Rupert Cornwell: My fantasy head of the United Nations

Bill Clinton, it seems to me, is an extraordinary yet underused global asset

The Independent

Published: 23 September 2006

Let us dream for a moment this Saturday morning. Let us imagine that in some collective moment of inspiration the 15 members of the Security Council decide that Bill Clinton should be the next Secretary General of the United Nations.

Yes, I know it can't happen. It would violate two of the cardinal principles of the exercise - the Buggins' Turn system that requires that the Secretary General represents a specific region, the rule that he cannot be from one of the five permanent members of the Council, and a general acceptance that he won't rock the boat. Africa (in the persons of Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan) has had its go, and now it's Asia's turn. Four or five candidates have apparently emerged, but I must confess I hadn't previously heard of any of them. Fine individuals they doubtless are; but it's hard to believe that whichever of them is chosen would put to rights the dysfunctional world body, whose defects have been on glaring display this week.

The case for Clinton is obvious. Everyone says they want a UN that works. The organisation's deficiencies make it an easy target for any US Senator (or for an Iranian or Venezuelan President for that matter). Yet the UN is no more than the sum of its parts. Its effectiveness depends not on the calibre of its bureaucracy, however well-honed, but on the will of its members, above all on the Big Five who have the power of veto. And by far the most important of the Big Five is the US which, like it or not, is the sole truly global power.

So why not fuse the two, with an American at the head of the UN, in the person of Bill Clinton? Ah yes, it will be immediately objected, but this would only fuel anti-Americanism, by codifying a US domination of the organisation that has long been obvious. But if ever there was a good cop, it is surely he.

Clinton, it seems to me is an extraordinary yet underused global asset. He is not just an ex-President, who understands the nature of power. He has qualities ideal for a Secretary General: a compendious knowledge of world affairs, inexhaustible curiosity, enthusiasm and unmatchable charm, and a diplomat's gift of finding the right words at the right time.

His own shortcomings are well known. He can lack self-discipline, he can be indecisive, he can be all things to all men - 'the only man I know who can smile in your face and piss down your leg' as one former adversary complained. Yet Bill Clinton is the most compelling and charismatic of recent US Presidents. If anti-Americanism is a prime contributor to the world's instability, then no American is better equipped than Bill Clinton, public diplomat par excellence, to tackle it.

The curious thing is that most UN member countries are more sympathetic to the American ideals of democracy and economic freedom than they have ever been - but you would not have guessed it from the goings on in and around the General Assembly. There was Hugo Chavez of Venezuela detecting the sulphurous odour of the "devil" Bush at the podium where Clinton's successor had stood the previous day. The other undiplomatic star of the week was of course Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, marginally more open to a deal on matters nuclear perhaps, but scathing in his criticism of the US and Britain for their "abuse" of the Security Council.

The sorry fact is that while their language may have been intemperate, much of the world agreed with what they had to say. Much of the time, the US does appear to treat the Security Council as a branch of the State Department. And Noam Chomsky is not the only person who believes that America is a quasi-terrorist state bent on global domination.

Such is the potency of anti-Americanism. It is not just the policies of Bush that are to blame, but their packaging as well. Nothing does the US such a disservice as its lamentable public diplomacy, epitomised by the President's patronising demeanour, his "take-it-or-leave-it" style and his administration's inability to accept and take account of where other countries are coming from.

The confrontation with Iran is a perfect case in point, and an illustration of how Clinton at the UN would differ from Bush at the White House. Unlike the current President, Clinton would instinctively understand that the deep mutual suspicion between the two countries stems not just from the Teheran hostage crisis of 1979 and Iran's backing for militant groups in the Middle East (certainly understandable US grievances), but also from Iran's equally understandable grievances at the CIA-staged coup of 1953 that re-instated the monarchy.

In truth however Messrs Chavez and Ahmedinejad were not the only scene-stealers in New York this week. The casual TV watcher following proceedings in and around the UN could be forgiven for imagining he was watching the Bill Clinton show. He seemed to be everywhere - inside the headquarters building on the East River and the next moment promoting the Clinton Global Initiative, beaming as Richard Branson promised billions of dollars to fight global warming.

Given that the Clinton Global Initiative appears to have contributed a great deal more to the common global good over the past few days than the windy proceedings of the General Assembly proper, it could be argued that Clinton is more useful where he is. Alas, it is the United Nations and not private foundations, which is the forum where governments must co-operate if Darfur and the world's many other crises are to be resolved.

The UN may not be perfect, but it's the best we've got. But then again I was only dreaming. Bill Clinton, Secretary General? It can never happen.

But all is not lost. It is well nigh certain that Hillary Clinton will run for the White House in 2008. The best reason for hoping she wins is that if she is elected, in one way or another, Bill will be back in play. The greatest challenge to the next US President will be to lance the boil of anti-Americanism poisoning global affairs. The best person to do that is Bill Clinton - if not as UN Secretary General, then as husband and envoy extraordinary of a President Hillary Clinton. Or was I dreaming again?