Short of major catastrophes, the next UN Secretary General will be South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. On Monday, at the first UN Security Council straw poll that revealed the vetoes hitherto held up the delegates’ sleeves, Ban had fourteen votes to encourage his candidacy, and only one “no opinion.”
The Council agreed that the official vote would be taken October 9. A separate vote by the General Assembly–strictly a formality–is expected to follow shortly.
US Ambassador John Bolton was wearing an uncharacteristic smile when he came to the microphone outside the Council chamber to give his spin on the almost certain confirmation of Ban. Some observers saw joy at the election of Bolton’s favored candidate, others the smile of an assassin wiping his blade and contemplating his handiwork, scuppering other candidates with a discreet and anonymous veto.
But Bolton’s smile may be premature. Short of illegal and/or unprecedented maneuverings by the Bush Administration, Bolton’s influence at the UN will soon be over. His temporary “recess appointment” expires at the end of this year, and prospects are dim for a Senate hearing to confirm his appointment.
It may also be premature to regard Ban as a puppet who would dance to strings pulled by Washington. Much was made in the UN about his statement at a recent Asia Society event, that the United States was the “most important member” of the United Nations. But this was surely just a statement of the obvious. The Secretary General’s key relationship is with Washington–and under George W. Bush’s direction this demands almost as much psychotherapy as it does diplomacy. Kofi Annan has been mutually supportive with Powell and Rice, and while one may argue about how far he should have gone, those relationships have certainly have had some pragmatic benefits for the world.
Washington, as Bolton has said, has long wanted a UN leader who is “more Secretary than General.” But the more lucid members of the US establishment know that the UN’s power is its prestige–its “unique legitimacy,” as Annan puts it–and that cannot happen with a leader who is merely a clerk. If the organization is to have global legitimacy, the Secretary General must have moral authority–and the role has developed over the years to the point where it has become almost a secular papacy.
In the early days of the UN, the Secretary General mediated between power blocs in the absence of any effective opposition to the United States; his job today is clearly to mediate between the United States and the rest of the world. It is a job that Annan, in the absence of visible support from the Bush Administration, has been undertaking quite successfully for his two terms: reminding Washington of basic principles without going out of his way to antagonize incumbent office-holders there.