A Bookshelf Essential: The UN Secretariat: A Brief History

UN Secretariat: A Brief HistoryIn The UN Secretariat: A Brief History, Thant Myint-U and Amy Scott (International Peace Academy) provide an engaging review of what could otherwise be an extraordinarily dry subject. Even for UN enthusiasts, a history of administrative and staffing concerns of the Secretaries-General could be a bit of a bore. But Myint-U and Scott enliven the subject wonderfully, conveying the charm and political savvy of UN officials, staff and diplomats who are often left characterized as undistinguished bureaucrats.

While not focused on the selection of each Secretary-General, an observant reader will discern within the text an entertaining thread of insight on how each of the UN’s chief executives were chosen over the last 60 years. Perhaps unsurprising, regional discrimination had a strong influence, even in the organization’s earliest days. But Scott and Myint-U note how, in contrast to today’s “tradition” of regional rotation, the early UN Secretaries-Generals were chosen from a gradually restricted number of countries, driven predominantly by Cold War politics and the interests of the Soviet Union.

The first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie of Norway, was selected in part under Soviet insistence that the Secretary General not be a North American, British or French national. In 1953, the acceptable sources of candidates were further restricted so as to not include Latin Americans, given that region’s considerable voice and influence in the General Assembly and perceived alliance with U.S. interests. By the late 1950s, the Soviets had grown weary of Western candidates and proposed a ‘troika’ of regional Secretaries-General. This was only dropped with the selection of a non-Westerner, U Thant, in 1961 and his reappointment in 1966.

As the UN General Assembly became majority non-Western, Myint-U and Scott’s narrative tells how the East-West rivalry in selecting the Secretary-General was replaced with a North-South opposition. Soviet disgruntledness diminished in the late 1960s, giving way to China’s rise as advocate for the developing world. After grudgingly accepting two terms for Kurt Waldheim in the 1970s, China vetoed his candidacy for a third term. The next three Secretaries-General would originate from “southern” or developing countries – Peru, Egypt and Ghana.  In 2006, China’s regional and growing global influence all but eliminated consideration of candidates from outside Asia; South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon was elected in October 2006.

Like the selection of the Secretary-General, the Secretariat itself is given little definition in the UN Charter. The UN Secretariat documents how each Secretary-General, once chosen, structured and reformed the institution’s hierarchy to suit their own interests and vision. Readers familiar with the current arrangement of departments, offices, ASGs and USGs will enjoy the authors’ description (and use of organigrams) to reveal a singular history of how these came about. At the same time, Myint-U and Scott avoid a sense of historical completion by considering in their summary observations the politics and questions that (will) continue to influence the Secretariat’s organization, staffing and independence.

While at times, the material still succumbs to the inherent dryness of such administrative and diplomatic histories, Myint-U and Scott maintain an undemanding style by including stories and anecdotes that reveal the genuine and flawed humans tasked with global leadership. Espionage and suicide, demands for better housing, and direct confrontations between Secretariat officials and Soviet, American and other representatives all make for entertaining reading.


The UN Secretariat is not available for sale from Amazon or other online merchants. Order a hardcopy by contacting the International Peace Academy at (212) 225-9632 or download it for free at this link.

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