Who is Charming Whom?

Within the current atmosphere, one of the most astute players on the UN scene today is Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. The courteous yet blunt Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee made an unprecedented visit, in January, with the full membership of the UN Security Council in New York, and invited them "to come visit" Washington, which they did. And this summer, Secretary-General Kofi Annan went to Senator Helms' North Carolina University to address its commencement.

All this is a far cry from only three years ago when the name of the Republican Senator was mentioned mainly by American senior staff - who are mostly Democrats - without much admiration.

About four years ago, the Senator, who was blocking payment of US dues, was sighted one Saturday in a regular UN guided tour with his grandchildren. An alert guide notified the then head of the Department of Public Information, who came to welcome him, offered hospitality and notified the then Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. A most senior American Secretariat official was then called to brief the visiting Senator. The official, a Democrat, arrived, understandably, in casual dress, offered his business card and suggested to Senator Helms that he could call if he wanted any financial or administrative information - and left.

By poetic irony, the increasingly powerful Senator had the opportunity, this past January, to "return the elevator" as the French say, in his own way when he held "hearings" about the UN in New York. It may not have been intentional, but it was noted that the Chairman overlooked, delayed and almost cancelled a presentation by the same American UN official, suggesting adjournment for lunch then courteously agreeing to a very brief appearance.

Having proved his authority by blocking payment of UN dues, then joining in making a proposal yet to be accepted internationally; having kept a distinguished US nominee to the post of Ambassador to the UN cooling his heels for over a year; having "told it like it is" to the agreeable Secretary-General - the Senator from North Carolina is the target of a diplomatic charm offensive from various quarters of the UN compound in New York. Some within the Secretariat are puzzled.

Some diplomats are confused. But most observers read it as a sign of the times. Anyway, the master of southern charm seems to enjoy being charmed, especially by his apologetic former critics. So, who is charming whom in the end? One never knows. One almost could add, and who cares? Except that over $3 billion are at stake.