Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

A Man for Troubled Times: Ban Ki-moon Rises Above the Fray

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today flies to the divided island of Cyprus ahead of a key summit officially held up as the best prospect for Cypriot unification. Both the Greek and Turkish leaderships from the island will be there, but it is highly unlikely they share the optimism of others. It falls to the United Nations and Ban Ki-moon to wrestle with the seemingly intractable, and when there are not immediate results, to castigate the man and his organisation.

Attacking the UN is the easy part; the hard part is what the UN tries to do from Cyprus to the Congo, the Golan Heights to Haiti. In many of the World’s most troubled areas, it is the UN that is the glue that holds together fractured societies. Much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo wouldn’t function without the UN, and without the United Nations on the ground in Haiti, the relief operation would have been much more problematic. This is not forgetting that many UN staff, including the head of Mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, were killed when the Earthquake hit UN headquarters. Ban Ki-moon was one of the first World leaders to arrive in the devastated capital of Haiti. Frequently ignored and forgotten is the fact that the UN, whatever its shortcomings, provides peacekeeping and disaster relief on the cheap – which is why the rest of the World is content to allow it to wrestle with the seemingly impossible.

Part of Ban Ki-moon’s problem – and that of the United Nations, is that much of the media is incredibly parochial, doesn’t like spending money of foreign bureaux and finds the United Nations an easy target.

At the tail end of last year as the media gathered in Copenhagen for the Climate Change Summit, the British media opted to obsess as to whether President Obama had snubbed Gordon Brown at the UN General Assembly in New York (he hadn’t met with him) and therefore undermined the ‘Special Relationship’ – an obsolescence that few Americans ever refer to. Back in the real world UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, focussed on a broader canvass, which predictably gained little media carriage. Addressing the serried ranks of World leaders and diplomats, Ban reminded them that they were there ‘to take risks, to assume the burden of responsibility, to rise to an exceptional moment to make history.’

Any reasonably informed observer could hear those words and actually believe for once that they did not amount to hyperbole.  Multilateralism is back in vogue, the election of President Obama against the backdrop of a near global depression and seemingly endless, unwinnable wars, an important signal that a majority of American voters had turned away from the unilateralism of the Bush era. The Obama presidency coincides with that of Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as Secretary General of the United Nations – an organisation Obama describes as ‘flawed but indispensable.’ That is a considerable improvement on the near constant attrition that existed between President Bush and Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan. Bush so disliked all that the UN stood for, he appointed stalwart neo-con John Bolton as his Ambassador to the organisation to cause maximum disruption, an action akin to appointing Derek Hatton as Secretary to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Two years ago, the UN General Assembly was dominated by talk of a ‘war on terror.’ Two years on, humbled by the global glacial and economic melt-down, the talk is of ‘co-operation’, ‘climate change’ and ‘nuclear disarmament.’ The mood music, the whole basis on which international diplomacy is being played out, is demonstrably changing before our eyes.

But for those in America who rail against Obama’s ‘Socialism’ they reflect the historical dissonance of a substantial minority who reject any concept on global governance, and who almost have as much difficulty with the concept of their own Federal Government. For much of the outside World that stereotype was confirmed by the actions of the Bush administration. Yet consistently pollsters have found a majority of Americans support the idea of the United Nations, expect it and their Government to intervene against human rights abusers, and do not want their country to retreat into an isolationist shell.

As the Obama administration works out what it wants from the United Nations – and continues to pay its substantial arrears to the organisation – Ban Ki-moon has moved into the second half of his first term tenure as Secretary General. It helps that the economic crisis has encouraged global leaders to talk his language, and that for the first time there is some recognition that the founding principles of the United Nations carry practical implications that go beyond the utopian. It has also helped on occasions that others don’t see it this way. Last year, Libyan leader Colonel Qadaffi’s hour long rambling from the General Assembly podium were enlivened by his ceremonial tossing away of the United Nations Charter.

The Secretary General is, on balance, quietly and successfully taking on his critics by getting on with the job. Ahead of the curve on both climate change and the need for a global stimulus package, Ban can also take credit for providing the space and the arguments for a rapidly reducing nuclear weapon stockpile – providing also that Iran and North Korea play ball. But Ban, a sure footed veteran of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, and a former Foreign Minister to boot, cannot fight back in the conventional way against an array of critics, whose chief weapon is to attack his style.

At one level, Ban does not stimulate controversy, nor does he seek confrontation. Unlike some of his predecessors, such as Kurt Waldheim, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Kofi Annan, there is no whiff of scandal. He has little interest in the material, a fact confirmed to me once by a Manhattan launderette owner, who revealed that the Secretary General’s shirts are ‘all worn thin.’ No child of that most devastating of wars, the Korean War, would ever want to waste anything. The difficulty for his critics is pinning the man down, after all he ran for office in an open election, and it was said at the time with the support amongst others of the then Bush Administration. He cannot be dismissed as a product of any radical Third World cabal, since he comes from the United States’ close ally, South Korea. But taking even a moderate stand, whether it is brushing against China over North Korea or weighing in heavily against indiscriminate Israeli aerial bombardment in Gaza, brings a reaction.

No leader is above criticism or accountability, but such are the array of global problems on the Secretary General’s in-tray, that pettifogging personal criticism, is simply acting as an energy sapping diversion to the job in hand.


Up Next