Kurt Waldheim: A Comparative ‘Reminiscence’

contributed by Dr Myint Zan

With the death of Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007) the world now has (only) three instead of four former UN Secretaries-General alive. For nearly six months when Kofi Annan retired on the last day of 2006 after serving two terms as the seventh UN Secretary-General there were an unprecedented four former UN Secretaries-General. The obituaries of Dr. Waldheim that the writer has read deals mainly with his Nazi past and in comparison not much mention is made of Waldheim’s achievements and failures when he was at the helm of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981.

It is not for me to further add to what Time magazine obituary has called the ‘Waldheim affair’ i.e. the ‘discovery’ and publicity of his Nazi past, his evasions and to put it diplomatically ‘untruths’ or partial truths he had made when this issue came to the fore in 1986. The discovery and controversy regarding Waldheim’s Nazi past took place nearly five years after he was forced to retire from the helm of the United Nations in December 1981 when he successfully campaigned for the Austrian presidency. (Waldheim had also unsuccessfully campaigned for the presidency of Austria in 1971 – the year he became UN Secretary-General.)

Instead, I intend to discuss the issue of campaigning for the UN Secretary-General position which, roughly, started in what can now being called the Waldheim era. It is now established practice within and outside UN circles that when a UN Secretary-General retires (as in the case of voluntary retirements of U Thant, the third UN Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, the fifth, Kofi Annan, the seventh as well as in the ‘involuntary retirements’ of Waldheim himself in 1981 and Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996) there is from both within and outside the UN circles ‘campaigning’ for the job. The first three Secretaries-General of the UN did not ‘campaign’ for the job and there was, during those times of the selection for the Secretary-General position, much less –if any- ’campaigning’ at all by the candidates whose names have been mentioned as possible UN Secretaries-General. In those good old days it was the office that sought the person rather than the other way around.

This ‘tradition’ has been broken by the time the third UN Secretary General (UNSG) U Thant announced categorically on 23 January 1971 that he would ‘under no circumstances whatever’ be available to serve a third term as UNSG. In a news conference in September 1971 when eight months after he announced his retirement and despite the availability of many possible ‘candidates’ there was no firm selection of a new UNSG, U Thant was asked whether he would be willing to serve only for a few months if the UN Security Council continued to be deadlocked over the selection of his successor. U Thant gave notice that he would not be prepared even to do that. As a result, just ten days before U Thant’s second term as UNSG was scheduled to expire Kurt Waldheim was selected as the ‘compromise’ candidate to replace U Thant. In fact Time magazine at that time reported the election of Waldheim as the ‘Viennese compromise’. And indeed before his election, Waldheim, together with others did campaign to become what he later not-quite-modestly called in his memoirs In the Eye of the Storm (published in 1985) ‘as a spokesman for humanity’.

And unlike his predecessor U Thant and indeed all of his successors –bar one and that is Boutros-Ghali- Waldheim actively campaigned for a second term in 1976. (Ten years earlier in 1966 when U Thant announced that he would retire at the end of his first term many UN delegates in the words of a contemporaneous Newsweek magazine report ‘took the rostrum -of the UN General Assembly- and ‘pleaded the Secretary-General to reconsider’ which U Thant did.)

I recall that ‘eyeing’ for the support of the People’s Republic of China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, Waldheim fulsomely praised the late Chairman Mao Ze Dong who had died in September 1976, during Waldheim’s bid for a second term as UNSG. Again, I recall reading an article in Newsweek that a diplomat commented to the effect that ‘China is a 5000 year old civilization’ and that it ‘would not be swayed by such cheap tricks’.

And it was China which was instrumental in preventing the former Nazi official from serving at the helm of the UN for an unprecedented third term as UNSG. In stark and utter contrast to his predecessor U Thant, Waldheim in the words of author Stanley Meiser ‘actively and unashamedly’ campaigned for a third term. Only after China vetoed his candidacy sixteen times in the UN Security Council did Waldheim withdraw from the candidacy paving the way for the non-campaigner Perez de Cuellar to become the fifth UNSG. Again, Waldheim’s aggressive personality showed – in contrast to the self-effacing nature of both his predecessor U Thant and successor Perez de Cuellar- when he telephoned Perez in 1995 to ‘check’ whether Perez too was not invited to attend the United Nations 50th anniversary in New York. (Waldheim was barred in 1987 from entering the United States for his Nazi past). Perez who was (unfairly) not invited because of Waldheim graciously said that he ‘understood’ his successor’s (Boutros-Ghali) decision not to invite him to the UN’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations.

Though historians may haggle or demur, it can be said that ‘campaigning’ for the UNSG started in the selection process in the year (1971) Kurt Waldheim became UNSG. And for the past three and a half decades either every five years or ten years such ‘campaigning’ for what the first UNSG Trgve Lie called ‘the most impossible job in the world’ took place among the aspiring candidates. Indeed, when like his two successors, U Thant and Perez de Cuellar, Kofi Annan declined to serve a third term, campaigning began, in varying degrees of intensity, among the seven candidates –including Ban Ki-moon, the incumbent. History will probably decide whether the most effective campaigners or the best candidates got the job. Nevertheless it is now an established fact that campaigning to be ‘a spokesman for humanity’ (Waldheim) which can also be ‘the most fulfilling job in the world’ (Kofi Annan, in his last speech to the UN General Assembly) is now almost ‘de rigeur’.

Judging from his obituaries, Dr. Kurt Waldheim may be mostly remembered for his Nazi past, the imbroglio he was involved in and the controversy he aroused regarding this matter. This article is intended to ‘fill in’ aspects of his performance as UNSG as well as the ‘tradition of campaigning’ which might have started in and outside the corridors of the United Nations when Kurt Waldheim first became UN Secretary-General.

Contributed by
Dr. Myint Zan
Lecturer, School of Law
Faculty of Business and Law
Mulitmedia University, Malacca

Tel + 60-13-600 6679


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