World

Ban Ki-Moon has Failed at the United Nations

When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon got ready to address senior U.N. officials at a retreat in Turin, Italy, last September, he knew he would deliver the kind of frank talk that would energize his troops to overcome the notorious trappings of their bureaucracy. Instead, he delivered a paean to teamwork that his staff celebrated as a motivational triumph. But everyone else heard it as an ambition-deflating attack on independence and initiative, and he slunk off having failed to rouse his flock. "I tried to lead by example. No one followed," he told the crowd, referring to his term so far.

There are certain things Ban Ki-moon will never be, and a great secretary-general is one of them. U.N. insiders and observers seem to agree: He is honest, deeply committed, modest, and straightforward. He does his homework. He works well with others. But while he keeps insisting he has the charismatic personality to lead, most observers also agree that that's nonsense. Advisers complain his speeches generate so little press that they are often asked shortly afterward why Ban has declined to speak out on the very same issues he just addressed. As a leader, he simply lacks that certain je ne sais quoi.

That's one part of the problem. The rest is that he doesn't seem much to mind. Halfway through his five-year term, Ban's record is uninspiring. Time after time, his critics say, he has been absent from the diplomatic conversation, condemning the U.N. to irrelevance: he offered only a muted response to the ICC's decision in March to issue an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir; this summer, he barely raised his voice about civilian casualties in Sri Lanka, then he failed to produce results after a high-profile trip to Myanmar in July. When he does try to use the bully pulpit, he fails to cause a stir. "Ban is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to witness its crash," wrote Jacob Heilbrunn in a scathing Foreign Policy analysis. "If you don't hear him, does he really exist?" Nicknames like "The Bureaucrat" and "Nowhere Man" have been tossed around. Observers have begun to wonder if he might become only the second U.N. chief in history not to land a second term. Worst of all, they're wrong—there's no else who could do the job.

Even the fiercest critics concede that the secretary-general's job is all but impossible. Tasked with pushing and prodding member states to make good on their lofty promises, he must be the world's great communicator—mostly because that's the only power he possesses. Technically speaking, he is the secretariat's "chief administrative officer," according to the organization's charter, tasked with focusing the Security Council's attention on "any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." But with neither line-item vetoes nor military orders at his disposal, Ban must instead rely on his powers of persuasion to get things done, whether that involves quiet diplomacy or yelling and screaming to the press corps. He repeatedly claims he's opting for the former, pointing to progress on climate-change negotiations and success in convincing the Burmese government to allow humanitarian aid into the country. His critics, mainly from human-rights corridors, concede that there is perhaps some truth to the notion that he is making progress behind closed doors. "I do believe he can be very forceful in private meetings, but he has been reluctant to follow through in public, which can be useful," says Steve Crawshaw, the U.N.-advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. When your only tool is a hammer, the thinking goes, you should probably be looking for nails. Although his predecessor, Kofi Annan, was criticized for delivering eloquent calls to arms that produced few results, Crawshaw says, "It just doesn't make sense to give public praise to politicians who clearly deserve pressure, not praise."

In that sense, Ban has failed to explain his agenda, communicate his priorities, and get his message out—allowing even his boldest exhortations, like those on climate change, to get lost amid the cacophony that dominates at the U.N. "There's not enough strategic thinking on the 38th floor [where the secretary-general has his offices]," said one U.N. insider, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of his relationship with the U.N. head. As a result, he says, press coverage tends to focus on Ban's fruitless meetings with recalcitrant leaders like Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir. "It's fine for him to be modest about himself as he bangs his head on a brick wall [negotiating with thugs], but it's bringing harm and prestige to the organization." The secretary-general's team, he says, lacks the chemistry of the brain trust that Kofi Annan, the consummate U.N. insider, had assembled. Annan drew on trusted talents like Columbia University international-affairs dean John Ruggie, Financial Times columnist Edward Mortimer, and U.N. humanitarian advocate Shashi Tharoor to tailor and communicate his ideas. They were good with words and big thoughts, the source says, and they operated with Annan's trust. Ban's team, on the other hand, doesn't have much of a handle on the system. He appointed fellow Koreans to top posts, like protégé Kim Won-soo, the deputy chef de cabinet, who is said to have better access to Ban than the actual chef de cabinet does.

