Kofi Annan must have felt strange when he visited President George Bush at the White House this week.
While the two of them were in the Oval Office discussing how to stop the killings in Darfur, the UN secretary general would have been well aware that throughout the building - and beyond - he is already considered a lame duck. The world's ultimate headhunt is well under way, 10 months before the end of the current United Nations chief's term, and the Americans have made no secret of the fact that they want a decision soon.
Hours after Mr Annan left Washington, another candidate threw his hat into the ring, becoming the third contender from Asia which insists that it is "Asia's turn" to take over the post of the world's top diplomat.
But to become secretary general of the UN, there is no application form. There is no search procedure and no job interview. All you have to do is to impress the political leaders of the five veto-holding members of the UN Security Council - Britain, US, China, France and Russia - who will cast the decisive votes in the secrecy of the council chamber at a time of their own choosing.
There is not even a job description. When senior officials from the defunct League of Nations put their heads together to define the qualities required of a UN secretary general, they came up with the following definition in a 1944 booklet: "He should be young. Political or diplomatic experience, but not necessarily great fame or eminence, is an advantage."
Above all, they went on, the candidate needed to be an able administrator who should know when to force an issue and when to remain on the sidelines as "a purely administrative official".
It helps if the candidate's country is not in conflict with one of the big powers. So on balance, the next secretary general is likely to come from a small and trouble-free country. It is generally assumed that the next incumbent will not hail from one of the permanent security council members - which may rule out Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.
Diplomats say the criteria tend to mean that candidates with strong personalities unafraid of standing up to the big powers do not make the cut. "The US wants the secretary general to be more of a secretary and less of a general," as one put it.
The next chief will take over at a critical time. The UN was sidelined by the US and Britain over the Iraq war and it has seen its authority tarnished by corruption allegations that have led to resignations of top officials and targeted Mr Annan's son.
Yet there is still no shortage of candidates. For the first time in a decade, there will be a contest, and this time, it looks wide open. Despite the UN tradition that it should go to an Asian candidate on the basis of geographical rotation, an Asian diplomat pointed out: "The Americans and the UK say an Asian is good, but they also say 'may the best person win'. "
The three Asian candidates have been using up airmiles pressing their case. The regional bloc, Asean, officially backs the Thai Deputy Prime Minister, Surakiart Sathirathai. But two other candidates have broken ranks. Sri Lanka's Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN disarmament chief, has also been canvassing for support. The third Asian candidate, who officially declared on Tuesday, is Ban Ki-Moon, the South Korean Foreign Minister, who has been lobbying Washington and who has just returned home from a 14-nation European and African tour.
Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's Foreign Minister, is seen as a dark-horse candidate who has said that he would only consider the top job if approached by the Security Council.
At this stage in the game, however, the successful candidate is probably keeping his or her name out of public view. Mr Annan's own chances against the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali were almost scuppered when he was seen as the US-favoured candidate months before he was elected in 1996.
The former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski may have been similarly burned this time. He has been described as the US candidate, which has given the Russians time to warn that they would block any eastern Europe candidate. That would be bad news for Latvia's President Vaire Vike-Freiberga, 69, who hopes to become the first female secretary general.
Yet the US State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, insisted yesterday it would be "premature for us to speculate" on who the US is supporting. When the "big five" feel the moment is right, the 15 members of the Security Council will gather in the council chamber for the diplomatic equivalent of the election of a pope, minus the white smoke. Acting on instructions from their governments, they are likely to hold a series of straw polls before proceeding to a vote. The result will then be announced to the waiting world.
The last time the post was contested, when the Ghanaian Mr Annan fought off the incumbent Mr Boutros-Ghali in 1996, the French kept up the suspense by continuing to back the Egyptian, who had been dropped by the Americans months earlier.
UN insiders say that the system of picking the UN secretary general could be improved. One senior UN official pointed to the procedures at the World Trade Organisation which enabled the Frenchman Pascal Lamy to be elected in an open contest last year during which candidates addressed the WTO members.
Lord Hannay, a former British ambassador to the UN and co-author of a report on UN reform, is calling for a more transparent process, "instead of having people whispering into other people's ears what they want to hear". Another former senior UN official admitted that the likelihood of reform is slim. "It's a pretty unprofessional process," he said. "There are so many vested interests it's difficult to see how reform could be approved."
The job description
Superdiplomat and manager for 181 countries.
Previous experience as CEO, cheerleader, salesman, debt collector, priest are all useful. Fluency in English and French required.
$397,245 per annum.
$25,000 expenses per annum. Official residence in Manhattan.
South Korea's Foreign Minister. Age: 61
Career diplomat who has served at the UN and been involved in talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons. Not a household name outside Asia. May have support from US but could run into difficulties with China because of Seoul's military relationship with Washington. He speaks fluent French.
President of Ethical Globalisation Initiative. Age: 61
Served as first female President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and went on to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, when the US blocked her from another term. Has said she would not seek the top UN post, but she may be persuaded. America might veto.
Turkish head of UN Development Programme. Age: 57
Former Turkish finance minister, educated in Britain and America, who previously worked in various positions for World Bank, including vice-president for Middle East region. Also served as an MP. Has US support, but Turkey's Nato membership would be a negative factor for Russia.
East Timor's Foreign Minister. Age: 56
Nobel peace prize winner (with Timor's Bishop Carlos Belo) in recognition of their struggle for independence in East Timor. Led a decades-long campaign as spokesman-in-exile. Known internationally from his campaigning days. Probably has American backing. Not a declared candidate.
President of Latvia. Age: 69
Serving her second term as President of Latvia and wants to be first female UN secretary general. Overcame strong Euroscepticism when Latvia joined EU. Educated in Canada, and known as the "Baltic Iron Lady", her support for the war in Iraq would make her a controversial choice. Her age could count against her.
Senior adviser to the president of Sri Lanka. Age: 67
Involved in peace negotiations with Sri Lankan rebels and regarded as the best diplomat Sri Lanka has ever produced. Well known at the UN, where he was disarmament chief in New York. Needs Chinese support to be successful. Age is likely to be a factor that counts against him.
Former president of Poland. Age: 51
Former Communist turned reformer who as President of Poland from 1995 until last year brought his country into the EU and forged closer ties with Nato. Seen as a US candidate - Russia has made it known it does not want a candidate from eastern Europe.
British Prime Minister. Age: 52
Could be free by the end of the year to take up position with global reach. Adopted UN development goals as his own but decision to ignore UN over Iraq invasion could be problematic. France and Russia could veto. Candidates from permanent members of UN Security Council are unlikely to succeed.
Thai Deputy Prime Minister. Age: 47
The first Thai to earn a doctorate in law from Harvard, he became Thailand's youngest Finance Minister. As Foreign Minister he dealt with the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, and was appointed Deputy Prime Minister last year. Official Asian candidate.Reuse content