The race to succeed Mr. Kofi Annan as the next U.N. secretary general has begun. The job is one of the most high-profile in the world, and one of the most thankless. For all its prestige, the United Nations is a dumping ground for many of the world’s most intractable concerns. The secretary general must have a thick skin to deal with the constant criticism, to serve an unruly mix of masters — the member states to whom he (or she) answers — and to manage a massive sprawling organization. It is a wonder anyone is willing to take up the assignment.

The secretary general serves a five-year term. Mr. Annan’s term expires Dec. 31. According to the U.N. Charter, the individual is selected by the 191-member General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. Typically, that process includes informal consultations among the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Britain, Russia and the United States), straw polls, private meetings and then the General Assembly vote. Needless to say, the process is opaque.

It is unclear what the job qualifications are. There is an informal rule that no P-5 citizen will serve as secretary general. If tradition is any indication, the next secretary general should come from Asia, as the job has rotated among the various regions. Yet there have been three secretary generals from Western Europe, two from Africa, one from Latin America, one from Asia, and none from Eastern Europe.

Still, the consensus view among African and Asian nations, which make up one third of the world’s population and comprise more than one-half of the U.N.’s members, is that it is their turn.

Although the campaign is just beginning, there are already several names on the list. They include South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, former U.N. undersecretary general for disarmament affairs. Conspicuously missing from the list is a woman. A woman’s rights advocacy group lists 18 women worldwide who are considered qualified for the job. There is certainly no reason why gender should disqualify a candidate.

Mr. Ban’s candidacy poses special problems for Japan. Given the deterioration of relations with South Korea, support for the foreign minister would be a positive gesture and earn good will in that country. Unfortunately, Seoul has not been supportive of Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been cool toward the candidate, commenting that it was too soon to decide on who to support. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe noted that Japan should take a “comprehensive view,” looking to the various candidates’ views of U.N. reform — and hence Japan’s status — before deciding. South Korea may well be considered too close to the U.S. for the rest of the world to view him as a viable candidate. So Japan may avoid being forced into an uncomfortable choice after all.

The U.N. has offices around the world and thousands of employees working in every field of human endeavor. The secretary general must be much more than a lowest common denominator to manage this unwieldy institution. The day-to-day operations of the U.N. entail huge sums of money across a range of activities that require more oversight. In addition, exceptional programs, such as the Iraq “Oil for Food” program, have demonstrated a desperate need for better managerial skills at the highest levels of U.N. leadership.

What the Volcker Committee investigation of that program did not emphasize is that the secretary general’s authority will always be restricted by the wishes of the Security Council. The secretary general has only as much power as is delegated to him. In this sense, the debate over the credibility and authority of the U.N. — or the damage that has been done to it — is a false one: If the institution is weak, or the secretary general seen as powerless, it is because its members prefer it that way. Indeed, Mr. Annan’s predecessor, Mr. Boutros-Boutros Ghali, lost the confidence of the U.S. because he was considered too independent for Washington’s tastes.

Any secretary general walks a fine line. The individual must have the ambition to want to solve the world’s problems — and believe that they can be solved. He or she must answer to governments that often see the secretary general as an obstacle to work around rather than work with. In short, the ideal candidate will possess a powerful idealism that will be balanced by a keen eye for managerial detail. A strong ego must be checked by infinite patience and an appetite for frustration. We wish the candidates — and the eventual winner — good luck.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.