Global Policy Forum

The UN's 'Invisible Man'


By Joe Lauria and Steve Steclow


Ban Ki-moon Struggles to Make Mark; U.S. Urges Stronger Role

As the Obama administration implements a new U.S. strategy toward the United Nations, it's working with a U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who is struggling to prove himself on the world stage. The latest example: Mr. Ban's trip to Myanmar this month. Despite Mr. Ban's requests, Myanmar's ruling junta declined to let him visit opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. On Monday, Myanmar's U.N. envoy did say the junta would release some political prisoners, but provided no details. Outside groups say similar promises in the past have gone unfulfilled, and even Mr. Ban reacted cautiously.

Mr. Ban had been warned by some about making the trip. "I told him, 'Don't go there if you are not sure you will get something, because it will not help you, it will weaken you,'" France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, a supporter of Mr. Ban, said in an interview before the trip. On Monday, Mr. Ban called Myanmar's actions "encouraging, but I will have to continue to follow up how they will implement all the issues raised during my visit." Speaking to reporters, he added: "I am not quite sure ... who will be included in this amnesty."

At the midpoint of a five-year term as secretary-general, the 65-year-old Mr. Ban is defined by his low profile. "I am known as invisible man," he said during a recent interview, adding that he "really struggled" with issues related to his public perception. "I am more interested in results and am not a fiery rhetoric person" in public, he said.

Mr. Ban -- who rose from deep poverty in Korea to his current post -- steers the U.N. at a pivotal moment. He succeeded the charismatic Kofi Annan, who shared a 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for his U.N. stewardship only to have the "oil for food" scandal break out, which exposed graft in the handling of Iraqi humanitarian aid by the U.N. and some member states. Mr. Ban took over as U.N. head in 2007 and pushed for reform, blasting a bureaucracy last year that wastes "incredible amounts of time on largely meaningless matters." Today, Mr. Ban acknowledges his reform effort has, to some extent, stalled. In the recent interview, he spoke of it in the past tense. "I really wanted to change the working culture," he says.

Mr. Ban seeks to lower expectations. During last month's interview, he said less should be expected of the U.N. chief in the post-Cold War era, as regional organizations take on greater roles. However, a senior aide quickly interjected that the U.N. was never more necessary than today, pointing out that it currently oversees some of the biggest humanitarian operations in its history, and has 110,000 peacekeepers deployed. By comparison, in 1988 there were fewer than 10,000 deployed.

The U.S. is redefining its sometimes strained relationship with the world body. In September, President Barack Obama plans to make his first address to the General Assembly, laying out his vision for the organization. Speaking a week ago in Italy at a meeting of the Group of Eight wealthy nations, Mr. Obama said he has told Mr. Ban that the U.N. needs "revitalizing" so that it can tackle global problems now taken up by the G8 and Group of 20 industrial and developing nations' summits.

A few disagreements and missteps have popped up. On Thursday, Mr. Ban criticized the G-8 talks in Italy, saying the group didn't go far enough in tackling climate change. And in March, Mr. Ban had to apologize after calling the U.S. a "deadbeat" because it owed more than $800 million in U.N. dues. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a Ban supporter, calls the statement "unquestionably the most foolish thing he's done in two-and-a-half years."

The U.S. recently paid its peacekeeping arrears and the House has voted to pay the rest of what is owed. U.S. officials also had suggested that Mr. Ban not lend legitimacy to Myanmar's leaders without extracting political reforms in return, U.N. officials and a Western diplomat say. But a U.N. official added that, had the U.S. strongly protested, Mr. Ban "would have thought twice about going." Other countries, including Britain, backed the trip. Overall, Mr. Ban says he enjoys "very positive personal relations with U.S. officials." In a statement, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Mr. Ban "is principled, hard-working, cares deeply and is willing to take risks" in what she called "one of the most difficult jobs in the world."

Mr. Ban's aides describe him as a master of quiet diplomacy, working behind the scenes to advance causes as diverse as deploying U.N. peacekeepers into a defiant Sudan to enlisting world leaders to fight climate change. U.N. officials acknowledge Mr. Ban lacks the powerful personality of some of his predecessors. And to their frustration, they say, many of his public pronouncements pass relatively unnoticed, despite his bully pulpit. No matter what he does, he just can't make a splash," says one U.N. official. "Nothing sticks."

