15 February 2005

The state of affairs must be really sad when a regular appointment of a full-time director of a U.N. Information Centre is hyped up as "revolutionary" action. Yet here we are. Avid subscribers to The Financial Times like ourselves were prominently informed by its relatively new U.N. correspondent Mark Turner that "revolutionary" steps were underway to deal with U.N. presence in the U.S. capital. The Secretariat, we were told rather urgently, was considering the appointment of someone to spend full-time in Washington, D.C. contacting legislators, government officials, media and governmental organizations to put across the U.N. viewpoint. Welcome, dear Mark, to the world of incense burners. Hare Krishna, Carry Curry in a Hurry.

The reportedly bold measures are, in fact, part of a normal job description of any U.N. Information Centre director worth his beans. There has always been a Centre in D.C. -- since 1946 -- that is 59 years ago. The first field office was in London, now closed; but that's another sad tale of incompetence and apathy. Actually, the First General Assembly session decided in its thirteenth resolution to open "branch offices" to mobilize support and convey the U.N. viewpoint. Whether the task was performed effectively or not -- and by whom -- is a question with varied interpretation. The fact is that only until eight years ago, the Director in Washington, Joe Sills, was a senior American at D-2 level (the highest in the professional cadre). A former Secretary General's Spokesman and former UNA/USA activist in the U.S. capital, Joe had easy access to anyone at the highest level in New York and congressmen in Washington. He also conveyed the facts as he saw them, a prerequisite listed in The F.T. revolutionary manifesto. It was only recently that the level was so drastically downgraded and the staff so terribly neglected, slashed, and demoralized that Ambassador Negroponte publicly welcomed closing it. Under Annan's communication team, a dismissive culture and ill-advised mentality assumed that world media could be adoringly swayed by some crafty operators in New York. Awakened by current reality checks, they were scurrying to find help in the long disdained "field." And how could they turn obvious failure to revolutionary victory? Turn to Turner. He's decent, keen and willing and he's right there -- pen and pad alert with earnest attention. Plus, he reports to arguably the best newspaper in the world. It did not occur to that dedicated reporter to explore the background and possibly give thought to the potential impact of a highly visible U.N. official lobbying in Washington. Hasn't he seen even the Secretary General branded with varied labels because of a perceived connection with a certain party of American politicians? Did it not occur for him to wonder why a revival is contemplated only for the U.S. capital; why doesn't such revolutionary fervour extend, for example, to Europe where offices were unceremoniously shut without an effective regional alternative. Do members of British, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese parliaments have to denounce the Secretary General in order to reconsider jumpstarting these offices?

Patiently bearing with us, Turner explained that "after avoiding the revolving door model of Washington lobbying" there is now "a change of business conduct" which is "seen as crucial." A "well-connected U.N. commentator" believes the appointment would elevate the Washington post into much more of a policy office. We are then assured that "that's very important" and then: "the Administration has been asking for that to happen" (hence, it should happen, says the U.N. charter). WHO in the "Administration" was asking is, of course, a confidential matter. However, one official let it slip that the appointee "will need the authority to call senior U.N. officials in New York" and "sometimes" (not regularly, not always, mind you) "to relay unpalatable truths." Wasn't that the expected task of any senior official in any post?

Apparently, someone at U.N. Headquarters is preparing to dive into an empty pool. "Lobbying" through a "revolving door" in the U.S. capital, that is, giving the task to a highly visible American politician is very touchy, high maintenance, highly volatile business. Unless you get someone like Professor John Ruggie, getting involved unduly without fully equipped resources could backfire drastically. No administration, in any country for that matter, would welcome visitors influencing its own policy in its own backyard. When she was U.N. Representative to the U.N., Ambassador Albright bluntly cautioned against too active high-level U.N. presence in Washington; she thought she herself made adequate representation there and no competition -- or "confusion" -- would be welcome. It would be doubtful if the current administration thought otherwise, particularly in the current political atmosphere.

Clearly the U.N. should take steps to fill the post of director UNIC Washington at the highest possible level with a most qualified candidate. Anyone thinking in that direction should be commended and encouraged. New ideas, including "revolutionary" approaches are most welcome. There was, for example, another "revolutionary" item on 5 February, about nominations for UNDP; but that seemed more palatable. But meanwhile, easy on the hot air. That is partly why we're in today's mess.