No on expected Peruvian diplomat Javier Perez de Cuellar to become the United Naations Secretary-General when the Security Council initiated its search for a successor to Kurt Waldheim in 1981.  

Incredible as it may seem, Waldheim had the support of all but one of the permanent members of the Security Council when he decided to run for a third term. China was the exception; it backed Tanzania’s Salim Salim and vetoed Waldheim in 16 rounds of balloting. The United States rejected Salim with equal firmness; he was labelled a “radical” who had “danced” 



in the General Assembly when Taiwan was ousted from the UN. When it became clear that neither could win, both were induced to withdraw simultaneously and the Council turned to other candidates. There was a field of nine that included, most prominently, Jorge Ilueca of Panama, Radha Krishna Ramphul of Mauritius, and Sadruddin Aga Khan of Iran, all three with much better name recognition than Perez de Cuellar. But that proved to be a blessing, for he had no enemies, and on 11 December, 1981, the Security Council recomended him to the General Assembly for appointment as the sixth Secretary-General of the UN.

The new Secretary-General was a class act, a cultured, balanced man, endowed with a fine unobtrusive intelligence and a quietly ironic sense of humor. “While other aspirants for the Secretary-General’s job were lobbying here in corridors and nearby restaurants, Javier Perez de Cuellar was at a beach house outside Lima, without a telephone but with plenty of books” reported the New York Times on 12 December 1981. “The lack of tension and almost conspicuous modesty are hallmarks of this graying, gentle 61-year old diplomat.” He had not sought the office, Perez de Cuellar told the Christian Science Monitor, and in order to ensure his independence, he intended to keep it only for one term. Later, when he did accept a second term in 1986, he told the General Assembly, the Security Council’s had acted “spontaneously.”

On taking office, Perez de Cuellar pledged to revitalize the international civil service and “give the United Nations a new sense of self-esteem, of direction, and thus to lend it a new thrust as the protector of civilized behavior in the jungle of international affairs.” He was unable to deliver. Right wing American groups that had for years subjected the Organization to mendacious attacks, had become part of the power structure in Reagan’s Washington. To focus attention on aspects of the UN that displeased it, the United States took to withholding portions of its substantial annual dues. This violation of a formal treaty obligation pushed the UN progressively closer to bankruptcy. Even without that additional stress, it is unlikely that Perez de Cuellar could have done much to improve the UN’s internal mess; he was not an administrator. While his benign personality helped dissipate some of the active cynicism of the Waldheim years, the rot in the Secretariat had taken on a self-sustaining dynamic.

The end of the “Cold War” during Perez de Cuellar’s second term created dramatic new opportunities for the UN to help wind up a number of prolonged proxy wars. But it also set the scene for a new generation of vicious power struggles. The main difference between the old and new sets of conflicts was that the latter were of murkier origins. Though often presented in the mass media as simple revivals of ethnic and other hatreds within States, they always occurred in places where foreign interests were in competition, either for access to raw materials or for strategic advantage. Perez de Cuellar was sure-footed in leading the UN into resolvable trouble spots such as Namibia, El Salvador and Cambodia, but he was extremely wary about involving the UN in new quagmires.

The most dangerous of these was in the Balkans, where Germany was encouraging the separatist ambitions of Croatia and Slovenia, parts of the old Austro-Hungarian empire that had been incorporated into Yugoslavia. Whether motivated by imperial nostalgia or the need to collapse the last unreconstructed communist regime in Europe, it threw the entire region into a crisis that slowed and hampered political development and created grave new political and financial burdens. Aware of the transatlantic tensions over the brewing crisis, and the European desire to deal with the crisis regionally, Perez de Cuellar stepped softly.

The Secretary-General had only a minimal role in the sequence of events that followed Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait. The United States was determined to make clear the limits of national imprudence in the post “Cold War” world, and the Secretary-General, as well as most of the UN membership, followed Washington’s steely lead without demur. Perez de Cuellar went to Baghdad on 12 January 1991, three days before the deadline set by the Security Council for Iraqi withdrawal. He could do no more than report back to the Security Council that Saddam Hussein desired “dialogue” and an “Arab solution” to the problem. On another issue, the long and brutal civil war in El Salvador, the Secretary-General had more scope in his final year. Talks on a cease-fire, which he and his close aide Alvaro Desoto had nursed along with considerable ingenuity, were successfully concluded on the 38th floor of the United Nations just two minutes before midnight on 31 December. It was a fitting and satisfactory flourish to an honourable career.