How Britain came top of the class

Ii was lunchtime in New York on Friday when Sir John Weston, the British Ambassador to the United Nations, strode out from the Security Council and broke the news: Kofi Annan had been selected as the next Secretary General. With that the giant diplomatic board game of the last several months - a blend of poker and Cluedo, with the world powers as players - was suddenly over. Now the urgent question: who won?

Clearly, the final point had been scored by Sir John himself. The Council had triumphed in resolving the deadlock and, by rushing to the press, he made sure the first blush of credit was his. We know this mattered because on his return to the chamber, he was personally ticked off by Madeleine Albright of the United States. Breaking the news was the job of the council presidency, held by Italy, she protested. The Secretary of State-designate, in other words, wanted to get to the cameras first.

Sounds a little childish? Well, indeed. Like any board game, this had a dimension that was strictly kindergarten. France's brief show of blocking Annan's appointment last week was essentially revenge against the Americans for casting their veto against a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali last month (the Egyptian is a fluent French-speaker, which the Ghanaian Annan is not, and a second Boutros-Ghali term had been France's preference). British diplomats, by contrast, were convinced for weeks that France was "heading into a brick wall", and could barely contain their glee.

For weeks UN headquarters had been drowning in torrents of mostly pointless speculation, rumour and intrigue. Correspondents were at one turn probing officials from their own national missions for clues of the game's progress and at the next turn fending off the questions of officials from other missions. But this was also a serious game, with high stakes - hence the intensity of the play. To the casual observer, the question of who should lead the UN might seem boring. For the protagonists, though, it mattered very much, and especially to Britain and France.

Because London and Paris - by virtue of an arguably outdated quirk of post-Second World War history - still have their seats among the Big Five permanent members of the Security Council, along with the US, China and Russia, they care deeply about the UN. It is the institution that still gives them reason to believe they are top players on the world stage, however much others call that an illusion. British foreign policy gets done in three places - Whitehall, Brussels and New York. For the French it is the Quai d'Orsay, Brussels and New York.

If for no other reason than diplomats' love of intrigue, Britain was never going to keep out of the succession debate. But London has also been quietly fretting in recent months about the dwindling stature of the UN, its penury and its low standing in the US. The Government wanted to be sure, therefore, that the UN's next Secretary General was a figure capable of lifting the gloom and giving the institution new energy and respect.

France, meanwhile, has been outraged by Washington's ham-fisted display of power since June, when the US leaked its decision to the New York Times to exercise its veto, come what may, against Mr Boutros-Ghali. "It really touched a raw nerve," one French official noted. "America presented us with a fait accompli, and we could not just accept that."

Britain's strategy was different. Ministers, including John Major, concluded weeks ago that if the UN was going to uphold the unspoken convention in favour of Africa holding the post of Secretary General for another five years, Mr Annan was the best man available. The British government was not necessarily opposed to a second Boutros-Ghali term, but it understood before anyone that the US was not going to retract its veto of him. The challenge was how to work with the US to build support for Mr Annan, and undercut the French. It had to work furtively, however - to have confirmed widespread suspicions that the Ghanaian was the "Anglo-American choice" could have been fatal to his candidacy.

"It was our view that the best approach was to allow the innate weight of Annan's case and his qualifications to bear down on everyone gradually," one senior Briton said on Friday night. "Once everyone looked seriously at Annan he was always going to measure up to expectations." To help push the pace a bit last week, British diplomats began a campaign of corridor murmurs. The French "cocked up", it was put about; African delegates were warned that unless there was quick consensus on Annan, the Security Council would move on to look at candidates outside Africa.

There is probably much more we do not yet know - of trial balloons popped before they ever took flight and of dastardly schemes buried as quickly as they were conceived. For now, though, score up a big win for Britain and the United States and an embarrassing defeat for France. Africa is the winner too. Oh yes, and Mr Annan.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral