THE BLOG
01/23/2007 06:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

U.S. Seeks Even More Power At UN

Signs that new Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will appoint a U.S. citizen to run the powerful UN department of political affairs are being greeted by mounting concern among diplomats, officials and analysts.

Already a proposal by Ban to strengthen political affairs for the U.S. by adding the department of disarmament was defeated by the Non-Aligned Movement, fearful of Washington garnering too much power at the world body.

With anti-Americanism surging across the globe in the wake of U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, disquiet is spreading at the UN that an American at the helm of political affairs would create an impression that Washington rather than the UN was running UN policy.

The U.S. in charge of the political department could undermine the UN's image of neutrality, the bedrock of its political effectiveness, especially in a region like the Middle East where Washington's neutrality is questioned, analysts and diplomats say.

"It will probably send the wrong signals," said a senior African diplomat who spoke to me on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities involved. "When you are head of political affairs you are helping people consolidate peace, helping people to negotiate coming out of conflict. He will always be mistaken for speaking for Washington and not the UN."

Ban has already interviewed an American diplomat for the top political job, Burton Lynn Pascoe, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, a senior UN official confirmed. Pascoe, 63, has served 39 years as a Foreign Service officer with postings in Moscow, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Beijing, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur. He is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.

As a career diplomat who has served both Democratic and Republican administrations, Pascoe is not the type of political appointee that would immediately raise suspicions, analysts said. Nevertheless, even if Pascoe were to maintain strict independence from the U.S. government, he would still likely be perceived as doing Washington's bidding.

"He probably will implement UN policy but he will be seen as implementing US policy," the African diplomat said. "People will look and say, 'This is Washington.' It is an impossible situation."

According to the UN charter, UN officials must pledge total allegiance to the world body and refuse to take instructions from their national governments.

"In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization," reads Article 100. "They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the Organization."

But the clear perception at the UN is that this pledge is routinely ignored. U.S. citizens who worked as UN weapons inspectors in Iraq were found to have spied for U.S. intelligence agencies in the mid-1990s. During the Cold War, the KGB was long believed to have run the Dag Hammarskjöld library at UN headquarters in New York.

Even if these associations were never explicitly proven, the fear persists that national governments tamper with the performance of UN officials who are their citizens.

"I think it is not only a fear, but it would happen," William Pace, executive director of the World Federalist movement told me. Pace pointed out that Christopher Burnham, the American who just resigned as UN undersecretary general in charge of management, told the Washington Post that he felt more responsible to Washington than the UN. "I came here at the request of the White House. ... My primary loyalty is to the United States of America," Burnham told the newspaper.

Pace said, "You can't have a legitimate United Nations system, and certainly the other 191 countries won't have confidence, if the top international civil servants are viewed as primarily taking instructions from their government and not honouring their oath to the UN."

Officials from powerful nations are more suspect than diplomats from countries with lower ambitions in the international arena, such as in Scandinavia, Canada or the Netherlands, analysts and diplomats say

"I think you want the highest positions to be controlled ... by the small and middle powers that have proven to be amongst the best managers," said Pace.

Wang Guangya, China's UN ambassador, was quoted by the New York Sun as saying, that "a less powerful country, a country that is more neutral" than the U.S. should get the political post.

But U.S. officials privately point out that the U.S. pays a quarter of the UN's peacekeeping budget and 22% of its general budget and should exercise more political control over the organization.

"Let's be fair and ask everyone if they are loyal to just the UN or to their country, not just the United States," a U.S. official told me. "We don't think an American should be removed from consideration because he is an American."

Wielding a Security Council veto doesn't mean "it should lock out Americans from helping the UN," he said. "We think American's are qualified and the American taxpayer pays a great deal of money and we think it only makes sense to have Americans in senior positions helping to run the UN."

The U.S. has given up on running the department of management after last year losing an epic battle over management reform with the G77 group of developing nations, lead by South Africa's UN ambassador Dumisani Kumalo.

A former American advisor to Kofi Annan and other past secretaries-general, who asked not to be named, told me he'd argued for years with the State Department to abandon management and for a political post.

"One reason they should get out of management to begin with is so they can have a big voice on the political issues," the advisor said.

It could help the U.S. persuade the Security Council what positions to take and how to use peacekeepers, as the undersecretary-general in charge of political affairs regularly briefs and presents reports to the council containing options for action, he said.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, took a less conspiratorial view of U.S. aims. "The Bush administration wants to control the UN and sideline it to make sure it doesn't have any power," Bennis told me. "I don't think it is necessarily part of a well-thought out, carefully crafted strategy. There is a huge amount of grabbing whatever they can and political affairs sounds like the most important thing."

She did say that in the Middle East it would be hard to "convince the Palestinians to accept a UN role if the head of political affairs comes right out of the State Department."

Pace questioned the wisdom of the five permanent members of the Security Council getting guaranteed management jobs on top of the veto power it enjoys on peace and security issues in the council.

But the permanent five have traditionally run UN departments like private fiefdoms, a tradition, however, that is changing.

Britain had long controlled the single department of peacekeeping and political affairs, until they were split in two by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1994. France was given the new peacekeeping department and Britain retained political affairs until two years ago, when Annan appointed Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian.

Britain tried to get political affairs back this month, but Ban appointed the UK candidate, John Holmes, to head humanitarian affairs instead. That only fueled speculation that he left political affairs open for Washington.

The U.S. ran General Assembly affairs until 1989, when it took over management to better look after the UN budget, and the 22% the U.S. contributes to it.

As early as October the State Department started to express interest in ditching management and heading either the political affairs or peacekeeping department, according to the former U.S. advisor.

The appointment will not be announced until Ban completes a restructuring of departments, his spokeswoman said. But his plans have already run into trouble.

Opposition to the U.S. getting the post is strong enough that it likely influenced a movement by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to derail a Ban proposal to fold the department of disarmament into political affairs to create a powerful new unit for an American run.

A NAM diplomat, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said he believed the NAM acted to prevent an American from running a more powerful department. There is no indication the U.S. will back away from its desire for the post.

Egyptian Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, the current NAM president, cautioned that a combining disarmament and political affairs would over politicize the department. It is "going to over politicization, and particularly if somebody from a nuclear weapon state will occupy the Department of Political Affairs," Abdelaziz was quoted by the Associated Press as saying in an obvious reference to the U.S.

Ban has also proposed splitting peacekeeping into two departments, one for management, procurement and logistics and the other for operations. The current thinking at the UN is that France will keep the operational side of peacekeeping but relinquish the new budget and management side to Japan, although the U.S. may want that post instead.

The senior African diplomat believes Washington would prefer to keep tabs on peacekeeping spending. The U.S. is supposed to pay 27% of peacekeeping cost but Congress only allocates 25%. Ban asked Bush to pay the full 27% when he met with him in the Oval Office last week.

"It would be in line with their interests," the African diplomat said. "If they are giving $800 million to the Congo operation, being in charge of peacekeeping management would let them know how it is being spent. It would also be less controversial than political affairs or operations."

Though he said Ban hadn't asked the G77 for its opinion, the diplomat said he wasn't convinced the secretary general would face down the uproar and pick an American for either post in the end.

"I'll believe it when I see it," he said.