Cloakrooms And Daggers

HELP WANTED: Secretary-General, the United Nations. Salary: $190,000 per year. Benefits: enormous prestige, opportunities for travel. Responsibilities: flexible. Qualifications: international diplomat with friends in high places but no opinions that might offend the governments of the United States, Britain, France, China or the Soviet Union. Must speak French. Formal applications not encouraged; whispering campaigns will be considered, provided they do not breach boundaries of good taste. (The United Nations is an equal opportunity/affirmative-action employer.)

All is quiet and polite along the cool corridors of the United Nations' Manhattan headquarters. But below the surface rages the world's weirdest political campaign. In the race for U.N. secretary-general, there are no speeches, no fund-raisers. It's considered bad form even to say you're a candidate. "Everyone says they're not interested, but they're suddenly found visiting Paris, London and Moscow, ostensibly on other business," says former under-secretary-general Brian Urquhart. The primary electorate consists of the 15 members of the Security Council, nine of whom, including all five veto-wielding permanent members, must agree on a choice, then submit it to the General Assembly. Not even U.N. interpreters are allowed to attend the supersecret Security Council sessions. The only sure thing is that the current "S.-G.," Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru wants a rest after two five-year terms.

During the cold war, Washington and Moscow routinely canceled out each other's choices. The Chinese, British and French blackballed one or both sides. Eventually everyone settled on a figure no one knew well enough to object to. This system produced Kurt Waldheim in 1971, but also Sweden's Dag Hammarskjold; elected in 1953 as a bland technocrat, he proved an independent crisis manager who earned a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.

Theoretically, the cold war's end creates an opportunity for picking a candidate on the merits. In fact, the process has become even more complicated. The United States wants a capable administrator who will restructure the U.N.'s unwieldy bureaucracy and support U.S. collective-security plans in places like the Persian Gulf. Paris insists the job go to someone who speaks French (a U.N. working language). For a while the Franco-American compromise seemed to be French-speaking Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. But he bowed out last week, citing his country's constitutional crisis.

In a break with tradition, the Organization of African Unity has put forward an official slate of six candidates, claiming, in the spirit of global affirmative action, that Africa is the one major region of the world yet to supply a secretary-general. The OAU, representing 51 of the 166 countries seated in the General Assembly, could act as a spoiler if an African is not named. The leading sub-Saharan candidate is Bernard Chidzero, finance minister of Zimbabwe.

The other front runner is Boutros Boutros Ghali, Egyptian deputy prime minister. He is a Coptic Christian Arab married to a Jew. He speaks French; some of his friends even call him "Pierre." Although many Africans would prefer to see a sub-Saharan get the nod, Ghali is acceptable to the OAU. He impressed the United States by helping to secure Arab support for the gulf war. Ghali's problems are his age, 69 next week, and the fact that he comes from a country involved in an ongoing international dispute.

One U.S. favorite for the job is Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, a former U.N. high commissioner for refugees whose most recent assignment has been coordinator of humanitarian relief in Iraq. Born in Paris and educated at Harvard, he is a citizen of Iran but also carries a French passport. The dashing "Sadri" is effective on television and boasts a 20-year friendship with George Bush. Still, the prince seems to be fading in the stretch, primarily because of his reputation as a poor administrator. Washington also likes Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, said to be Secretary of State James Baker's personal favorite.

The United Nations has already missed its unofficial Oct. 31 deadline for picking a new secretary-general. In a recent Security Council straw poll, with members endorsing as many candidates as they liked, Ghali and Chidzero were the top vote getters, with nine each; Sadruddin and van den Broek got just five votes apiece. Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who would be the first female S.-G., received only two. Of course, a prominent school of thought holds that the eventual winner could he a current noncandidate, like Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh. "A front runner has never been elected. Never!" says a U.N. official. The ultimate dark horse is Perez de Cuellar himself; diplomats say he couldn't refuse if a deadlocked Council turns to him to save it from a political nightmare. Which is exactly what some people think the secretary-general selection process has become.