Global Policy Forum

UN Chief's Dealings With US Draw Fire


Ban Sees Himself as a Pragmatist, But Some Critics Say He is Too Pro-American

By Colum Lynch

Washington Post
September 24, 2007

When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon first approached President Bush at the White House in January to muster support for a U.N. climate-change initiative, the president's response was cool: An impatient Bush reminded Ban that he did not want to restrain U.S. industries, and that past accords unfairly exempted major polluters such as China and India. "He was not that favorably inclined," Ban conceded in an interview last week. But Ban kept at it, cajoling Bush in phone calls and meetings, urging him to at least attend a dinner with other world leaders to discuss the issue. Finally, Bush relented. "I'll be there, I'll be there," he reassured Ban in a phone conversation earlier this month. The dinner will be held Monday.

Since becoming U.N. chief in January, Ban has demonstrated a rare ability to nudge the White House, on issues such as increased U.S. funds for U.N. peacekeeping, action against Sudan and climate change. In turn, Ban has repaid the favor, opposing calls for a swift U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and committing to a beefed-up U.N. presence in Baghdad. "He's his own person, but his instincts often coincide with what we think is the right thing to do," said a senior Bush administration official. This mutually beneficial relationship has made Ban one of the most pro-American secretaries general in the United Nations' 62-year history, in the eyes of many observers. Such close ties to Washington have triggered some unease; many U.N. member states opposed the war in Iraq and resent U.S. influence. Ban's loyalties will be tested this week as he hosts a gathering of more than 150 presidents, kings and ministers, many of whom worry that Ban is too beholden to a U.S. president whose decisions have often been at odds with U.N. goals and values.

Ban acknowledges that his ties to Washington may give the impression that "I am too close to America . . . so-called pro-American. That may be true, but I would like to say that as a diplomat or as a person I regard myself as very consistent and very reasonable and balanced." Even so, Ban has faced fierce challenges to his authority, both inside and outside the organization. The Group of 77, a bloc of about 130 developing countries, says Ban has been too deferential to U.S. policies, and it has battled his efforts to shut down departments dealing with disarmament and poverty.

One of his top Middle East envoys, Peru's Alvaro de Soto, resigned in May on the grounds that Ban's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process provides political cover for the United States, alienating the Palestinians and undermining U.N. impartiality. "Even-handedness has been pummeled into submission," De Soto wrote in a leaked internal assessment. The U.N. staff committee protested Ban's decision to expand the organization's role in Iraq, fearing it would expose U.N. officials to terrorist attacks and make the institution complicit in an intractable U.S.-made crisis. "He is walking onto a ship that many people think are sinking," said Michael Doyle, a scholar who served under former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.

Others worry that Ban's ties to Bush undermine U.N. unity. "The secretary general and his office have to serve as a unifying force for this house," said an ambassador from one of the Security Council's five permanent member countries. "And this house is politically divided." Ban's relationship with the United States has roots in the Korean War, when invading North Korean troops forced his family to flee its village. His first glimpse of an American was a unit of GIs, representatives of a distant nation that saved his country from defeat and helped rebuild its economy.

"We suffered much from hunger," Ban said in an interview this week from his 38th-floor conference room. After the war, his family survived on rice, flour, powdered milk, and clothing provided by the United States and other donors. "I still vividly remember the picture of the handshake between American and Korean people on the back of humanitarian assistance bags." "Unfortunately, the United Nations and the United States have not been maintaining a harmonious relationship," he said.

As a teenager, Ban traveled to the United States in the early 1960s, where he met with President John F. Kennedy. Decades later, as a top South Korean official, Ban struggled to preserve his country's military alliance with the United States and persuaded his government to send thousands of Korean troops to Iraq. "He was the go-to guy in the Blue House [Korea's presidential quarters]," said a former U.S. military official. "I think Ban Ki-moon sees the world as resting on the American neo-liberal order, and Korea's security, too," said Michael Green, who oversaw Asian affairs for the White House from 2004 to 2005. "Ban Ki-moon was a Rock of Gibraltar in the Blue House when many around him wanted to distance themselves from the U.S. and move closer to North Korea and China."

Ban is seeking to redefine the role of secretary general played by Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an outspoken critic of the U.S. war in Iraq. Ban sees himself as a pragmatic diplomat and a player in world affairs, not a symbol. "I believe in results, not rhetoric," he told top U.N. officials at a private retreat in Turin, Italy. "I am not in the business of giving a speech that proclaims 'Never again,' drawing applause and headlines. I am about quietly working the phone, being blunt behind closed doors, to force us out of the status quo."

Ban's quiet diplomacy has drawn fire from human rights advocates who say his reluctance to criticize major powers, particularly the United States, or to publicly scold Sudan, Burma and other rights abusers is diminishing the United Nations' standing as a moral force. Even first lady Laura Bush has voiced alarm at the United Nations' refusal to forcefully condemn a Burmese military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. "By staying quiet, the United Nations - and all nations - condone these abuses," Mrs. Bush told Ban in a phone call, a statement from her office said. "The secretary general's job in part is to uphold and try to enforce international standards including on human rights, but [Ban] seems completely uncomfortable doing that," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. " I do think he denigrates public diplomacy as being mere empty statements without understanding his condemnation carries real force and can move governments as much as his cajoling behind the scenes, sometimes more so."

Some U.N. diplomats and human rights advocates see Ban as naively falling for a cynical Sudanese diplomatic ploy: offering concessions to foreign diplomats while proceeding with a military campaign that has led to the death of 200,000 to 400,000 civilians since 2003. "Did you hear that [Ban] asked for patience?" said Mia Farrow, an actress and UNICEF ambassador who has been active on human rights in Darfur. "I don't think patience is a virtue we need right now." U.N. officials say Ban's quiet style should not be read as a lack of commitment to human rights. They say he has publicly criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his threats against Israel and has made important progress in Darfur, where he has persuaded the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to accept an African Union-U.N. peacekeeping force and to participate in peace talks in Libya.

U.S. and U.N. officials say Ban is also willing to stand up to the Americans, citing his appeals to Bush to support international efforts on climate change and to halt sanctions plans against Sudan while Ban continued trying to persuade Bashir to permit thousands of peacekeepers into Darfur. On climate change, Ban has staked out an issue with broad support among the U.N. membership - if not in the White House. U.N. officials say they do not expect Bush to reverse his position on climate change and embrace a binding treaty with fixed emission targets. Still, they hope his attendance at Monday's forum signals that Washington will not sabotage negotiations set to begin in December on a permanent new treaty replacing the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire at the end of 2012. "Ban knows enough not to drive the Americans crazy by pontificating on issues that he has little to gain from," said one of Ban's top advisers. "He goes at them on things he wants to go at them on, but he doesn't preach to the Americans in a way a lot of former secretary generals couldn't resist."

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