Low-Key Leader for High-Anxiety Times

Low-Key Leader for High-Anxiety Times

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon now has a virtual lock on succeeding Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General. Does he have what it takes to be a mediator between Bush’s Washington and the rest of the world?


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.

When asked about the handling of such relationships, Ban has referred to South Korea’s exposed geopolitical position between Russia, China, the United States, North Korea and Japan. In fact, South Korea’s Social Democratic government has indeed performed a noteworthy tightrope walk: It cannot do without the United States, in case North Korea does go over the top, but it has distanced itself from the wilder talk in Washington about possible solutions while doing the minimum necessary to keep the United States engaged.

South Korea has maintained good relations with China and Russia, while engaging as constructively as possible with its northern neighbor, which now and again hints that it is prepared to nuke its way to unity. And South Koreans are actually grateful to the UN, which delivered for them, albeit with the usual caveats that accompany any extension of the UN franchise to the US military. Ban comes to the job, in fact, with impressive references.

Most of the world’s countries do not want a grandstanding, evangelical multilateralist at the UN’s helm. They would actually prefer someone who is quiet, laid-back and principled–but not noisily so–because otherwise his position would have no moral authority.

Ban’s speeches keep stressing “harmony,” and that seems to be just what the world wants in a Secretary General: someone who can turn down the volume and the heat in bellicose situations. His challenge will be to hang on to basic principles in the face of pressure not only from the United States but also from China, which is similarly idiosyncratic in its view of multilateral norms and the UN Charter.

Over the years, devout US Republicans have often been appointed to head UN agencies and within months or years have come out sounding like Swedish Social Democrats. In the case of Ban, one suspects that he will fill the position in a similar way, expanding to fill the role–but he will not have to change his stripes to do so.

In his campaign for the post, Ban has expressed strong and unequivocal support for the International Criminal Court, and for the “Responsibility to Protect,” the concept of humanitarian intervention accepted in principle at the 2005 Heads of State Summit. John Bolton has spearheaded the Bush Administration’s drive to eviscerate the ICC for the last five years.

Ban has given no indication of abandoning basic international principles, whether to be elected or to keep Washington happy. His quiet approach may well be the last laugh over the stentorian Bolton and the American UN knockers–who may not be in office in five years when his reappointment is due.

Even so, looking at his low-key campaign for the seat, one hopes that Ban’s public profile and oratory have hidden depths waiting to be displayed. Even a secular pope has to know how to preach.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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