In Box

Nowhere Man

Why Ban Ki-moon is the world's most dangerous Korean.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

For such a seemingly crucial position, the secretary-generalship of the United Nations has historically had a rather low bar for success. Kurt Waldheim? In his memoir, A Dangerous Place, Daniel Patrick Moynihan recounted that Waldheim functioned as "a post office, a somewhat antique but reasonably efficient public service run along Austro-Hungarian lines. As one sat down with him, he would be mentally sorting the mail while making small conversation." Boutros Boutros-Ghali? His arrogance and fecklessness as the Serbs laid waste to Bosnia prompted the Clinton administration to veto a second term. Kofi Annan? Brought low by his son Kojo’s financial peculation in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.

Even in this unimpressive company, though, Ban Ki-moon appears to have set the standard for failure. It’s not that Ban has committed any particularly egregious mistakes in his 2½ years on the job. But at a time when global leadership is urgently needed, when climate change and international terrorism and the biggest financial crisis in 60 years might seem to require some—any!—response, the former South Korean foreign minister has instead been trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command. He has become a kind of accidental tourist, a dilettante on the international stage.

Not for him bold speeches or attempts to mobilize public opinion behind what could be an organization that helps tackle nuclear proliferation or reconstruct Afghanistan. Not for him championing human rights, or even rallying in defense of beleaguered civilians. Visiting Malta in April for yet another honorary degree, he was evasive when asked about the island’s penchant for sending illegal African immigrants packing off to Italy, saying, "I am not in a position to intervene." As tens of thousands of Tamil refugees lingered under fire on a narrow strip of beach in Sri Lanka, Ban and his advisors did little more than huddle in New York and wring their hands, only making a trip to the war zone after hostilities ended. Under his stewardship, the United Nations isn’t merely an unhelpful place—it’s a largely irrelevant one.

Ban’s flaws were obvious dating back to his decades toiling in the South Korean foreign ministry, where he earned a telling nickname, "The Bureaucrat." Luckily for Ban, if not for the rest of the world, The Bureaucrat was exactly what the Bush administration was looking for after years of tussling with the assertively anti-American Annan. When it became Asia’s turn to nominate a secretary-general, Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, made Ban’s election her pet project. But Ban failed to charm outside observers. In his book The Best Intentions, James Traub recounts a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations during Ban’s campaign to become secretary: "[B]etween his anodyne oratory, and his unsteady grasp of English, I found that I had been lulled to sleep."

As secretary-general, Ban’s soporific effect has never left him. One U.N. watcher told me that Ban is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to witness its crash—if you don’t hear him, does he really exist? Aside from his role as a subsidiary of South Korea, Inc.—lining his office walls with Samsung televisions and hiring his South Korean buddies as senior advisors—his imprint has been negligible. Even Ban seems aware of what a nonentity he is: Last August, speaking to senior U.N. officials in Turin, he described his management style as elevating teamwork over intellectual attainment. But he went on to bemoan his difficulty overcoming bureaucratic inertia, ending with a gnomic admission of general defeat: "I tried to lead by example. Nobody followed."

At their best, U.N. secretaries-general can serve as a goad to the world’s conscience and a genuine catalyst for change. Dag Hammarskjold, for example, sought to expand the United Nations’ mandate by undertaking high-profile and frequently risky missions, from meeting with Chinese leaders under Mao to securing freedom for 15 American pilots captured during the Korean War to traveling several times to the Congo in hopes of averting warfare during decolonization. During the 1980s, the urbane Javier Pérez de Cuéllar earned high marks for conducting talks between Argentina and Britain after the Falklands War and for bringing about Namibian independence from South Africa.

So far, Ban has no such successes to his credit. It’s not as if there aren’t enough crises around the globe for him to make his mark, whether in Sri Lanka or Sudan or the Middle East. But Ban hasn’t given any indication that he’s going to have an impact in any of these places—or even that he wants to.

Next: Responses to Nowhere Man

Mark Leon Goldberg responds:

Ban Ki Moon is certainly not above criticism. In contrast to his predecessor, he is much more "secretary" than "general." No one looks to him as a "secular pope" as many looked to Kofi Annan for moral leadership.  Rather, in his 2 1/2 years in office, it’s become clear that Ban’s diplomatic style is one that favors quiet, direct diplomacy over grandstanding.  

There are benefits and drawbacks to this leadership style.  But he is far from, as Jacob Heilbrunn asserts in Foreign Policy, "the world’s most dangerous Korean" that has "set the standard for failure" among Secretary Generals.

Heilbrunn is a gifted writer, but his analysis of Ban’s first two and a half years shows only a passing familiarity with what the United Nations has been up to since January 2007.  For example, Heilbrunn suggests that Ban has been passive when it comes to climate change.  This is just plain wrong. Ban has made climate change his signature issue.  In September 2007, Ban invited world leaders, ranging from Nicolas Sarkozy to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Al Gore to the United Nations headquarters for a climate change summit. (Foreign Policy even covered the event!)  And there will be a repeat of this summit in September, which is intended to build some momentum for the climate talks in Copenhagen in December. 

At the center of Heilbrunn’s assertion that Ban is somehow "dangerous" is that in his 2 1/2 years, Ban has no successes of which to speak and that his quiet diplomatic style is making the UN irrelevant.  There are two points to make here.  First, 2 1/2 years is not a very long time with which to pass such sweeping judgments on a Secretary General. Most serve for five or ten years.  Second, Heilbrunn seems to think that the Secretary General is a position with all means of authority over global affairs.  Sure, it’s a big title, but the Sec Gen has no real power other than the moral authority that comes with the title.  Kofi Annan was skilled at wielding moral authority to press for human rights.  For his part, Ban’s been spending his moral capital on climate change. 

The Sec Gen does have some (but not much) authority over how the General Secretariat runs itself.  For example, he can’t open or close new offices or bureaus with out the General Assembly’s approval — but he can make a few suggestions and prod the General Assembly to take them up. One important institutional reform he saw through was dividing the overburdened Department of Peacekeeping Operations into two directorates.  That may not sound like much to outsiders, but it was a huge change in how the UN manages its over 100,000 peacekeepers in the field. 

The bottom line is that Heilbrunn passes some sweeping judgements on the current Secretary General without showing that he knows very much about the position itself. A more useful way of judging the success or failure of a Secretary General is to analyze the extent to which he is able to achieve certain goals within the institutional and legal constraints that he faces.  Simply picking a problem in the world and blaming the Secretary General for not fixing it is an easy way to beat up a Secretary General, but it is pretty unhelpful as a heuristic device.

Originally posted on U.N. Dispatch, a blog sponsored by the U.N. Foundation, and reposted here with the author’s permission. 

A response from Vijay Nambiar, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff:

Jacob Heilbrunn’s account of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Foreign Policy’s July- August issue abounds in innuendo and patronizing commentary instead of serious analysis. Where others have seen Ban Ki-moon’s commitment to "big picture" issues such as climate change and the global food crisis, Heilbrunn only sees smoke and mirrors. Where others see the soft-spoken but tough-minded Secretary General speak out forthrightly amidst the rubble in Gaza, the author sees a "nowhere man", and a "dangerous Korean".

Ban’s breakthrough in getting humanitarian assistance to Myanmar after cyclone Nargis received wide acclaim as did his proactive engagement with G-20 leaders at Washington and London in voicing the plight of the "bottom billion" affected by the financial crisis.  Ban’s oratorical style and accent are less important than his grasp of issues and his diplomatic tenacity in seeing them through.

Certainly these would be apparent to any journalist who is not shaping his rhetoric on facile, preconceived conclusions or motivated agendas.

<p> Jacob Heilbrunn is senior editor at the National Interest. </p>