Last October the United Nations Security Council elected the world body’s ninth Secretary-General, the former Portuguese prime minister, Antonio Guterres.
As the candidate who came second last time, ten years ago, when Ban Ki-moon was elected in similar circumstances, I followed the vote with interest. The idea of my contesting for the post of Secretary-General, in what was universally accepted as “Asia’s turn” to lead the Organization, first began to be expressed by Asian ambassadors and senior Secretariat officials in 2005, as the initial candidacies emerged. I was flattered but did not take it too seriously; a candidate needed to be sponsored by a member state, ideally his own, and I had no reason to believe that India would seek to project one. Within the Indian bureaucracy, the rumour-mill had it that the foreign secretary was after the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General, and would hardly welcome a successful UN candidacy spoiling his pitch.
I therefore gave the matter little thought—until my routine annual meeting, as UN Under-Secretary-General, with the visiting prime minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, on the occasion of the UN General Assembly in September 2005. To my surprise, he opened our conversation with a direct question: “would you be interested in contesting for the post of Secretary-General?”
While mine was a credible candidacy, as several permanent representatives suggested, the election of a UN Secretary-General is principally a political exercise. The prime minister and his national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, discussed the key political issues with me. Could an Indian, hailing from a big country, aspire to a post that had traditionally been filled by citizens of relatively small countries? There was no reason why not. The only convention was that none of the permanent members of the Security Council, who after all enjoyed the veto, could also seek the Secretary-Generalship—but India had no such privilege yet.
Would my candidacy affect India’s claims to a permanent seat on the Security Council? The PM felt that New Delhi’s efforts to achieve Security Council reform were going nowhere, and such a prospect was hardly imminent.
What about Pakistan? They were bound to mount a ferocious campaign against an Indian candidate. But I had not worked for the Indian government, and as a UN official, I had always observed the proprieties of my position, refraining from making any negative political comments about specific member states. It would be hard to pin any disqualifying evidence of bias on me.
What about the five permanent members of the Security Council, who each disposed of a veto in the SG’s election? India had been warming up to the US, and relations with the Bush Administration were excellent: both the PM and his national security advisor felt the US would be supportive. I urged that this be confirmed without delay, so that American support could be established before the growing number of other candidates got there ahead of us. This turned out to be a prescient warning.
Similar thoughts were expressed by the national security adviser about Russia and the UK, and my relations with the French were known to be good. Of the Asian candidates in the fray, I was the only one who spoke their language fluently.
Four permanent members were therefore assumed to be likely to favour us, though the Government was to reconfirm this assessment through bilateral contacts. This left China. Would China veto me?
Some have suggested that my run for the Secretary-Generalship was scuttled by China. This is simply untrue.
I was an Indian but had never served as a government official, spending the preceding twenty-eight years as an international civil servant. Would the Chinese government see me principally as the United Nations official many of them knew, or as the thin Indian edge of an anti-Chinese wedge?
Accordingly, I spoke to the Permanent Representative of China, the energetic Ambassador Wang Guangya, to say that I would like to call on his foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing. “You are always welcome,” the diplomat replied, to which I responded: “But I want to convey through you why I want to see him. India is considering nominating me to contest for the post of Secretary-General—and this is what I wish to discuss with him. If he does not wish to receive me on this subject, I will get the message and no embarrassment need be caused on either side.”
“Let me check with Beijing and get back to you,” Ambassador Wang replied.
It took him a few days but he did indeed call back. “Foreign Minister Li will be very pleased to receive you,” he said.
“Let me make this clear,” I said. “I am coming to discuss my possible candidacy for Secretary-General. Since it is a personal issue, I am not coming on official mission for the United Nations. And since I do not work for the Indian Government, I am not coming as an Indian emissary either.”
I later met Foreign Minister Li, an experienced and jovial diplomat whom I had known when he served as China’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. The discussions duly began with all formality. “China strongly wishes to see an Asian Secretary-General elected this time,” the Foreign Minister noted after politely expressing China’s appreciation for my record at the UN, “but do you think there may be a risk that too many candidates could undermine each other?”
This could have been a signal that China felt there were enough contenders in the fray already—or that an Indian would be an unwelcome addition to the list. But Li went out of his way to dispel such an interpretation of his remarks. He mentioned China’s growing closeness to India and expressed satisfaction that New Delhi was considering seeking such a position at the UN. He explored my thoughts on various world issues. At one point, Foreign Minister Li switched to French, and after an amicable exchange he laughed: “Now all you need to do is learn Chinese!” He offered, with a smile, to be my teacher, and proceeded to scribble my name in Chinese characters on a napkin.
