Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Still Going Nowhere Man

A brutally frank memo from a high-ranking Norwegian diplomat to the United Nations leaked this week, ripping Ban Ki-moon's performance to shreds. The evidence against the U.N.'s feckless leader is mounting.

LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images
LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images
LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images

A scathing confidential memo by a senior Norwegian diplomat leaked to the press yesterday has taken public what up until now has been the quiet and increasingly despairing concern at the United Nations about Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Indeed, Ban might now be facing what must have seemed unthinkable only a few months ago: a single term as the head of the United Nations.

In her damning memo, Deputy U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul called Ban -- the South Korean foreign minister elected secretary-general in 2007 -- "spineless," "charmless," and, most importantly, "incapable" of setting an agenda. Her critique echoed a series of pieces in the international press -- in The Economist, The Times of London, and by yours truly in Foreign Policy -- that in recent months have called Ban out for his miserable performance, citing his lack of vision, leadership, or policy prowess. Of course, Ban and his staff have aggressively tried to combat this emerging image. My own article drew an outraged letter from Ban's chief of staff, who claimed my criticisms were part of some unnamed "political agenda." I doubt he can say the same of Juul's.

A scathing confidential memo by a senior Norwegian diplomat leaked to the press yesterday has taken public what up until now has been the quiet and increasingly despairing concern at the United Nations about Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Indeed, Ban might now be facing what must have seemed unthinkable only a few months ago: a single term as the head of the United Nations.

In her damning memo, Deputy U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul called Ban — the South Korean foreign minister elected secretary-general in 2007 — “spineless,” “charmless,” and, most importantly, “incapable” of setting an agenda. Her critique echoed a series of pieces in the international press — in The Economist, The Times of London, and by yours truly in Foreign Policy — that in recent months have called Ban out for his miserable performance, citing his lack of vision, leadership, or policy prowess. Of course, Ban and his staff have aggressively tried to combat this emerging image. My own article drew an outraged letter from Ban’s chief of staff, who claimed my criticisms were part of some unnamed “political agenda.” I doubt he can say the same of Juul’s.


Nowhere Man

The Jacob Heilbrunn argument that started it all.

The Mona Juul Memo

The Norwegian diplomat’s leaked report on the “Nowhere Man.”

At the United Nations, she represents Norway, which traditionally wields great influence in the organization (and is a disproportionate funder). Her criticisms were, to say the least, cutting. “Ban’s voice on behalf of the G-172 and the poor is barely being registered,” she wrote. He has been “absent on the issue of disarmament and non-proliferation.” He has a burdensome “lack of charisma” and an “omni-present chef de cabinet” who obfuscates the policy process.

To her credit, Juul spoke out loud what many of her colleagues have been saying privately: Ban hasn’t been a bad secretary-general. He has been a horrendous one, as feckless as he is inept. At a moment when global change is more imperative than ever, Ban has been AWOL. Indeed, in recent months, Ban’s feverish attempts to disprove his numerous detractors have simply highlighted that ineptitude. In trying to refurbish his battered image, he has only further injured it.

When Ban visited Sri Lanka, for example, he failed to secure any relief for the Tamil refugees who the government had herded into camps by waging an indiscriminate bombing campaign. In Burma, Ban essentially offered the ruling military junta political cover by meeting with it, while failing to win any concessions on human rights generally or in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi in particular. Quite the contrary. The junta has recently extended her illegal confinement. Ban’s tenure, in short, has been a prolonged exercise in ignominious failure.

Ban’s first response to his critics has been that he is practicing quiet diplomacy. But there is a distinction between quiet diplomacy and quiescence. Ban has become a connoisseur of the latter, an accomplice to dictators, which is why Juul wrote that “Ban and the UN are conspicuous by their absence” when it comes to dealing with global crises. This, in fact, is the true paradox of Ban: His very attempts to turn himself into a cipher as head of the United Nations have been what has attracted him international attention and scorn.

The second line of defense is that the powers of the U.N. secretary-general are limited and that Ban should not be drubbed for failing to adopt a more vigorous line toward the world’s bad guys. The first point is true, but it does not mean that the latter point follows the former. In the past, secretaries-general, such as Kofi Annan, managed to stake out a position by exercising the moral authority of their position. Ban has managed to accomplish the very opposite. He has squandered what little influence he ever had. Even on management issues — one of the things that absolutely do fall directly under the purview of the secretary-general — Ban has continued the old tradition of cronyism and nepotism.

Now that Juul has amplified the complaints about Ban’s performance, he and his claque will surely protest that they’re being singled out unfairly and that he should be given more time to demonstrate real accomplishments. No, he shouldn’t. The problem with Ban isn’t simply that he should be denied a second term, but that he should never have been appointed in the first place. Perhaps the forthright Juul can even launch a movement to accomplish the unprecedented and remove this unnatural catastrophe from office immediately before he can do any further damage.

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

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