News

Will New Head Change U.N.?

Ban Ki-moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, won the support of the United Nations Security Council yesterday, which makes him a shoe-in as the next U.N. secretary general when Kofi Annan steps down on Dec. 31. The Council is expected to take a formal vote on Monday, Oct. 11. NEWSWEEK’s Karla Bruning spoke with former U.S. Ambassador William H. Luers, now president of The United Nations Association of the United States of America, about what it will mean for the U.N. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you think of Ban?

William H. Luers: He is impressive, in a personal setting. He’s very thorough. He knows his stuff. He has evolved a point of view on what he would be as secretary general. He makes a presentation with sort of written notes first and then he’s off the cuff, and he’s really quite more convincing as a casual speaker really than I would have anticipated, since his English is not excellent—it’s good, it’s very good. So I think he’s a very interesting man.

Do you think he will be an agent of change?

I think the problem with that definition is there are so many different countries who have so many different definitions of what that change would be. It would be impossible, it seems to me or very difficult to get the type of charging changer that [U.S.] Ambassador [John] Bolton seems to be suggesting. They have to get along with the United States. They have to bridge the gap between the United States and 130 other countries. They have to get along with Russia and China and that’s not an easy task. Generally speaking, you don’t select somebody who is a change artist because, like even the presidency in the United States, you have to sort of get out there and satisfy five major countries that you will not be against them. And once you’ve done that you’ve sort of bled yourself of the radical image.

The main thing that the United States wants is somebody who is a real manager, who understands that the growth of the U.N. system has been enormous. The responsibilities are much greater than when Kofi Annan took over, in every sector really, from peacekeeping (there are well over 100,000 troops in the field in 18 different countries), and in the world food program, the refugees, UNICEF—all of them are just bigger and there is ever more reason that they need management. The U.S. government feels that a solid ability to grab a hold of that, at least understand what needs to be done, and get a deputy who will do it is a very important aspect of any new secretary general. [Ban] would be an agent for change in the sense of instituting within the secretariat a process for managing individual issues and bringing together the various undersecretaries who all very often go off in different directions and it’s needed.

How Ban would be at that, I don’t know. He maintains that he was very good at changing and restructuring the Foreign Ministry but that’s quite a different thing than the type of management issues that are being discussed.

Is he the right person for the job?

Of the people I met, he’s certainly one of the very best. Like so many jobs that are big, you just don’t know until somebody’s been in them. He has a lot of the credentials that are necessary. He’s an experienced diplomat, which is the primary responsibility for the Secretary General. Kofi today in the world is probably the single leader with the most credibility of any others and the polls indicate that. You need somebody who can speak for the world. What’s unproven about [Ban] is not only how he would manage it, but could he become the sort of credible, articulate person who will help describe and work the world in a way that is understandable to this vastly different, diverse planet we live on. How will he be on his feet with the press? That’s really untested. Much of what he’s done in developing his candidacy has been to see people in small groups, tending to emphasize his strengths, which are to talk directly with a few people at one time.

What effect will new leadership have on the U.N.?

I think it will be a refreshing moment. Kofi, as good as I think he’s been in many ways, this has been a sour period, particularly in this country with regard to the U.N. Just a new face will be good and getting a new senior management will be helpful, because whether justified or unjustified there’s a lot of baggage that this group carries.

The new Secretary General will take on the reforms with new energy and there’s a lot that needs to be done. A big problem is the polarization that has taken place helped along by [Hugo] Chavez and [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and I think to some degree by the policies of the U.S. government which have sort of been confrontational on many, many of the key issues in reform movement. And the environment isn’t great. So a new person, no matter who it is, could help restore some fresh outlook on how the U.N. works and should work together over the next five years.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the new leader?

Bridging this growing divide between the countries who feel they are running the U.N., particularly the principal five, and that increasingly powerful group of countries that have no real voice on the Security Council. There’s the India, Japan, Germany question, but they’re backed up by the group of 77 who feel disenfranchised as well. I think that the structural change within the U.N., giving more universal voice, presents an enormous problem, but it’s got to be recognized. The United States and Russia and China see no advantage in doing that because they’re in and others are out and it’s going to, in various ways, be reflected over the coming years in trying to reach agreement on major decisions. Bridging that divide between the old permanent five and this new group of countries.

The question also is whether the U.N. and the secretary general will become a leader in trying to put together the whole sets of issues around the Palestine-Israel problem. That really is so core to everything in the Middle East. Nobody has been able to grab a hold of that one. Kofi began—but can the U.N. play a constructive role, given that Israel is somewhat distrustful of the U.N.? The United States can no longer be a trusted broker between various states because we’re seen as almost exclusively supportive of Israel and that presents problems in that region now.

Where do you think Ban would settle down on that issue?

As far as I know it’s not an area he’s worked and you have to do a lot to learn about that, whether he would have, early on, the confidence and support to move into that area is unclear. Anybody that comes in is going to have to be bold and try to see what can be done and I guess that’s going to be the big test of whoever comes in. Will they be prepared to take responsibility when nobody else does it? And can they persuade the United States, China and Russia that they need to do that? That’s a tough one. I think that Ban realizes that this is a big job and one that’s probably getting bigger.

Why is the United States supporting him?

The U.S. early on came to believe, to agree, that it probably had to be an Asian. The other candidates were not terribly strong. Korea is seen as one of the Asian countries closest to the United States. All of those factors played in. I don’t think the United States wants a terribly strong, overly assertive secretary general. It causes problems for them. They want somebody they think they can work with. And I suspect he fills all those criteria.

Editor's Pick