The FP Memo: Running the U.N.

If Ban Ki-Moon is to promote peace around the world, he'll have to get tough at headquarters. He should start by sacking useless employees and shaming the shameful.

James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

TO: Ban Ki-Moon
James Traub
Marching Orders for The U.N.’s Boss

I’m sorry to say, Mr. Secretary-General, that you are inheriting a United Nations that’s not very happy — and not very healthy, either, despite growing demand for its services. The reservoir of tolerance and good will, both within the staff and among the member states, is perilously low. To be perfectly fair, the organization hasn’t really been happy or healthy since 1993, the end of that very brief interval between the first Gulf War and the sudden collapse of peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti. Brittleness and division is the United Nations’ default condition. For your own mental health, it’s best not to think that your job is to make the place operate the way things do in highly effective countries like your own, South Korea. Your job is to persuade the members they have something in common, and to make the place work well enough that they continue to resort to it. Here are some tips:

Chop Deadwood and Cut Red Tape: Beijing and Washington — the capitals most responsible for your getting the job — expect you to be more "secretary" than "general." You’ve been touted as a manager, and you’ve said forthrightly that the secretary-general needs "greater flexibility matched by greater accountability." Yes, he does; but you can’t wait for the members to grant that to you. Start doing what you can do yourself: End the archaic system whereby every document has to slowly circumambulate the upper reaches of the bureaucracy before being signed by your chief of staff; promote talented young people to important jobs, no matter what their civil service grade; take advantage of new buyout provisions to unload a few cords of deadwood in important places like the Department of Political Affairs. You’ve got to push for the rule changes you need right now, and that will mean publicly harping on the absurdity of a system that deprives you of control over budget and personnel.

Chat with the Chinese: There is a powerful group of countries at the United Nations that you’ll quickly find in your way: the bloc of developing countries known as the Group of 77 (G-77). You’ve got to tell them bluntly that the organization can’t work so long as they refuse to grant real autonomy to the secretary-general and the secretariat. You will perhaps be surprised to discover that many of the members don’t really care: They view the secretary-general and the secretariat as instruments of the West, and they would rather tangle you in red tape than cede any further authority to the United States and its allies. In the long run, of course, you have to help end this embittered stand-off. In the short run, have a talk with the Chinese. Beijing doesn’t want to jeopardize its harmonious relationship with the G-77 countries, but it may be able to loosen the handcuffs that your predecessors have worn. Tell Beijing to tell Egypt, Pakistan, South Africa, and the group’s other leading members to cut you some slack.

Flatter, Hector, and Shame: Everything that really matters at the United Nations — even issues of process and administration — comes down to political power and political choices. You’ve said that the new Human Rights Council has to "meet the heightened expectations of the international community." You’re absolutely right; its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, failed to meet even modest expectations because the worst abusers had no difficulty in gaining a seat, and then they used the position to block resolutions criticizing their behavior. Kofi Annan targeted the commission for reform, and the United States and other industrialized nations joined the campaign. China, Russia, and various authoritarian states in the developing world managed to water down proposed changes, however, and the new body has so far failed to condemn human rights practices in any country — save Israel.

You can’t fix the Human Rights Council — or the Security Council or the General Assembly — the way a CEO would fix a company losing market share. You’re much less powerful than a CEO, and most of these problems originate in fundamental differences of view among states. Quiet diplomacy, which is the kind you’ve practiced throughout your career, will get you only so far with problems like these. If you have any influence at all on issues where there are deep, abiding differences of opinion among members, it will be through your ability to shape the climate of debate through public flattery, hectoring, and even the occasional guilt-mongering. Annan challenged African heads of state to stop treating human rights as a Western imposition — and lived to tell the tale. Too much of this, of course, and you’ll turn into a self-righteous scold like Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who enjoyed the satisfaction of speaking his mind but accomplished little. The trick is to criticize your own supporters before you turn on others. Also, do it soon. Secretaries-general tend to exhaust their political capital quickly. Even if you feel that the world needs you to serve a second term — and you’re bound to feel that way — take on your members while it may still do some good.

