Terms of Engagement

Good Night, Ban Ki-Moon

The U.N. secretary-general must go.

David Goldman/Getty Images
David Goldman/Getty Images

In May 2006, Ban Ki-moon made his public debut as a candidate for U.N. secretary-general at a Q-and-A session at the Council on Foreign Relations. About 20 minutes into the event, Ban’s toneless and awkward English and studiously vacuous answers had put me sound asleep. I should have realized then that he was the perfect candidate for the job.

Today, two-thirds of the way into his first term, Ban has worsted even the low expectations that attended his candidacy. States that care about the United Nations — and above all, the United States — should prevent him from doing further harm to the institution by ensuring that he does not serve a second term.

Ban’s mediocrity is no accident. Secretaries-general, after all, are hired for negative rather than positive attributes. The second person ever appointed to the post, a previously obscure Swedish bureaucrat named Dag Hammarskjold, infused the job with his own deep sense of moral calling, fearlessly offending the world’s most powerful states before being killed in a plane crash in 1961. Since then, however, the permanent members of the Security Council, which largely control the selection process, have conscientiously vetted for dynamism. Ronald Reagan’s administration was quite prepared to award a third term to Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi who proved to be the most anodyne figure ever to hold the top U.N. job. But he had competition: It was said of his successor, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, that he couldn’t make a splash if he fell out of a boat.

Kofi Annan, whom Clinton administration officials identified as the perfect replacement for Boutros Boutros-Ghali — who had made himself a thorn in Washington’s side — appeared to be the perfect steward: decent, modest, clerical. And yet Annan was the first secretary-general since Hammarskjold to fire the public imagination, calling for states to respect the rights of their own citizens and championing the cause of humanitarian intervention. But Annan fell afoul of George W. Bush’s administration when he opposed, if ever so diplomatically, the plan to go to war in Iraq. Opposition from the White House and the American right made the remainder of his tenure hell.

Ban Ki-moon, a colorless South Korean bureaucrat and the favored candidate of U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, was the cure for Annan’s dangerous charisma. China, which exercised effective veto rights over the choice of an "Asian candidate," was equally pleased with a figure who would lower the U.N.’s profile.

With no new Iraq melodrama or four-alarm scandal, attention largely shifted away from the U.N. during Ban’s first years. The first public hint that the new secretary-general was sapping the U.N.’s strength came last August, when a Norwegian newspaper printed a leaked memo from Norway’s deputy U.N. representative, Mona Juul. The memo alleged that the "spineless and charmless" Ban had failed to stand up in the face of massive human rights abuses in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, instead issuing  "irresolute" appeals that "fall on deaf ears." Juul claimed that the U.N. was largely absent from the world’s great crises and that Ban had lost the faith and respect of both member states and his own staff.

At the time, I asked officials at human rights organizations, U.N. ambassadors, and members of the U.N. Secretariat about the Juul memo. Few disagreed with her assessment. A peacekeeping official pointed out that Ban had insisted on behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Sri Lanka even as the government was killing thousands of civilians in its campaign to erase the brutal insurgency of the Tamil Tigers: "We’re doing everything we can to avoid saying anything at all about it. That’s been our line on practically everything. The SG is clear that his final consideration is going to be the political costs of whether he should or shouldn’t speak." That’s a very real calculation every secretary-general must make. But, he added, "There’s no sense that the deliberations include, ‘What should we do?’"

For all that, there was no chance that Barack Obama’s administration would seek to deny a second term to the most pro-American SG in recent memory, if not ever. An administration official with whom I spoke said that though Susan Rice, the current U.S. ambassador in Turtle Bay, was disappointed with Ban’s muted voice, the two worked well together and in any case it was too early to think about a new term. Certainly there was no reason to believe that China, which views the U.N. more as obstacle than instrument, was unhappy with Ban. A prominent Asian ambassador told me that he thought expectations for Ban had been set unfairly high, and he could detect little dissatisfaction in the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, which represents developing-world opinion in the U.N.

Two things have changed since then. First, it’s later: Ban’s tenure finishes at the end of 2011. Second, another explosive document has emerged: the "end-of-assignment report" by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the outgoing head of the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which mounts investigations into alleged wrongdoing across the entire range of U.N. bodies. Like Juul, Ahlenius alleges that the institution is "drifting into irrelevance" under Ban. But unlike Juul, Ahlenius is an insider — and a very senior one — and she concentrates her fire not on Ban’s shortcomings as a public figure but on his institutional failures. Ahlenius accuses her boss of trying to undermine the independence of her office by refusing to allow her to hire a highly regarded and pugnacious investigator and by seeking to set up an in-house investigative body, presumably in rivalry with her own. Ban has marketed himself as a hard-headed Korean reformer, but Ahlenius angrily asserts that in his administration there is "no transparency," a "lack of accountability," and, overall, "[no] signs of reform."

Some U.N. officials to whom I’ve spoken view Ahlenius as a classically self-righteous prosecutor who picks fights and then launches accusations of obstruction. The merits of her specific claims are at least open to debate. What’s more, even Ban’s worst critics don’t believe that he has tolerated corruption or sought to block investigations. In this regard, he is almost certainly a tougher leader than Annan was. But Ahlenius’s broad claims still ring true: Ban has failed to drive his own reform agenda, which he has largely entrusted to Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, a marginal figure; has concentrated power inside a tiny circle of advisors; has issued edicts rather than seeking to gain consensus; and treats dissent as disloyalty. "I kept hoping things would change," one senior staff member said to me. "I’ve essentially given up that hope."

Ban lacks the moral leadership of a Hammarskjold or an Annan, and he can’t lead his own institution either. Can the U.N. really afford another five years of his tenure? Waldheim couldn’t do much harm because the U.N. just didn’t matter in the 1980s. Now it does. Even Bush, for all his dim regard for multilateral bodies, sought the Security Council’s imprimatur for the war in Iraq. When Annan was implicated in the oil-for-food scandal, William Safire and other American conservatives howled for blood. Their claims were wildly overblown and not a little disingenuous — they wanted Annan’s head because he wouldn’t put his seal of approval on Bush’s war — but they were also a perverse tribute to the U.N.’s much-scorned legitimacy. It will be interesting to see whether conservatives’ professed concern for the U.N.’s well-being will lead them to equally scathing critiques of Annan’s successor.

But the only force that can dislodge Ban is the White House. Obama has repeatedly said that he needs the U.N. in order to advance his agenda on nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and other major issues. His recently released National Security Strategy stipulates, "We need a U.N. capable of fulfilling its founding purpose — maintaining international peace and security, promoting global cooperation, and advancing human rights."

Ban is scarcely the only obstacle to an effective U.N.; even Hammarskjold would throw up his hands in despair at the organization’s current problems. But Obama simply cannot get where he wants to go with the current U.N. leadership. Administration officials should be quietly consulting China and other allies, and should be looking for candidates — Asian or not — with the strength and stature to lead the organization. Ban Ki-moon is not such a man.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a 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.

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