Here is some of what the secretary general of the United Nations did in May: helped coordinate UN responses to the H1N1 virus in New York and Geneva, where he also attended a World Heath Organization assembly and persuaded heads of pharmaceutical companies to donate vaccines; addressed a summit in Bahrain on dealing with disasters; met with Congressional committees to discuss UN funding decisions; visited the last battlefield in the ugly quarter-century war in Sri Lanka and toured a camp for displaced Tamils, then prodded Sri Lanka’s president to hasten relief and reconciliation; urged global business executives in Copenhagen to act on climate change; and held twenty-one meetings in one day with various Danish leaders and environmental experts before moving on to an official visit to Finland.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is halfway through his first five-year term in office. Whether he gets another five years will depend not on how many air miles he logs but on what all this activity achieves. From his perspective, he is laying the diplomatic groundwork for shared problem-solving, not looking for instant results. He does not showboat.
Ban, who previously served as the South Korean foreign minister, is all but unknown in the United States. The UN is getting less and less coverage from fewer American reporters at its headquarters. But the United States, as always, will decide the secretary general’s fate. Bill Clinton dumped Boutros Boutros-Ghali after one term when the too-foreign Egyptian was perceived as a political liability. Kofi Annan endured shrill calls for his resignation after branding the US-led invasion of Iraq “illegal” and opening himself to a revenge attack over a corrupt “oil-for-food” program that had fed Iraqis under sanctions. Though cleared of corruption charges by an independent investigation, he suffered considerable physical and emotional damage, and the scandal tainted the final months of his tenure.
Not much is known about the relationship between the Obama administration and Ban, a George W. Bush/John Bolton candidate. But UN officials sense that there are unresolved questions within the National Security Council and between the NSC and the State Department and Pentagon over how to deal with the organization on human rights and international law. President Obama, who as a campaigner talked about marching to the thirty-eighth floor of UN headquarters to announce to the secretary general that the United States was back, has not done that; nor did he endorse the UN with much enthusiasm after he met briefly with Ban at the White House on March 10. But Assistant Secretary General Robert Orr, Ban’s political adviser and an American, says that Ban “has no enemies” in Washington.
The secretary general’s best friends seem to be in Congress, where committees are chipping away at US debt to the UN and have restored contributions to its Population Fund. A new US focus on climate change and clean energy is playing to Ban’s agenda and drawing in environmental activists who might not normally have put much stock in UN leadership. Congressional leaders also appreciated Ban’s reprimanding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the Iranian president delivered a vitriolic anti-Israel speech at a racism conference in Geneva this spring.
Ban feels most comfortable and useful in the role of global noodge and pivotal player among nations and nongovernmental actors. A genial man given to informality who has been known to break into ditties or self-deprecating humor at sedate dinners, he is neither a charismatic figure nor a spellbinding speaker. He tries to cement his position a little wonkily through issues, with the world financial crisis sharing the top of the priority list with global warming. That doesn’t attract the personality-driven media, certainly not television (except the BBC). Perhaps this is why he is not infrequently overshadowed by the more theatrical Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, the General Assembly president from Sandinista Nicaragua, who has brought disgraced capitalism to the fore in a series of large, well-publicized events.