It’s a Bad Month to Be Ban Ki-moon

by Peggy McGuinness

The success of a UN Secretary General is largely dependent on two things:  (1) the charisma and personal drive of the office holder; and (2) his (to date, they have all been men) ability to lead and work well with the Secretariat.  On both dimensions, recent evidence suggests Ban Ki-moon appears to be in real trouble.  Unless he turns things around, he is beginning to look like a one-term SG.

First, Jacob Heilbrunn’s scathing personal critique, “Nowhere Man,” in the July-August issue of Foreign Policy:

Ban’s flaws were obvious dating back to his decades toiling in the South Korean foreign ministry, where he earned a telling nickname, “The Bureaucrat.” Luckily for Ban, if not for the rest of the world, The Bureaucrat was exactly what the Bush administration was looking for after years of tussling with the assertively anti-American Annan. When it became Asia’s turn to nominate a secretary-general, Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, made Ban’s election her pet project. But Ban failed to charm outside observers. In his book The Best Intentions, James Traub recounts a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations during Ban’s campaign to become secretary: “[B]etween his anodyne oratory, and his unsteady grasp of English, I found that I had been lulled to sleep.”

As secretary-general, Ban’s soporific effect has never left him. One U.N. watcher told me that Ban is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to witness its crash—if you don’t hear him, does he really exist? Aside from his role as a subsidiary of South Korea, Inc.—lining his office walls with Samsung televisions and hiring his South Korean buddies as senior advisors—his imprint has been negligible. Even Ban seems aware of what a nonentity he is: Last August, speaking to senior U.N. officials in Turin, he described his management style as elevating teamwork over intellectual attainment. But he went on to bemoan his difficulty overcoming bureaucratic inertia, ending with a gnomic admission of general defeat: “I tried to lead by example. Nobody followed.”

Second, this memo from Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul was leaked to the press.  Harsh does not begin to describe it:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s fruitless visit to Burma in the beginning of July is indicative of a Secretary-General and an organization who are struggling to show leadership. In a time when the UN and the need for multilateral solutions to global crises are more needed than ever, Ban and the UN are conspicuous by their absence. During the last six months, where the follow-up to the many crises that left their imprint on the General Assembly during the fall should have brought the Secretary-General and the UN into play at full force, the opposite seems to have happened.

In relation to the financial crisis , neither the Secretary-General nor the General Assembly – despite the summit on the financial crisis during the end of June – have shown themselves to be the most important arena, and the vacuum is being filled by the G-20 and other actors. Ban’s voice on behalf of the G-172 and the poor is barely being registered. And at times an invisible Secretary-General, in combination with a rather special president of the General Assembly, has to a large extent placed the UN on the sidelines and the organisation has not known when to act. In the environment/energy area  the UN also struggles to be relevant, despite the planned climate summit at the opening of the General Assembly in the fall. Even though the Secretary-General repeats ad nauseam that Copenhagen must “seal the deal”, there is widespread concern that the UN summit will not contribute anything worth mentioning in the process towards Copenhagen.

In the many political/security-related  crises around the world the Secretary-General’s leadership and ability to deliver on behalf of the international organization are also found wanting. Burma  is a shining example. There was no shortage of warnings that the Secretary-General should not go at this time. The Americans were among the most sceptical of him going, while the British believed he should. Special Envoy Gambari was also sceptical at the outset, but Ban insisted. Gambari noted that recent negative press (with headlines such as “Whereabouts unknown” in The Times and “Nowhere Man” in Foreign Policy) had made Ban even more determined to visit Burma. After a seemingly fruitless visit by the Secretary-General, the UN’s “good offices” will be made even more difficult. Special Envoy Gambari will have major problems during the aftermath, after “the top man” has failed and the generals in Yangoon no longer want to meet with him.

* * *

What all these examples have in common is that a spineless and charmless Secretary-General has not compensated this by appointing high profile and visible coworkers. Ban has systematically appointed Special Representatives and top officals in the Secretariat who have not been visibly outstanding – with the exception of Afghanistan. In addition he seems to prefer to be in the center without competition from his coworkers and has implied quite clearly that press statements are for him exclusively. The result is that the UN is a less visible and relevant actor in various areas where it would have been natural and necessary for the UN to be engaged. An honorable exception is the appointment of Helen Clark as the new leader of UNDP . She has in a short time, done good things. It will be interesting to see if she will be given space to give the UN a profile in the area of development. As a woman from this side of the world, Clark could soon turn into a candidate for Ban´s second term.

It is common knowledge that it was a deliberate choice of the former US administration not to prefer an activist Secretary-General. The current American Administration  has not yet signalled any changes in its position towards Ban, however, there are rumours that in certain quarters in Washington Ban is referred to as a “one term SG.” It is understood that people in the circles of Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton are very negative to Ban, but neither of them has given any declarations. China  is also quite positive to him and it is primarily China who holds the key to Ban´s second mandate. Russia has for a long time been dissatisfied with the Secretary-General´s handling of both Kosovo and Georgia but also the lack of appointments of Russians to leading position at the UN. At the same time the Russians, however, have no problems with a not too-interventionist Secretary-General.

The SG’s defenders don’t appear to have helped very much.  See these responses to Heilbrunn by Mark Leon Goldberg and Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar.

While a low-key, largely absentee SG might have been exactly what the Bush administration was looking for, none of this is good news for the Obama administration, which is looking for a more robust partner in the UN on a whole host of foreign policy issues.  As some are speculating, Ban’s turn of bad PR may benefit UNDP Chief and former New Zealand Foreign Prime Minister Helen Clark, rumored to be in the running to fill the seat should Ban not be reappointed.  Perhaps it takes a spectacular failure to path the way for the first woman SG!  Stay tuned….

2 Responses

  1. This is both very interesting and to a large extent irrelevant. The assignment of posts at the United Nations is based not on merit, but on considerations of national prestige.

    For the United States to fail to support a South Korean for a traditional second term would be a slap in the face of a major ally, during a critical time on the Korean peninsula. 

    Furthermore, to nominate the white foreign minister of a former Imperial Dominion to office, on the heels of a vicious personality-driven attack arising from the European-American establishment, would raise all kinds of hackles in the Third World (apologies if my nomenclature is no longer in the politically correct lexicon).

  2. Helen Clark would make a wonderful Secretary-General – and we in New Zealand would be so proud! She meets both your criteria. She was considered a highly effective leader as Prime Minister. She is very smart, driven and hard-working. She has excellent leadership skills, in both the strategic and interpersonal areas.

    In terms of getting support, she knows (and has good relationships with) a lot of world leaders from her time as Prime Minister and her long involvement in international affairs and organisations. And New Zealand has a good international reputation for a principles and constructive foreign policy. Both Clark and New Zealand are strong multilateralists and very much committed to the UN.

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