Good Moon Rising?

This year’s General Assembly attracted more media attention than the United Nations usually attracts, at least since the feeding frenzy over the “oil for food” controversy. It was not just the recent stand-up routines of Libya’s Qaddafi, Iran’s Ahmadinejad, and Venezuela’s Chavez that won the attention of the large press contingent. This time the organization really was dealing with substantive issues of global importance, and dealing with them rather than evading them with the traditional parade of orotundity. Disarmament and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, climate change, and a fair deal for the poor in the economic crisis were all on the agenda. It may not be coincidental that these issues are hardly calculated to warm a neocon heart.

So the usual suspects are sharpening their knives for Ban Ki Moon in a recent spate of conservative attacks on his lack of effectiveness. The UN general secretary had been relatively fortunate until recently. He does not have the reputation for charisma that his predecessor Kofi Annan enjoyed early on, but he also hasn’t suffered the attacks that Boutros Boutros-Ghali experienced at the same point in his term. Even so, the attacks could presage the type of assault that cost Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan their chances of an additional term at the hands of respectively, Democratic and Republican administrations. As a nominee of John Bolton, Bush’s UN representative, Ban might be expected to face an Obama administration veto of a second term. This is doubtful, however, since Ban’s and Obama’s agendas generally seem to be in close harmony. Above all, they subscribe to the Churchillian principle that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

Yet, this U.S.-UN convergence has drawn neocon wrath down on Ban. His globalist multilateralism has not exactly endeared him to the far left either, although their concerns for the sacredness of sovereignty are unlikely to have as much effect in Washington.

No Puppet

Like almost any other secretary general, Ban stands guilty of thinking that he represents the UN rather than the right wing of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. This effrontery has generated a damning assessment in Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Jacob Heilbrunn’s blistering assault in Foreign Policy.

One of his detractors, a Norwegian diplomat denied the job she had wanted at the UN, described Ban in a retaliatory written-to-be-leaked memo as “charmless and spineless.” In fact, he is remarkably affable and charming, and has shown strong attachment to principle — which may be one reason for the neoliberal disaffection.

Their calumny is precisely because Ban has not been just a cookie-cutter conservative puppet. If he were, he wouldn’t have supported the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect while on the hustings for the UN’s top job, nor would he have pushed so hard on climate change issues for two years of the Bush/Cheney duumvirate.

Ban Ki Moon has had less credit than he deserves for the prominence of the key issues at this General Assembly and the UN’s relative success in tackling them, all overshadowed by the arrival of most foreigners’ favorite president, Obama. Yet Ban has worked indefatigably to ensure that they were on the agenda and were supported in a practical way with commitments from world leaders. Of course, the change of administration in the White House boosted the event considerably. It is always good news when the world’s only superpower decides to move in the same direction as the UN Charter, not least since it boosts the chances of successful practical outcomes. President Obama’s speech pressed all the right buttons and promised a more constructive and less exploitive U.S. relationship with the organization than, for example, the Clinton administration had managed. Although Obama did warn that his administration would be looking after American interests, the decision to pay up U.S. arrears to the UN after decades of default had already sent a message.

These factual achievements have not yet succeeded in creating a positive image for Ban in the West, although the poll evidence suggests differently in the rest of the world. A recent global poll showed him to be the second most popular political figure in the world after Barack Obama. For a Korean to have high ratings in both China and Korea suggests that American audiences are missing something. U.S. misperceptions can have serious consequences, since it can detract from Ban’s authority as a “secular Pope,” one of the most useful tools of the office.

Learning Curve

Ban’s uncollegial administrative style and, in some cases, inept appointments, have muffled his genuine achievements. All secretaries general have to be cliquish: the permanent five and major donors foist their nominees on them, and under the circumstances it is remarkable how independent of their sponsors many of them are.

But as a result, kitchen cabinets are the name of the game at the UN. In Ban’s case however, it has been perceived as a very small Korean kitchen. He has appointed some very able senior officers who should really be encouraged to speak out more. Annan was no great orator and was in reality every bit as shy of controversy as Ban seems to be. But he also had a team to project his vision, who offered the benefits of controversy with deniability.

Admittedly, attacks on the secretary general go with the territory. If Ban didn’t meet with the junta in Myanmar, for example, he would have been accused of doing nothing. But by making the trip, he risks accusations of countenancing tyranny — as well as the possibility of public failure. In the end, he did the right thing and went to Myanmar, where he spoke very forthrightly to the leadership. He secured the release of some political prisoners and is still pressing for the release of others. In late September, he moved from strong words in private to a public dressing down when he revealed that he’d told the Burmese prime minister “that the onus was on the Government to create the necessary conditions for credible and inclusive elections, including the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners.”

That shift indicates a learning process. Part of the problem has been cultural. By temperament and culture Ban avoided public, and thus newsworthy, confrontations even though in closed rooms with leaders he can be very forthright. Although “kick and tell” is not a desirable trait in the world’s arch-diplomat, the Western press disagrees. Despite his affability and accessibility to the media, Ban’s refusal to deliver controversy or sound bites appears like evasiveness to the Western media. On some issues, he is in fact evasive. But his stance on Myanmar suggests that he is learning to use the bully pulpit of his office to reinforce his private messages.

Where he has shown the most rapid learning curve has been on the Middle East. As South Korean foreign minister, given the focus on Northeast Asia, the Middle East is understandably not on the top of his agenda. His initial impulse was to take the Israeli point of view. At U.S. and Israeli bidding, he purged “Arabists” at UN headquarters who upheld UN resolutions.

Exposure to Benjamin Netanyahu and the reality on the ground seem to have brought him a long way toward the common global view reflected in UN Resolution 242 on the principles for Middle East peace and other resolutions. His burying of the recent report he had commissioned on Israeli actions in Gaza is part of a long secretariat tradition of protecting Israel and suggests that he still has some way to go. Nonetheless he has gone much further than the Obama administration in characterizing Israel’s settlements as illegal.

Bridging the Charisma Divide

The job of the secretary general is, by its nature, frustrating. Ban persuaded Sudan to accept peacekeepers in Darfur, but failed to secure essential Western logistics such as air support in particular. As always, subsequent scapegoating of “UN failure” obscured his initial success (not to mention Western culpability).

Recently, his staff has tried to remedy his perceived charisma deficit. They have pointed out that he has appointed more women to senior positions in the organization than ever before. There is also his work in persuading some countries and companies to set aside differences and donate flu vaccines for developing countries. These are fine achievements, but the world expects him to deliver more of the ethical dimension of a UN secretary general, even as he dips his arms in the sordid sink of realpolitik.

With the Obama administration, Ban has the best chance of any of his recent predecessors of speaking truth to power and emerging unscathed. Consider, for instance, his labeling the United States a “deadbeat” over its dues arrears this March. The recent firing of Clinton/Holbrooke protégé Peter Galbraith from the Afghan mission, whether wise or not, at least indicates a willingness to stand up to the United States.

Ban’s independence is actually a boon for Washington. The secretary general, with his penchant for multilateral diplomacy, often says and does what President Obama believes but can’t say publically. More straight-talking from Ban could actually help the declared foreign policy objectives of the White House.

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit.