Ahern has ideal qualities to govern the UN


Because the UN is as imperfect as it is indispensable, questions abound about its future. Important in determining this will be who succeeds Kofi Annan as secretary general. He or she will have two main challenges: first, to persuade members to implement reforms of its failing institutions; second, to be an effective crisis manager. Bertie Ahern fits the bill because these challenges play to his leadership strengths and expose none of his weaknesses, writes Dan O'Brien

When trouble flares in the world, the UN is almost always drafted in to fight the fire. But its involvement is not straightforward because there are, in effect, two UNs - the inter-governmental forum centred around the security council and the much less significant international organisation over which the secretary general presides.

The big security decisions are taken by huddles of member-country diplomats in the warren of rooms around the security council chamber in New York. The secretary general is, at best, a supporting actor. He does as he is mandated by the members and risks incurring their wrath if he attempts to involve himself without invitation.

Secretaries general, therefore, must be content to work within the constraints of the job and resist the temptation to push tightly circumscribed boundaries. In times of crisis they can persuade and cajole, and deploy their (considerable) moral authority, but cannot bang heads together. They listen, identify where compromise is possible, split differences, facilitate agreement, and then, if requested, co-ordinate implementation.

Mr Ahern ticks all these boxes. Most relevant is his stint as EU president in 2004 because that role is so similar to that of UN secretary general, both in its responsibilities and limitations. The manner in which he brokered agreement without acrimony on the now defunct EU constitution was a case study in effective chairmanship, consensus building and dispute resolution.

Mr Ahern's character is well suited to such roles. He is highly self-controlled, only losing his temper when he chooses - in Dáil debates, for example, but never in private negotiations. He does not get entangled in clashes of pride because, unlike most successful politicians, he does not have the over-developed ego that causes the self-important to be ultra-sensitive. He is also patient and willing to soak up criticism if he believes it will help achieve his goal.

The Taoiseach's one (very serious) weakness as a negotiator is his excessive willingness to give in to demands when put under pressure, most notably by concessions-hungry provisionals and grasping social partners. But because it is the members who gift concessions at the UN, not the secretary general, Mr Ahern's weakness in this regard would be of as little relevance as it was when he was EU president.

As important as what Mr Ahern would do in the job is what he would not do. He could be trusted not to attempt to muscle in on members' sphere of responsibilities because of his innate caution and dislike of bold initiatives. Although his reluctance to exercise his prime ministerial power (a defining feature of his time as Taoiseach) may have resulted in many missed opportunities, that limited ambition and cautious restraint are just what a UN secretary general needs if he is to avoid being slapped down by the members.

The second major task for the next secretary general will be to advance institutional reform. Because a blueprint already exists, vision will not be required; just persuasion, tenacity and unceasing effort to ensure effective implementation. Here again, Mr Ahern would be the right man for the job. His diligence and capacity for hard work are not questioned even by his sternest opponents, while his (limited) capacity for creative vision would not be unduly taxed.

Mr Ahern could also hasten change by introducing some true Drumcondra grit to the Manhattan bubble which UN staffers and the diplomats in the organisation's orbit inhabit. After Mr Annan (the ultimate UN insider) the leadership style of a down-to-earth political heavyweight from the real world would do far more for the organisation than an urbane polyglot from the diplomatic cocktail party circuit.

Just as Mr Ahern's appointment would be good for the UN, it would also be good for Ireland. Over the past decade, the country has come to be seen internationally as a model for others. Its dazzling success has made it the most economically globalised country in the world. But Ireland's coming of age has yet to be fully expressed politically and diplomatically. Mr Ahern's elevation to the pinnacle of global diplomacy would send a signal that Ireland has arrived not only as an economy, but as a state too. It would also have the happy byproduct of raising the country's profile, adding to prestige, generating goodwill and increasing influence.

Mr Ahern is unquestionably the right man for the job, but there would be obstacles to overcome. The most significant is the feeling among Asians that it is their turn to lead - not since Burma's U Thant stood down in 1972 has the world's most populous continent held the role. But it is a convention - not a rule - that the secretary general job be rotated geographically, and besides, with tensions and suspicions in abundant supply in the region, Asians may be unable to agree among themselves on a candidate.

If a suitable Asian does not emerge, the world will inevitably look Europe's way - three of the UN's seven secretaries general have come from small successful European countries. Not only is Ireland unthreatening and small, it is a country whose commitment to the UN system is unquestioned and against whom nobody bears a grudge. This can be seen in who would be likely to support the Taoiseach's candidature (or at least not oppose it).

Most important are the five veto-wielding permanent members of the security council. First among equals is the US, the UN's biggest bankroller. Excellent relations mean that Mr Ahern would be regarded approvingly in Washington. He would also get the nod from Paris, thanks, among other things, to his good relations with the French president. Add an enthusiastic Tony Blair to the axis and only the Russians and Chinese would need buttering up. Beyond the bigs, Mr Ahern would win support from other EU members and the developing world. With no foreseeable opposition and plenty of support, he would stand an excellent chance.

By the time the UN job comes up Mr Ahern will have spent almost a decade as Taoiseach, longer than anyone since de Valera. This, surely, is more than enough, not least because there is little he is likely to achieve in his second decade that he has not in his first. Mr Ahern should consider the job. He could do more service to country, and the world, in New York than in Dublin.

Dan O'Brien, who writes here in a personal capacity, is a senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit