Peter Pringle's America: Our hero meets his new rival: stay tuned

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The Independent Online
FOR all its vital work for world peace, the United Nations headquarters in New York is also the longest-running diplomatic soap opera. Regular viewers compare notes on memorable episodes. Did you see the Russians up to their old veto trick in the Security Council last week? They haven't tried that one since February 1984. Or, did you hear that interminable speech from the North Korean still riddled with Cold War rhetoric? When will Pyongyang ever learn?

The latest twist in this ongoing saga is an emerging rivalry between two stars of the diplomatic corps: Our Man at the UN, Sir David Hannay and the freshly arrived US envoy, Madeleine Albright.

Sir David is known by his colleagues, not always affectionately, as the Schoolmaster. He could have stepped out of a Gillray cartoon depicting 18th-century English gentlemen - bright eyed, balding, chin out, nose in the air. In manner, he is unmistakably from Whitehall, a natural understudy for Sir Humphrey Appleby. In reality, he is rated extra smart and super competent by his fellow ambassadors; they rank him as one of the most gifted and successful envoys the UN has seen in its near half-century.

He has also been lucky. In part, Sir David owes his diplomatic stardom to a lack of competition, especially from colleagues in the US mission. The last one, Edward Perkins, was chosen by George Bush to be obedient and low key, something that came naturally. They used to say of Perkins that every word he uttered had been cleared in Washington.

Ms Albright is an entirely different person, with an entirely different set of orders. She has the profile of a sparrowhawk and appears ready to sink her talons into the toughest problem of the day - the unravelling of the 'entangling alliances' in Europe, as Thomas Jefferson said of an earlier era. She is a college professor from Georgetown University and well schooled in foreign affairs.

A member of Jimmy Carter's National Security Council, she has been a senior adviser on foreign policy to the Democrats ever since. Mr Clinton made a point of elevating her status by including her in his Cabinet. But how high will her profile be? Will she upstage Sir David?

Before her arrival, Sir David filled the personality vacuum at the Security Council with enthusiasm and expertise, easily dominating the proceedings. His council speeches, though often cutting and even hurtful for some of the less powerful nations, were greatly admired for their clarity and forthrightness, especially when dealing with the complexities of such heavy UN burdens as the former Yugoslavia.

In the corridors or in the doorways of the UN headquarters on Manhattan's East River, Sir David has been the one ambassador always available for the chronically perplexed UN press corps. His impromptu teach-ins on the technicalities of this or that resolution are eagerly sought by journalists because of his endearing patience for their ignorance. 'Look, I'm sorry; I'm sorry. I have already explained that, but if you didn't get it, I'll repeat it.'

He appears as addicted to his pupils as they are to him, often lingering behind the other envoys as they file into the council chamber, inviting reporters to accost him.

Whatever the topic, Bosnia or Cambodia, Somalia or Cyprus, Haiti or Angola, Sir David has regularly offered the best briefing on the block. His 'dipspeak' can be as filled with as much waffle and diplomatic cliche as the next envoy. But television reporters seek him out because he can also speak in perfectly rounded soundbites.

In private, he has a colourful turn of phrase, the distribution of which he attempts to control by gag order. It doesn't work, of course. When he described an especially determined Middle East journalist as a 'corridor terrorist', the phrase inevitably found its way back to the reporter and later appeared on the front page of an Arabic newspaper. After Baroness Thatcher called for bombing Bosnian Serbs, which was a view out of line at the time with the prevailing Foreign Office view, he dismissed her in a private session with journalists as a 'political hasbeen'. That one made Private Eye.

As a diplomat, however, Sir David has an unfortunate trait: he can be an intellectual bully. Typical of his caste, which is Winchester and New College, Oxford, he cannot resist using his privileged knowledge and intellect as a sharp instrument. Most of the time his colleagues on the council tolerate it. 'He offends you objectively,' said one. 'Even when he's rude, he's logical.'

The Venezuelan ambassador, Diego Arria, praised Sir David as a debater, but said he was 'sometimes too good for his own good. He tends to hurt people and that detracts from his capacity to lead.'

In the bad old days of the Cold War, what the Venezuelan ambassador or the envoys of the other non-aligned nations thought about the British representative was of little consequence. But times are changing fast at the UN. In recent days, for example, the non-aligned nations briefly asserted themselves on Bosnia by pushing for the creation of so-called 'safe areas' for Muslims.

Leading the non-aligned group is now a crucial part of being the leader of the UN. Ms Albright has grabbed the opportunity. She is the first American ambassador to take the group seriously enough to organise meetings with them twice a month. They could not be more pleased, and Sir David is out of the loop.

On her arrival Ms Albright was handicapped by President Clinton's lack of a firm policy on the Balkans, and forced to concede the lead to

the Europeans, which in effect meant Sir David. But that can't last for ever, and in the meantime Ms Albright is revamping her mission staff, building up her image and emphasising her hotline to the White House. It should be clear

of the bureaucratic static that Sir David has to cope with on his connection to No 10 and, in the end, her line to Clinton is the one that matters most. Stay tuned for 'The Schoolmaster and the College Professor'.