15 APRIL 2012


Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly said that he did not need institutional memory; with a press of a button, he could have what he wanted to know.

Well, here are some facts that no button -- or doormat for that matter -- would tell him: the man he just designated as his Deputy is widely regarded to be fervently seeking the post of U.N. Secretary General. And, to be fair, the man is basically qualified were it not for his chronic hurry to seek it. But then, which Swede would not aspire to follow in the footsteps of our uniquely great Dag Hammarskjold?

When a beleaguered Secretary General Kofi Annan was at his most vulnerable state in 2005, and Jan Eliasson was designated as President of the General Assembly, there started some credible talk in diplomatic corridors about a "Plan B". In brief, it entailed a contingency plan for the incoming Swede to take over as Secretary General In-charge, Acting, Interim, or whatever would eventually prepare for a potential take-over. Nothing would have the Swedes overlook their unflinching support for their favored Annan unless they were persuaded that a Swede would be a credible replacement. A coincidental commemoration of Dag Hammarskjold's 100 year birthday was used to propel Eliasson, in partnership with the shameless opportunist Shashi Tharoor, who had been promoted from a D-1 to USG by none other than Kofi Annan. During a luncheon, honoured by the King of Sweden at a castle near the former Secretary General's summer house, the Swedish officials present -- like the few U.N.-related guests -- were startled by an unscheduled speech. Tharoor, claiming he spoke on behalf of foreign guests, disregarded protocol by blatantly telling His Majesty and others that although Hammarskjold and Count Bernadotte were outstanding Swedish figures in the past, there was now another distinguished Swede -- Jan Eliasson -- who is making, and will make, further impact on the international stage. Puzzled Swedes wondered who was that pretentious fellow and why would he dare compare one of their diplomats to their national icons? The only eager attendant was a peroxide-blonde who accompanied Tharoor and seemed to intervene with the Swedish Foreign Ministry official on the pretext that she came from the Secretary General's office -- the Annan team had brought her from London for reasons irrelevant to this case. She actually stayed for a while after Ban Ki-moon took over until a phone call from the new Chef de Cabinet arranged to have her placed in the "Democracy Fund"!

Anyway, Plan B didn't work. Even in his weakened status, Kofi Annan, assisted by the formidable Mark Malloch Brown, shrewdly outmaneuvered everyone to end his full (unlucky!) second term.

Actually, Eliasson -- a generous contributor (from the Swedish government money) to U.N. Correspondents' luncheons and dinners -- had ambitions to succeed Dr. Boutros-Ghali. When he served as Ambassador in Washington, D.C., a Secretariat staffer who reportedly operated closely with him was eventually removed.

Now that there is widespread speculation about a European succeeding Ban Ki-moon, the appointment of Eliasson as Deputy Secretary General raised questions on whether certain powers already decided on their candidate. No doubt, the Secretary General did not make such an appointment lightly. At least, with his unprecedented record of appointing women in senior posts, he could have easily found another woman to replace the ineffective Asha-Rose.

There is no doubt about Eliasson's qualifications, nor his wide experience or his dedication to international civil service. He is an active, open, media-minded diplomat who takes his work very seriously and would not put up with tactics to undercut him. As the Ahlenius report shows, Swedish diplomats -- whom Eliasson led from 2006, however briefly -- are familiar with the intricacies of the current management of the Secretary General's office.

Besides the speculation about a future candidacy, a pressing question will be: to what extent will the style and rhythm of the newly-appointed Deputy Secretary General align with that of his official boss? How would the division of work work? Say between Eliasson and Mr. Kim? Or Mr. Orr?

Again, as the Chinese would say: we may be approaching "interesting times"!