During the recent United Nations campaign that ended with the nomination of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as the organization’s next Secretary General, US ambassador John Bolton several times took pains to describe the competition as one to become the UN’s “chief administrative officer.” He and previous US representatives have also quipped that they want “more secretary and less general” occupying the offices on the thirty-eighth floor of UN headquarters in New York.
Of course, no UN Secretary General has ever, outside the hyperbole of American unilateralists, aspired to generalhood. The position has often been compared to the papacy, but the SG does not have the Swiss Guard to back him up, and even his best friends would not say he was infallible.
It is true that the “We the peoples of the United Nations” mentioned in the Charter expect a Secretary General to have moral authority and to represent the best principles of the organization. And in fact Ban has expressed a strong commitment to human rights and to the International Criminal Court–hardly Bolton’s most popular cause–as well as to the concept of the “responsibility to protect,” not exactly China’s or Russia’s top priority either.
But what UN members want most is a chief diplomat and peacemaker, and Ban has demonstrated his credentials there by winning the election. He persuaded fifteen nations, each with strongly differing ideas about what the job entails, that he was the best person to do it–and he did so without once being caught in a contradictory position. Ban cited as one of his major qualifications his experience as South Korea’s foreign minister, and looking at Seoul’s tightrope act between Russia, China, Japan, North Korea and the United States, he was right to do so. Under its social democratic government, South Korea has pragmatically balanced its dependence on US forces to counter the North with its desire to maintain constructive relations with Pyongyang.
At one campaign event, Ban described the United States as the UN’s “most important member,” which had some pious souls throwing up their hands in horror, since according to the Charter all members are equal. But in reality, some are more equal than others. It augurs well that he could state an unpalatable truth like that–and get support from the Chinese ambassador for it.
In many ways Ban Ki-moon is reminiscent of outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan: He is quiet-spoken, avoids giving gratuitous offense and holds strongly to basic principles. It may be hard to remember, but a decade ago Annan was the US choice when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought down the chopper on Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali–who on his appointment had been widely attacked in the Arab world for his allegedly pro-American role in the original Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.
It is only a matter of time before Ban and the United States are at loggerheads, since any honest Secretary General has to treat international law and the UN Charter with a consistency that recent US administrations have lacked. Washington has regarded them as clubs with which to hit enemies or irrelevant superstitions to be discarded when inconvenient.
So while John Bolton expressed nearly proprietary satisfaction with Ban’s appointment, it is almost reassuring to note that Bolton’s soulmates at the Heritage Foundation had expressed doubts about Ban’s suitability, citing Seoul’s reluctance “to confront North Korea on human rights or its belligerence and nuclear ambitions” and alleging that “Ban has said little about UN reform, and there are questions about his commitment to it.”
Indeed, an opportunity for conflict was already looming even as Ban waited for his formal anointment by the General Assembly. His first challenge as Secretary General may be finding a way to continue his previous policy of constructive engagement with the North in the face of US demands for action–and, as Bolton warned recently, the Administration’s belief that the UN is not “the alpha and omega” of Washington’s policy options. Can Ban Ki-moon remain quiet-spoken in the face of American unilateral action?