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International Politics on the World Stage, Brief 4/e
World Politics: International Politics on the World Stage, Brief, 4/e
John T. Rourke, University of Connecticut - Storrs
Mark A. Boyer, University of Connecticut - Storrs

International Organization: The Alternative Structure

Much Ado About Something

The argument that IGOs are marginal to world politics is belied by the frequent conflict over who will head them. Clearly, there must be much ado about something.

The post of UN secretary-general has quite often been the focus of sharp clashes. Because the secretary-general is nominated by the UNSC and only one nomination is forwarded to the UNGA for election, the five permanent members with their veto power can, in effect, select the secretary-general. To pick up the sage of struggle with the fifth secretary-general, Javier Prez de Cullar (1982 to 1992), won office only after a protracted stalemate in which various UNSC permanent members vetoed each others' preferred candidates. The selection of his successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992 to 1997) was also controversial.

No African had yet been secretary-general, and the countries of that continent insisted that it was their turn. The United States and some other countries were dubious about the priorities that an African secretary-general might have but did not want to alienate Africa. "We weren't going to be the 900-pound gorilla" on this issue, commented one U.S. official.1 In this atmosphere, Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian and the only non sub-Saharan African candidate, was an ideal compromise. He was the most Westernized of all the African candidates, spoke several languages, and had been a professor of international law in Egypt and a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University. Any possible alarm that Boutros-Ghali was an Arab was eased by the fact that he is a Coptic Christian, not a Muslim, and his wife, Leah, is Jewish.

In office, Boutros-Ghali proved to be an assertive, sometimes acerbic secretary-general who often rankled some members, especially the United States. President Clinton branded the secretary-general as ineffective and claimed that if he remained, it would be impossible to persuade Congress to appropriate funds for the UN. For these and other reasons, Washington, in effect, vetoed a second tern for Boutros-Ghali.

Since most recent secretaries-general have served two terms, the African countries felt that it was still their "turn," and the names of potential African candidates began to circulate. The process in the Security Council involved a search for consensus that Italy's representative likened to selecting a pope. The only difference, said the ambassador, was that in the UN "if you stare at the ceiling, there are no frescoes by Michelangelo to inspire you."2 In a series of straw votes, two names emerged: Kofi Annan, a career UN diplomat from Ghana, and Amara Essy, the foreign minister of the Ivory Coast. Annan was favored by the United States. He had a reputation as a capable and moderate diplomat and administrator, and his personal history (a B.A. degree in economics from Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a master's degree in management from MIT) helped assuage Washington's concern that a secretary-general from black Africa might prove too radical. Annan is married to Nane Lagergren, a Swedish lawyer, who is a niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat noted for trying to save Jewish lives during World War II.

France was the primary supporter of Essy, based on the fact that he spoke fluent French (but only halting English), had earned his law degree from Poitiers University in France, and came from a former French colony. The French threatened initially to veto Annan, but the American and British indicated they would veto Essy. In the end, with Annan clearly ahead in the straw votes, and given that he speaks at least some French, France gave way.

The maneuvering to pick several secretaries-general underlines the importance of that office, and this standard can also be applied to the heads of other IGOs.

For example, creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 set off a spirited contest for the top spot, with Europe, Asia, and the United States each backing one or more candidates from their respective regions. What looked to be building toward a momentous clash between the EU and the United States over who would lead the WTO suddenly went in favor of the EU candidate, Renato Ruggiero. What tipped the balance in favor of the former Italian finance minister was the plummeting reputation of the U.S. backed candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He had just retired as president of Mexico, but his credentials were destroyed by the precipitous devaluation of the Mexican peso in December 1994 and by rumors of corruption.

The selections for the top job at the World Bank have also been influenced by domestic politics. By tradition, the president of the World Bank is an American, and the last two presidents, Lewis T. Preston and James D. Wolfensohn, were both selected because they would please members of Congress who wanted the bank to fund more businesslike projects and who threatened to cut U.S. funding of the bank unless it reoriented its lending policies.

The selection of a new managing director of the IMF to replace Michel Camdessus of France also became a complex imbroglio. Germany wanted one of its nationals to fill the position and nominated Chio Koch-Weser, Germany's deputy finance minister. Washington argued he was too junior, but what the White House really wanted was to have a European of a less financially powerful country in the post. Other European countries backed the German candidate, but some did so unenthusiastically because they shared Washington's concern with empowering Germany. Understandably, the Germans were offended, with one official complaining that the United States "sees its global role not only in the military area but also in setting the rules of globalization through the IMF." 3 Washington could oppose, but it could not propose because it did not want to offend the Europeans by nominating an American. Nevertheless that happened when the African and Arab countries backed the number two official at the IMF, Stanley Fisher, who, ironically, is a Jewish American and seen as a friend to the less developed countries. Japan nominated one of its own finance ministry officials, Eisuke Sakakibara. Tokyo apparently did not expect him to win, but wanted to position Japan for the job when it next opens up. Finally, the standoff ended when Germany shifted its support to another German, Horst Köhler, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Washington was not enthusiastic about Köhler either, but did not want to deny the Germans again and reasoned that, as head of the ERBD, Köhler is more European and less German than is Koch-Weser. Thus it was when the IMF met behind closed doors in Washington, amid noisy street protests Horst Köhler was quietly selected as the IMF's new managing director.

Issues of diversity have also become a factor in the selection of IGO heads. Women have headed few IGOs, and the last time the top position at UNICEF, which has traditionally been held by an American, was open, Washington favored an American male. Sensing an opportunity, the Europeans nominated several women to fill the vacancy. "We think it's time for a change," France's delegate declared. 4 Only when the Clinton White House retreated and submitted a new name, that of Peace Corps director Carol Bellamy, was the post kept in American hands. Even more recently, Japan led a fight to capture for the first time the top spot of an IGO for an Asian, when in 1999 it used its economic muscle in UNESCO to secure the director-generalship of UNESCO for Koichiro Matsuura, a career diplomat in Japan's foreign ministry. Japan was not trying "to antagonize one civilization over another," explained a Japanese official, "but it is simply not sound to have such a gross number of director-generals coming from European-based civilizations."5

The regional level has also been the scene for spirited contests over leadership positions. For one, the decision in 1994 of Jacques Delors to retire as president of the European Commission sparked a such a struggle. Most EU members supported Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, but he was opposed by Great Britain for being too strong an advocate of increased EU integration. British opposition sparked an angry reaction. For one, France's president, Franois Mitterrand, charged that "the British conception [of the EU] does not correspond to that of the founding countries."6 The upshot of the imbroglio was a month of maneuvering that led to the selection of Prime Minister Jacques Santer of Luxembourg as a compromise between the forces of integration and restraint in Europe.

To return to the point with which we started this review of the contest over recent appointments to head leading IGOs, the jostling among the major powers to appoint one of their own or someone of their liking to the top jobs indicates how important these IGOs are. All that sound and fury must signify something.


1. Time, December 2, 1991, p. 28.

2. Dawn Internet News, March 15, 2000 at:

3. New York Times, June 27, 1996, p. A8.

4.New York Times, December 18, 1996, p. A1.

5. Hartford Courant, November 11, 1999.

6. New York Times, December 18, 1996, p. A1.