On January 1 the former prime minister of Portugal Antonio Guterres took the helm as the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations.
While the world focuses on US president-elect Donald Trump and his tweets, there is far less attention on the position once described as “the most impossible job on this earth.’’
That judgement was reportedly made by the first UN secretary-general Trygve Lie of Norway as he exited a job that had been assailed by relentless difficulties, including from the Soviet Union on the left to America’s Joseph McCarthy on the right.
Lie is said to have made the oft-repeated statement to his successor, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, who assumed the role of secretary-general in April 1953, five months after Lie announced his resignation.
Lie’s successors have taken a different public tone on the position. Kofi Annan stated at the end of his two terms that the role of UN chief could also be “the most fulfilling job in the world.”
The eighth secretary-general Ban Ki-moon stated in an interview a few days before his second term ended that he had considered it his duty to make this “impossible job” a possible mission.
The 10-year tenure of Ban Ki-moon followed a tradition in the UN in which the leader serves no more than two terms, though there is nothing to require as such in the organization’s charter.
Burma’s U Thant, who was the UN’s third secretary-general, was—in a very slight way—
something of an exception.
U Thant was acting secretary-general from Nov. 3, 1961, to Nov. 30, 1962, and he was then secretary-general until Dec. 31 1971—a total of 10 years and seven weeks.
After a turbulent decade that included the Cuban missile crisis, civil war in the then Congo as well as crises in the Middle East and the Vietnam War, U Thant was more than ready to be without the burden of the position.
About a year before his second term ended U Thant announced that “under no circumstances” would he serve for a third time.
When asked during a news conference in September 1971 whether he would stay in office for a few months beyond his term, should the United Nations not find a successor, U Thant gave an unequivocal “no.”
By mid-December, when a successor had yet to be found toward, U Thant felt “terribly sick,” he later wrote in his memoir.
Fortunately for U Thant, 10 days before his second term was to end, Kurt Waldheim of Austria was designated the United Nations’ fourth secretary-general.
In his farewell speech to the UN General Assembly on Dec. 27, 1971, U Thant said that he “felt a sense of great relief bordering on liberation” in “laying down the burdens of office.”
The New York Times titled an editorial two days later “The Liberation of U Thant,” stating that the “wise counsel of this dedicated man of peace would still be needed after his retirement.”
U Thant and the fifth UN secretary-general, Peru’s Javier Perez de Cuellar, were the only office holders asked by UN members to serve a third term. Both declined. Kurt Waldheim was the only secretary-general to seek a third term, but China’s veto forced him to withdraw his candidacy.
When U Thant’s term ended, he received a standing ovation from the UN General Assembly, as all secretaries-general have done since then.
It is a testament to the self-effacing nature of U Thant and de Cuellar that they did not feel it necessary to mention their standing ovations in their memoirs.
The less self-effacing Waldheim and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (the sixth and only secretary-general to be denied a second term in office because the United States vetoed his candidacy in 1996) deemed it necessary to mention these accolades in their publications about their terms in the office.
After his “liberation” U Thant wrote that he closed his eyes and meditated. He prayed for the success of his replacement Mr. Waldheim. And he prayed for the success of the United Nations, just as all with an interest in world affairs may do now as Antonio Gutteres begins his challenging work.