You can’t beat the view from Maurice Strong’s office on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York City. Straight ahead is the art deco marvel of the Chrysler Building; off to the left is the Empire State. Below sprawls the east side of Manhattan, with its glinting towers and gilded emporiums. You can almost hear the Gershwin tunes swelling up from the bowels of the city. Inside Strong’s spacious suite of offices, where he presides as executive co-ordinator for UN reform, the atmosphere is decidedly different.
The dowdy beige walls are badly scuffed; the carpets are worn and shabby; the furniture is strictly government-issue, circa 1965. “Functional,” is Strong’s laconic description. If the United Nations, as its more vociferous American critics allege, is a sinkhole for taxpayers’ money, it is not evident here.
Strong has long been the indispensable Canadian on the international stage: businessman, veteran UN operative, environmentalist, backroom boy extraordinaire. A small man with very big ideas,
Strong seems to be everywhere these days. Three weeks ago, he was in Washington as James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, announced a major shakeup of the 50-year-old institution. Strong is also a senior adviser to Wolfensohn, and the plan to cut staff and make the bank less bureaucratic bears his distinct stamp. He begins this week in Rio de Janeiro, presiding over a follow-up conference to the massive Earth Summit that he organized in 1992. Delegates from 100 countries will assess the progress—or lack of same—since 178 world leaders met in Rio and signed solemn pledges to protect the environment. His early verdict: most countries are not living up to their promises. Later in the week Strong will be back in New York, watching as the newly installed secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, outlines his first steps towards overhauling the organization. Just listening to Strong’s schedule is enough to make most people tired—and he turns 68 on April 29.
He is also nursing a cold as he reflects on
the job that is taking up almost all his time right now—co-ordinating Annan’s efforts at reform. Strong worked on the same issues for the last secretary general, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali. “BBG”—as he was known around the United Nations—made a tentative stab at paring the bureaucracy. But it was too little, too late, for his critics in Washington, who tend to regard the United Nations as, at best, an inefficient refuge for Third World hacks and, at worst, ground zero of a One World Government plot to de-
prive Americans of their sovereignty. The United States vetoed a second term for Boutros-Ghali in December, and instead supported Annan, a career UN official from Ghana—on the understanding that he would finally put the organization’s house in order.
Annan took over on New Year’s Day. The next morning, he phoned Strong at his log house near the town of Buckhorn in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes district, where he was recovering from an operation. Despite his constant globe-trotting, Strong considers Buckhorn his home and still manages to get back there about two weekends out of three. (“It’s where I do my real work—thinking and writing,” he says.) Would Strong oversee his efforts at reform, Annan asked. Strong said yes—for the token fee of $1 a year. That’s what he charged at the end of his four-year tenure as chairman of Ontario Hydro in the early ’90s, after voluntarily giving up his $425,000 salary. There he masterminded the utility’s massive cuts, from
33.000 employees to just over 23,000. Are similar cuts likely at the United Nations, whose central organization employs about
9.000 people? The answer will come as early as this week, and Strong hints that the Hydro model is still on his mind.
‘We had resistance to change in Ontario,” he reflects. “But we got so much out there so quickly that no one special interest was able to get enough attention to stop us. I learned something from that: sometimes it’s good to do things incrementally; sometimes you need to do things on a shock treatment basis.” Which will apply at the United Nations? “A bit of both. There will be some shock waves here, no question about it.”
Strong speaks as one of the United Nation’s most committed supporters. He snagged his first UN job— handing out passes in the security department—in 1947, when the organization was just two years old and he was only 18. Since then, he has held many posts, including undersecretary general in the mid-’80s. His task now is to perform surgery that will save the patient from the likes of Jesse Helms, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate’s foreign relations committee, which has frozen the $1.9 billion the United States owes the United Nations until it is satisfied with the pace of change. Strong may not like Helms’s tactics, but he recognizes that the financial shock may be necessary to overcome bureaucratic inertia. “There’s always a value to a bottom line,” he says. “This organization doesn’t have one, so the U.S. has in a sense given it a bottom line by saying, We’re not going to pay our bills.’ ” Annan can make a start on his own by reorganizing and slimming the secretariat, or central staff. Bigger changes, involving the sprawling “UN system” that includes 44,500 employees in the organization’s global agencies, will require approval from the 185 member states—a much more delicate proposition. Annan will make his proposals in that area by the end of July. His dilemma: going far enough to satisfy the Americans, while minimizing the howls from poor countries that stand to lose most from a downsized United Nations. No one will be more influential in finding that balance than Maurice Strong. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.