Meanwhile, says the source, Ban's top communications aides tell him that he is the best secretary-general of all time—a message that insulates Ban from the conversation outside the 38th floor and makes him seem tone deaf. Expressing an aversion to personalities who would rather hog the spotlight than work together, Ban has as a result studiously ignored criticisms of his public profile, opting to keep his quiet, unremarkable team intact

This week, as the General Assembly gathers for its 64th session, Ban would have to bar the door and unplug the phones up to avoid hearing the message. The critiques accelerated this summer with the publication of midterm reviews, then churned out at warp speed after a scathing diplomatic memo leaked out of the Norwegian foreign office in August. Written by a top Norwegian diplomat, Mona Juul, the memo delivered a detailed catalog of Ban's inadequacies, slamming him for being "spineless" and "charmless" in his handling of diplomatic crises and staffing decisions. With its publication, the exasperated whispers from inside the halls of the U.N. were now available around the world—finally focusing a much different kind of attention on the U.N. than his critics had hoped for. "In 'crises areas' such as Darfur, Somalia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and not least the Congo, the Secretary-General's appeals, often irresolute and lacking in dedication, seem to fall on deaf ears," Juul wrote, noting that he had failed to compensate for his weaknesses by appointing high-profile deputies. "Even though the UN's humanitarian effort has been active and honest enough, the moral voice and authority of the Secretary-General has been missing," she added. Most enticingly of all, she noted rumors circulating around Washington that the new U.S. administration—particularly in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's offices—had soured on him, raising the prospect that he could be a "one-term SG."

If that were true (the U.S. mission in Turtle Bay declined to comment), it would be a doozy of a political calculation. In all of U.N. history, only one secretary-general has been booted before completing two terms. In 1996, the Clinton administration waged an aggressive stealth diplomatic campaign to veto Boutros Boutros Ghali's reappointment, dubbed "Operation Orient Express," thinking they would be better served by having Kofi Annan in charge. But the Clinton team paid dearly for their decision; after having expended precious political capital to shunt Ghali aside, they ended up with a secretary-general even more willing to oppose U.S. policy, complicating their lives on Capitol Hill, where Republicans were thrilled to cast Annan as the bogeyman.

It's a lesson that doesn't bode well for Americans dissatisfied with Ban. According to the same U.N. insider, trying install their favorite candidate "would be suicide" for the Americans. Says James Traub, author of The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power, an autopsy of the U.N.'s utopian post-Cold War vision for itself: "The Obama administration does not have the capacity to install their chosen person. They do have the capacity to prevent Ban from getting a second term." But Ban, a South Korean, was given the job in large part because it would have insulted Asia (particularly China) not to have done so; ousting him would cause the same problem. "The Chinese are much more active now than they were 10 years ago," he added.

But even if Washington could topple Ban, the simple fact remains that there is no one else in the entire world to take his place—literally. After Africa's two five-year terms with Kofi Annan at the top, a regional rotation, unwritten but widely acknowledged, meant it was Asia's turn to supply a secretary-general in 2006. Since rotations come in pairs, the same would be true in 2011. But as one U.N. insider noted, "it's not as if there were a lot of sparkling candidates from Asia last time around." Western Asia—essentially, all of the Middle East—was disqualified because Ghali was an Egyptian. Shashi Tharoor, the Indian communications chief under Kofi Annan who threw his hat in late in the game in 2007, could not even rally the support of his own Indian U.N. mission last time around. The Juul memo mentioned as a possibility Helen Clark, the former president of New Zealand who, as the recently appointed head of UNDP, has earned near-universal accolades. But this is the Asian century, after all. While the Chinese have not always appreciated Ban's comments on their human-rights record, they would, by all accounts, not stand for his replacement. John Bolton, who served on the Security Council when Ban was selected, said he sees little change in opinion on Ban from Chinese and U.S. officials. Certain quarters in Europe may express dissatisfaction now, he adds, but they were also on board at the time. ("He told the French he would take French lessons, and that was all they needed to hear," as he put it.) "As far as I can tell, [any move to veto Ban's second term] will run into a stone wall with the Chinese," said Bolton. Ban may never be as compelling as the denizens of Turtle Bay would hope, but he is almost certainly here to stay through the end of another five-year term.

That reality has the organization settled into a sense of ennui. Ban is not a fool, though, and so he surely knows that this week is his opportunity to retake control of the conversation. Climate change, his pet issue, is set to dominate discussion at the General Assembly this year. He has convened an unprecedented climate change summit of almost 100 heads of government in New York, hoping to gather some momentum before the G20 summit in Pittsburgh the following week and the highly anticipated Copenhagen climate-change meeting at the end of the year. He may never be able to wow a crowd, but he would score major points for rehabilitating his image if he forges a global deal on cutting carbon emissions. With unusual force, he stated last week that stalled climate negotiations urgently need to "get moving." He would be well served to take his own advice.

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