Bad cop/good cop with Ban and Annan
Since his first days in office, Ban Ki-moon has lived under the shadow of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was dubbed the "secular pope" and viewed by many U.N. boosters as the organization’s moral compass. Ban, by contrast, was the guy engaging in secret talks with unsavory dictators and autocrats ...
Since his first days in office, Ban Ki-moon has lived under the shadow of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was dubbed the "secular pope" and viewed by many U.N. boosters as the organization's moral compass.
Since his first days in office, Ban Ki-moon has lived under the shadow of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was dubbed the "secular pope" and viewed by many U.N. boosters as the organization’s moral compass.
Ban, by contrast, was the guy engaging in secret talks with unsavory dictators and autocrats in places like Burma, or holding his tongue in the face of atrocities in Sri Lanka and Sudan. But in Syria, Ban has abandoned his traditional preference for quiet diplomacy, berating the Syrian leadership in a series of scathing statements.
Ban recently told reporters at a luncheon that he had essentially stopped trying to speak directly to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying that he had effectively broken every promise he had made to the U.N. chief. Throughout the crisis, Ban has made it clear again and again that the Syria regime is to blame for stoking the country’s popular unrest.
The U.N.’s diplomatic role in Syria has so far failed to bring an end to the Syrian crisis, and Ban’s public criticism of Assad has likely limited to own ability to play a role in mediating the crisis. But it has nevertheless had the effect of elevating Ban’s profile as a champion of popular rights while exposing Annan to criticism that he has placed unreasonable hopes in his ability to bring the Syrian leader into line.
Human Rights advocacy groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have recognized and applauded Ban for his public diplomacy on Syria, saying that he has finally come around to recognizing the value of using his position on the world stage as a bully pulpit, at least in the case of Syria.
"Many rights advocates despaired when they saw the statements he made defending states rights to the death penalty on his first day in office," Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s U.N. representative told Turtle Bay. "But his statements on Syria, for example, or his position on the rights of LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] persons, are good examples of the leadership we all expect from the U.N. secretary general. We’d like to see him use his moral and legal bully pulpit across the board. I hope that now that he’s been given a second term he’ll feel freer to speak out on all kinds of abuses, whoever commits or backs them"
Stephen Schlesinger, who has written extensively about the United Nations, last year described Ban’s first term as "lackluster and ineffectual." But he said that Ban’s public support for popular uprisings during the Arab Spring have "changed my mind about Ban. I think he has been far more outspoken and assertive in his role. He has started to sound like the old Kofi Annan."
Schlesinger and other U.N. experts, however, have defended Annan as exhibiting courage in accepting a meditation role carried little hope of success and posed threat to his reputation. And they say it is only natural that the role of diplomatic mediator requires making politically unpalatable comprises.
"It is the job of secretary general to be the bad cop and the mediator to be the good cop," said Bruce Jones, director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, and a former aide to Annan. "Kofi has put himself into a position that has some reputational risks. But I would find if unfortunate if Kofi gets blamed because every other solution is horrible one and this is a situation where you want to overturn every last pebble" to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
By most accounts, Annan has been dealt a pretty weak diplomatic hand.
U.S. and European-led diplomatic efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on Damascus to pressure the government to reform have been blocked by Russia and China. The United States, Britain, France, and Turkey appear unprepared to use force to drive Assad from power. Security Council diplomats, meanwhile appear increasingly concerned that Assad may weather the crisis, ensuring a central role in the country’s future.
Still, Annan could hardly have been blind to the risks of deploying a small group of unarmed U.N. monitors in a conflict zone to enforce a cease-fire that few outsiders believe will stick. As the head of the U.N. peacekeeping department through much of the 1990s, Annan played a key role in running failed U.N. operations in Rwanda and Bosnia.
In November 1999, Annan published a review of the U.N. role in failing to stop mass killings outside the Bosnian village of Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust, that concluded that the U.N. leadership had to learn to resist the political pressure to send U.N. blue helmets into harms way when there was no peace to keep.
"Peacekeepers must never again be deployed into an environment in which there is no ceasefire or peace agreement," Annan wrote, criticizing the U.N. Security Council for not authorizing "more decisive and forceful action to prevent the unfolding horror."
"Many of the errors the United Nations made flowed from a single and no doubt well-intentioned effort: we tried to keep the peace and apply the rules of peacekeeping when there was no peace to keep," he added. "The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its logical conclusion."
The experience resulted in the U.N. turning to major world or regional powers to enforce peace in trouble spots like East Timor, where Australian soldiers imposed a cease-fire, and Sierra Leone, where British forces intervened to put down a rebellion. At the same time, the U.N. developed its own peacekeeping strategy — known as "robust peacekeeping" — which involved the limited use of lethal force in places like Congo and Haiti to put down challenges to its authority by armed groups.
Those lessons have not been applied in Syria, however, where the U.N.’s big powers have been unable to reach agreement on a plan to compel Assad to end a bloody crackdown that has left as many as 10,000 people dead. Annan, meanwhile, has openly opposed calls by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and a number of American lawmakers to arm Syria’s divided opposition.
"The U.N. supervision mission is possibly the only remaining chance to stabilize the country," Annan told reporters in Geneva earlier this month. "And I’m sure I’m not telling you any secret when I tell you that there is a profound concern that the country could otherwise descend into full civil war and the implications of that are quite frightening. We cannot allow that to happen."
Indeed, if he succeeds in stopping that from happening, Ban may wind up back in Annan’s shadow.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.