UN chief tipped to defy critics and keep job job to

David Usborne looks at the likelihood of another term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General
The news was broken last week on the gossip page of a New York tabloid. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations Secretary-General, is a goner. His five-year term is up at the end of this year and the Americans have decided to cast him into oblivion. (This intelligence, by the way, came by way of an overheard conversation between diplomats at a popular Sunday brunch spot).

The columnist may have been emboldened by a tide of speculation in recent days about possible successors. They include the Irish President, Mary Robinson, who is to visit New York tomorrow, the Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and a current UN official, Kofi Annan, from Ghana. At UN parties and in the delegates' canteen it has become fairly much the only topic of conversation.

The speculation is made more intense by the mysterious manner in which a Secretary-General is chosen. There is no open competition or interview process. It is not even clear sometimes whether a candidate is running or not. Instead, major governments manoeuvre and confer and finally, some time before the year's end, a show of hands for the runners is taken behind the closed doors of the Security Council. Any hopeful must have American support, or they are sunk.

For now, only two questions matter. Does Mr Boutros-Ghali, a former Egyptian foreign affairs minister, who will be 74 this November, want another five-year term? And, however deep the distaste for Mr Boutros-Ghali may be in Washington - on Capitol Hill he is Boo-Boo Ghali - does President Bill Clinton care enough actually to ditch him? Leaving aside all tabloid assertions, we have answers to neither of these.

When Mr Boutros-Ghali arrived in New York, he confided to colleagues that had he been offered the job five years earlier, when the UN was still locked in the paralysing polarity of opposing superpowers, he would not have taken it. But at that moment, at the start of 1992, the place seemed to have real purpose. The Cold War was over and the UN had directly assisted in resolving crises ranging from the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the hostage-taking in Lebanon and in giving independence to Namibia. "Never before in its history has the United Nations been so action-oriented, so actively engaged and so widely expected to respond to needs," he wrote in a 1992 report.

No such optimism is appropriate today. On his watch, the UN has suffered serial humiliations, beginning with a botched mission to establish democracy in Somalia. Little glory will be granted the UN in future histories of the Balkan war. And the organisation, lest we forget, has sunk into crippling penury.

Much of this is not directly the fault either of the UN or of its Secretary- General. Mr Boutros-Ghali cannot force the US to cough up its $1.3bn in debts. Nor was he shy in protesting about the hopeless nature of the UN's mission in Bosnia, where the line between peace-keeping and peace- enforcing became impossibly blurred. Even so, the Secretary-General has earned a reputation for aloofness from his staff and stiffness before the press.

"I think there is a real chance that he will not get the second term," said a former Assistant Secretary-General, Giandomenico Picco. "He inherited a UN that was at the peak of a wave, and what is it now?"

The balance of speculation remains, however, that Mr Boutros-Ghali will stay if he wants to. The British, who were embarrassed in 1991 when they made plain their lack of enthusiasm for the Egyptian only to be outmanoeuvred in the Security Council, are likely to keep a low profile. For President Clinton, meanwhile, the fate of Mr Boutros-Ghali is on the furthest fringes of his election- year radar. It is commonly believed that the White House will ignore the issue until after the presidential poll in early November. In the meantime, Mr Boutros-Ghali has the firm support of most of the developing world as well, among Security Council members, of China, France and probably Russia.

Nor, finally, can it be said that great excitement has been stirred in Washington or New York by any of the names now surfacing as alternative contenders - including that of the Irish President.