Some U.N. observers say the secretary-general's low profile is a liability. "It's fair to say you can accomplish very good things as the steward of the U.N. even if you don't have the communication skills or charisma," says historian Steven C. Schlesinger, a backer of Mr. Ban and of the U.N. in general. "The problem is that if you don't get any hurts the U.N." because it looks like "the U.N. is back to its old ineffectiveness." Critics also accuse Mr. Ban of failing to take a strong enough stand against oppressive regimes. Nile Gardiner, director of the Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, says, "He's barely said a word about massive human-rights violations" in places including North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In the June interview, Mr. Ban defended his record of private diplomacy with dictators. "With all these kinds of very difficult leaders I have been much more vocal than, I bet, any of my predecessors," he said. Mr. Ban argues that his tough talk saved a half-million lives, after a May 2008 cyclone devastated Myanmar, when he persuaded the country's generals to open their ports to foreign aid. Lex Rieffel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called Mr. Ban a "commendable and significant" part of the global call for Myanmar to allow aid.

Mr. Ban says in March 2007 he berated Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to accept U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur, to which Mr. al-Bashir agreed three weeks later. "You could hear the screaming through the wall," says an aide to Mr. Ban. John Prendergast, co-founder of an anti-genocide project at the nonprofit Center for American Progress, says Mr. Ban's "personal advocacy" was a factor in getting the regime to acquiesce.

Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, denied Mr. Ban played a role. Mr. Ban also says he persuaded Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to deny the existence of the Holocaust in a speech at a U.N. conference. Nevertheless, Mr. Ahmadinejad sparked a walkout of European delegates after labeling Israel the "most cruel and repressive racist regime." Iran's mission to the U.N. didn't respond to a request for comment.

The U.N.'s charter gives the secretary-general two main roles: to be an administrator, and to help shape the U.N.'s diplomatic agenda by bringing issues to the Security Council. The latter role can be controversial. Mr. Bolton, the former U.S. envoy to the U.N., decries activist secretaries-general who confront member states' own interests. The charter doesn't call the secretary-general "president of the world" or "chief poet and visionary," he says. Mr. Bolton says the Bush administration "got exactly what we asked for" in Mr. Ban, describing him as an administrator as opposed to an activist.

Mr. Ban's predecessor, Mr. Annan, was a charismatic act to follow. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke once called him "an international rock star of diplomacy." Under the U.N.'s power-sharing arrangement among regions of the world, Mr. Annan's successor (chosen by Security Council members) was to be from Asia. In his book, "Surrender Is Not an Option," Mr. Bolton wrote that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally liked Mr. Annan, but that while discussing possible successors to him, she privately told him, "I'm not sure we want a strong secretary-general." In an interview, Ms. Rice denied making the statement. "I would certainly want the strongest possible secretary-general. But a secretary-general who isn't supported by and can't bring the member states to do things isn't going to get very far," she said. Mr. Ban feared from the start he might be misunderstood in the West. "Asia is a region where modesty is a virtue," he said in his acceptance speech in October 2006. "But the modesty is about demeanor, not about vision and goals."

Mr. Ban grew up in war-ravaged Korea, where his parents were so poor, they foraged for wild grain in Sangdong, a village about 200 miles south of Seoul. One of eight children (two died before he was born), Mr. Ban walked miles everyday to a schoolhouse that had no roof. In 1962, the 18-year-old Mr. Ban won an English-language competition in high school, and was rewarded with a trip to the U.S. and the White House, where he shook President Kennedy's hand. He says he vowed that day to become a diplomat. Mr. Ban earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1984 and became an adviser to South Korean presidents.
Upon rising to U.N. secretary-general, he dismissed most of Mr. Annan's top staff and increased the number of women in senior positions from 17 to 45, or about a quarter of the total. He asked top U.N. officials voluntarily to file public financial-disclosure forms, although not all have done so.

U.N. officials cite Mr. Ban's diplomatic success promoting the need to combat climate change, an issue he calls his No. 1 priority, winning over some world leaders, including President George W. Bush. Mr. Ban says he ignored the advice of his advisers and raised the issue at his first Oval Office meeting with Mr. Bush in January 2007. "The response was cool," Mr. Ban says, but adds that Mr. Bush later agreed to attend a dinner that year during a U.N. meeting on fighting global warming.

Mr. Ban says he has no plans to alter his style, although he hopes Americans will change their "fixed perception" of him. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month found 81% of Americans either had no opinion or had never heard of him.

"That's why I have been traveling a lot through American cities," he says. Last month, he addressed students at St. Louis University, and last year sat with 27 Chicago high-schoolers in a simulated U.N. debate on climate change. Mr. Ban concedes it will take a lot more than speeches to prove himself. "Improving our image," he says, means "you have to deliver some results."


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