The Next Kofi Annan?

In their obsession over upcoming midterm elections, Washingtonians and others may have missed another political transition coming up this year. In December, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan steps down to make room for a new head of the world body. The election of a successor won’t really be that democratic. The 15 members of the Security Council–well, really the five permanent members–will squabble privately and find someone they can live with. Then they’ll toss the choice down to the General Assembly for a yea or nay vote–usually yea (it’s faster that way). Any campaigning will be done discreetly.

There are already numerous rumored contenders. Some are celebrities, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But these are long shots. The United States would be lucky to gain chairmanship of a U.N. committee on international parking in these times, and Britain, as its best mate, would fare no better.

By tradition, the post is supposed to rotate by continent, more or less like the Olympics. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has already hinted that Eastern Europe should be next on the list, an allusion to his enthusiasm for Alexander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland. But, if Bolton’s support weren’t already enough to doom Kwasniewski’s bid, Moscow has also made clear it won’t stand for an Eastern European.

Asia is the most likely region to produce the next leader since the United Nations has not had an Asian secretary general since the 1970s. China, as a member of the Security Council, is effectively out of the running. Japan won’t get any nods (it’s too disliked in Asia), nor will Taiwan (it was booted out in 1971), nor will North Korea (where does one begin). Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been mentioned by some U.N. watchers, but her current house arrest status would require an excessive amount of telecommuting. That leaves three frontrunners: Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai of Thailand, former Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Dhanapala Jayantha of Sri Lanka, and Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon of South Korea. Each combines regional flavor and nomenclatural freshness. Jayantha Dhanapala is respected but considered a bit weak in his management skills, and Surakiart Sathirathai, while popular among Southeast Asian nations, is undermined by Thai domestic politics, which are turbulent these days. Which brings us to Ban Ki Moon. Easiest of the three to spell and pronounce, Ban is also a reputed favorite of Michael Green, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for Asia until January. Better still, Ban is from a country that peacefully transitioned to a prosperous democracy. So Ban it is. Case closed. Oh, sorry, is the rest of the world okay with that?