Meet and Greet: It’s a public job, and you’ll have to keep reminding yourself of that. Some of your predecessors, like Javier Perez de Cuellar or even Kurt Waldheim, were supremely accomplished diplomats. But they preferred to work indoors. It’s evident from the studied blandness of your public remarks that you are of a similar ilk. That won’t do. You have said that the United Nations’ work in the field must be more firmly grounded in "humanitarian principles" than it now is. The way to cause that to happen is to talk about it passionately and persistently. And not abstractly, either: You have to be willing to single out real failures, both on the part of the United Nations and even, every once in a while, an actual member. (Well, perhaps that’s going too far.) Your speeches actually matter; they are minutely parsed around the world. My guess is that you would be your own worst speechwriter. Kofi Annan knew that about himself, and he hired gifted speechwriters. You must do the same (or just keep his).

Your own staff’s low morale is less important, and more solvable, than the churlishness of the member-states. You’ve said that the staff needs "hands-on guidance" and "a clear sense of mission." That’s absolutely right. They also need to feel that you’re aware of them. Between the imperial Boutros-Ghali and the retiring Annan, secretaries-general have not been very accessible to the troops in recent years. Have lunch in the staff cafeteria every once in a while. Talk to small groups of employees. Don’t just deliver pep talks; talk candidly about the organization’s faults (but not too candidly, since every syllable you utter will find its way to the press). There is a whole generation of younger officials who have been tested in difficult and dangerous missions; they are the future of the United Nations, and they need to be recognized and promoted and given important things to do.

Find Something for Everyone: But how do you produce "harmony" — your favorite word — among the fractious members? Again, bear in mind that this is not, at its root, a problem of ill temper but of different interests. The United Nations means something very different to Kenya than it does to Canada. Other members, such as Cuba or Iran, play the spoiler, while still others, like China, just play defense. The truly noble citizens — the Denmarks — are few and far between. Forget about harmony; it would be achievement enough if you could restore the status quo of June 2002 or so. In the months that followed, the Bush administration drove a wedge straight through the organization with its campaign to win a resolution authorizing war in Iraq. Annan tried to suture the resulting wound with his mighty reform document, which was designed both to persuade the Bush administration that it could do business at Turtle Bay and to create a new ethic of shared responsibility. But while Annan achieved a few real reforms, the acrimonious debate only proved how deep the divisions are between the First and Third Worlds, and between the United States and everyone else.

Your own agenda presupposes that G-77 members come around on management reform, human rights, and peacekeeping. What do you plan on offering them in return? Most of the world’s impoverished countries care far more about economic and social development than they do about peacekeeping and nation-building. Kofi Annan gave the United Nations a meaningful role on development issues when he introduced the Millennium Development Goals. You’ve vowed to bring tangible progress on these measures. It would be excellent if you could persuade the major donors — above all, the United States — to increase foreign assistance (or, for that matter, if you could convince recipient countries to clean up corruption and to spend their own resources more wisely). Use the bully pulpit, if only to show skeptical Third World countries that you’re on their side. But understand that the secretary-general has less influence in these matters than does, say, the president of the World Bank.

Deliver Washington: What, then, can you offer the developing world? The answer is simple: influence with the superpower. The United States can, to an extraordinary degree, determine the climate of the United Nations. When the superpower behaves like a bully, the bullied, smarting but helpless, take out their ire at the global body. They loudly belabor Washington and block the American — which is to say, more or less, the Western — agenda. When the United States behaves respectfully, it usually carries the day, even when it’s in the minority. Very few countries actually relish being at odds with Washington, and those differences can be overcome easily enough. The Bush administration seems to have belatedly recognized this truth, and it is channeling an increasing fraction of its foreign policy through the Security Council. You have leverage with the White House, at least right now. Use it to encourage this trend in every way possible. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to go to a Redskins game with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ignore whatever criticism comes your way for paying court to President Bush.

Here, then, is the irony of your new job: You get to run one of the world’s most prestigious organizations, your face will be on the cover of all the newsweeklies, you and Mrs. Ban will sit at the head table of every event worth caring about — but you’re answerable to a board with 192 members, many of whom are not on speaking terms with one another, and almost all of whom are jealous of your authority. You’re already talking about a peacemaking trip to North Korea — a no-win situation if ever there was one. Remember: In this job, it’s easy to fail, and almost impossible to succeed.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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