  

4 Responses to “Mission Impossible?”

  1. MZ says:

    Wow indeed. If intellectual heft, profound knowledge of the UN, personal brilliance and inspirational spaking ability were all that was needed, Shashi Tharoor would have this job in a canter. But who says the UN SG-ship is about merit alone?

  2. HelenJC says:

    Shashi Tharoor is certainly a very accomplished and talented man. But he has two huge strikes against him, were he to try for the Secretary-Generalship. The first is Bosnia. He was the UN’s desk officer for UNPROFOR and very much an architect of a UN Secretariat policy which led directly to Srebenica. This is not to say that others both inside the Secretariat and among governments were not equally or more to blame, but Shashi Tharoor never seems to have learned the lesson of why the Secretariat was so much at fault in Bosnia from 1992-6. No introspection, no admitting mistakes, no apologies.

    The second strike against him is DPI, one of the worst, most bloated and ineffective departments in the UN. Its always been like that, but he’s now been at the helm for a couple of years or more, and has done little to change things. I’m sure he can give us a list of things he’s done, but if athe Secretariat three years into his SG-ship is like DPI today, then the UN’s in for an even tough time.

  3. unnikrishna says:

    Shashi Tharoor’s experience with UN and his caliber as a writer/communicator will positively effect to the new position of SG.
    HelenJC’s strikes against Shashi will pale in comparison with what he has achieved. If he was a failure even that can make him a better SG.
    Goodluck Mr.Shashi Tharoor, Whole India and Asia behind you.

  4. mathew says:

    A celebrated novelist, biographer and commentator, Shashi Tharoor has consistently and impressively defended the world body’s indispensability in today’s world. He was named by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as a “Global Leader of Tomorrow” in 1998. With his impeccable record as an international civil servant and his long years of management experience within the UN, Tharoor is an ideal candidate for the next Secretary-General.

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