As the meeting drew to a close, his tone turned grave. He spoke slowly and clearly in English: “Please convey to your government that China will not stand in your way.”
China will not stand in your way. There was only one possible interpretation of these words: China would not use its veto to block me.
Li was as good as his word. When the first “straw poll” took place at the Security Council in July amongst the candidates, Mr Ban led with twelve votes and I was second with ten. One of my ten votes was China’s. Council members could vote positively, negatively or with no opinion on all the candidates, and as we subsequently learned, China had voted positively for all the Asian candidates, including me.
We know the rest of the story from American sources, notably Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, the startling memoir published by the then US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who disloyally reveals that his instructions from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were: “We don’t want a strong Secretary-General”. Bolton’s book confirms that Wang had voted for all the Asian candidates on the first ballot; China then abstained on my candidacy on subsequent ballots, but as it promised, it never vetoed me. That was done by the United States, which, Bolton reveals, backed Ban to the hilt and lobbied on his behalf with other Security Council members.
What went wrong, then, given the Indian Government’s optimistic assessment that the US would support my candidacy? I have pieced together the facts from conversations with highly-placed American officials.
When I had dinner with President George Bush (on his visit to Mumbai in early 2011) he grinned broadly and said, “Oh, I left that all to Condi!” The US role in the UN Secretary-General’s race was delegated to the secretary of state and her close advisers, and implemented in New York by the neo-conservative ideologue who had been appointed UN Ambassador, John Bolton.
For the secretary of state and her department, three considerations appear to have prevailed. First, the bilateral relationship with South Korea. At a time when various irritants had cropped up between Washington and President Roh Tae-woo, the last thing Dr Rice needed was to antagonize the Koreans on an issue that clearly mattered a great deal to them, and mattered little to the US. The Koreans had waged a relentless, well-organized and lavishly-financed campaign on Mr Ban’s behalf; the US Ambassador in Seoul, Christopher Hill, became their strongest advocate at Foggy Bottom. Rather than pro-actively choosing Mr Ban, senior officials later told me, it became a case of needing strong reasons not to support South Korea.
At the same time, Washington never got the impression that the UN Secretary-Generalship was as much a priority for India as it clearly was for the South Koreans. The Indian government was much more focused on the Indo-US nuclear deal that was taking shape at the same time.
After considerable delay—during which I personally had assumed it wasn’t happening—New Delhi finally decided to nominate me only in June 2006, when six other candidates were already in the fray.
But even if we had managed to receive as many votes as Mr Ban, the American veto would have ended the race. It is clear that a more energetic campaign by itself would not have worked. Because the third factor that weighed heavily with the Americans was the collapse of their warm relationship with the incumbent Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
Annan had been an American favourite, strongly backed by the Clinton Administration for election in 1996 and supported by Bush for re-election in 2001. But in 2003, he had said—after being badgered into a corner by a BBC interviewer—that the Iraq War was “illegal”. This had set off a firestorm in neo-con-run DC, and unleashed a savage backlash against Annan, with lurid media exposés of the “oil-for-food” scandal being used to tarnish his image. As the question of his successor came up, one senior American told me, Washington was determined: “No more Kofis”. What was meant was that the US would not want a Secretary-General who, like Annan, could appeal above the heads of governments to a global public and use the world media to advance his UN agenda. Those terms, alas, fitted one candidate to a T—or an ST.
These three factors—the bilateral relationship with Korea, a perception of a lack of conviction on India’s part, and the Bush Administration’s desire not to repeat the Annan experiment of a “strong” Secretary-General—combined to ensure the US veto that scuttled my candidacy.
It had nothing to do with India’s size, India’s Security Council aspirations or indeed any political skulduggery at home. Least of all did it have anything to do with China. Even if Beijing, as Bolton’s memoir indicates, was quite happy with the outcome, China never opposed me.
There is always room to explore the counter-factuals of any past event, and electoral defeats are particularly apt to lend themselves to “what ifs”. At a different time in Indo-US relations, or with a different kind of US Administration, or with the candidacy being given a greater national priority, the result might have been different. But let there be no doubt that in the end in 2006, the Security Council, and particularly the US, got the Secretary-General it wanted.
Shashi Tharoor served for twenty-nine years at the UN, culminating as Under-Secretary-General. He is the author of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (Hurst).
A longer version of this article first appeared in OPEN Magazine, New Delhi. It is reproduced here with permission.