15 June 2005

Finally, after five years, a first Bush Administration nominee joins the U.N. Secretariat. Since Kofi Annan took over in 1997 all senior Americans -- even mid-level ones -- were Democrats. The only recent Republican was Catherine Bertini but she came from within the system. Yet despite her good connections in Washington, and her expert knowledge of U.N. machinery, the former World Food Program chief was blocked at every corner by internal powers intent on letting her know who really ran the place.

Even some non-Americans around Annan's staff flaunted some sort of a special link with presumably influential Democrats. For example, someone like Shashi Tharoor, then Special Assistant to Annan, bragged about some connection with something called the Renaissance Club, a gathering of loyalists around the Clintons in Hilton Head over the Christmas holidays.

However, there is no doubt now that the Bush Administration is ready to play an active role in U.N. affairs, particularly after the Iraq issue, Food-for-Oil, and Darfur. The global view of President Bush as interpreted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rests on realigning U.S.-U.N. relations and, from that perspective, redeeming the U.N. from its current ponderosity, while injecting innovative reform (not just rhetorical gimmicks) so that the Organization envisaged by its Charter of 1945 will be enabled to play its desired role in the 21st Century.

Let us at least hope that such was the vision behind the nomination of the former Chief Executive Officer of the "Vision Fund" and a prominent "pioneer" in President Bush's campaign. The appointment does not seem like one of those accommodating a political nominee, but more like providing the U.N. with a trusted manager whose approach to a problem is to solve it.

Understandably, he will need to have time to consider and handle a growing number of structural, conceptual and political problems. An immediate internal challenge is to repair the seriously strained relationship between the Annan Administration and its disappointed demoralized staff. His predecessor Catherine Bertini who tried very hard was undercut at every corner by then Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza and Oversight Chief Dailip Neer who dismissed basic staff complaints as a mere nuisance as long as they could remain covered by the Secretary General. By December 2004, it reached a point when an unprecedented staff resolution withdrew confidence from that administration. That must have jolted the only Secretary General to rise from the staff into paying more attention to staff matters. The absence of any meeting for three years between staff and management at their joint Consultative Committee (SMCC) was reconsidered. A decision by the Secretary General to hold an open meeting of staff representatives on Monday 6 June was a positive sign of an interest, however symbolic, in enhancing a dialogue. An interesting variable will be the role of the new Chef de Cabinet, Mark Malloch-Brown. Would his actions or statements help or hinder that worthwhile endeavour?

The newly appointed U.N. Under Secretary-General for Administration and Management has uncontested leadership experience in the private sector and in public service. Although Christopher Bancroft Burnham, who replaced Catherine Bertini as of 1 June, came from the U.S. State Department, he originally headed Columbus Circle Investors (CCI), a private management firm which specialized in growth equities with over $3 billion at stake. While its "surprise and momentum" strategy was controversial, CCI was voted sixth of Top 20 best managed firms. It is linked with one of the largest private companies, PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company), whose total attributes reached over $373 billion in assets under management by the end of 2003. The "Vision Fund," as Columbus Circle Investors was labeled, focused on companies using innovative technologies in new products, enhanced distribution systems, and improved management techniques.

When the Manhattan-born Connecticut resident was nominated by President Bush to the State Department in October 2001 the Bureau of Resources Management was created consolidating all budgeting, accounting, strategic planning, and global financial operations. An antiquated Wang-based accounting system was replaced with a unified integrated Web-based global reporting system. A "business planning process," linked to performance, has been implemented for all bureaus at headquarters and field offices abroad. A former banker with Credit Suisse First Boston, Christopher Burnham was elected in 1994 Treasurer of the State of Connecticut, and elected to its House of Representatives three times. To round it all up, he is a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp Reserve. To his credit, he had one of the first infantry units to reach and liberate Kuwait City from the Iraqi invasion in 1991.

Clearly, the United Nations at its most challenged days needs a management leader of that calibre. Action-oriented, with an innovative approach and a proven track record, he could play a pivotal role in pulling back the Organization, if allowed unfettered authority. Hopefully, his good links with the current U.S. Administration would persuade those in New York obsessed with their own influence to facilitate his task.

Christopher Burnham faces many new challenges as he moves from a national environment to a multinational machinery. Some are simply administrative, like having a say in filling the vacant post of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management, which comes directly under him. The Office of Controller was recently filled by a competent insider. Would he wish to look into the third Office of Central Support Services which will be directly dealing with yet unresolved Capital Project? To what extent will Mr. Burnham deal with the now controversial question of temporary movement of the Secretariat to a swing space? His background connected to PIMCO, a major real estate player, may come in handy in helping to find a way out.

There are also structural and budgetary challenges. He will need some time to study the set-up but soon enough he will have to sharpen the focus on specific targets to implement and specific obstacles to demolish. Which will they be? Where?

Yet the most crucial role is the leadership one. As a senior member of the Secretary-General's cabinet, he will have to take positions beyond building management, budget and personnel questions. His background reflects an overall approach and a creative handling of problems. Particularly with a beleaguered and let's be frank, weakened Secretary-General, to what extent will Christopher Burnham participate in wider major decisions? As an international civil servant, he is now fully and exclusively working for the United Nations. Yet, it will help the Organization if he kept his finger on the pulse by alerting those concerned on all sides in order to avert further potential trouble. To what extent will he play such a delicate balancing act?

Maybe we are placing too much on a single appointment. But these are desperate times for those who put their best hopes -- and the best of their lives -- to a once-proud and spotless United Nations. Whatever Christopher Bancroft Burnham can do to that end will earn him a special place in U.N. history.