For Europeans, Ban Remains an Enigma

By Barbara Crossette

In the complicated cultural milieu of the United Nations, no official, not even a secretary-general, is immune from interregional friction – sort of ethnic politics on a global scale. In recent months, Ban Ki-moon, the first secretary-general from an East Asian economic power, Korea, has been drawing some criticism in the West, particularly in Europe, for his style of leadership: low-keyed, informal and nonconfrontational. It is an Asian style.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a leadership forum luncheon on Sept. 22, 2009, held in connection with the UN Summit on Climate Change. Ban convened the summit of world leaders, which produced some breakthroughs, most notably from China. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras.

Soon to begin his third year in office, his critics ask, what has Ban delivered? A low rumble of frustration burst into public in August in the European press over Ban, who as a UN leader has surrounded himself with a closed circle of mostly Korean advisers and has not been much of a presence in diplomatic New York. The trigger for the press outburst was a leaked memo to Norway’s foreign ministry from a diplomat in the Norwegian UN mission.

In the memo, which summarized Ban’s performance halfway through his first term in office, Mona Juul, a former ambassador to Israel and now the Norwegian deputy chief of mission at the UN, more or less found the secretary-general missing in action, according to Aftenposten, a leading newspaper in Norway, which first published the evaluation. The story was quickly picked up by other European media and several American publications, among them Foreign Policy.

“At a time when solutions by the UN and multilateral agencies are more necessary than ever to resolve global conflicts, Ban and the UN are conspicuous in their absence,” Juul wrote. She accused the secretary-general of failing to solve Burma’s political problems or to protect Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka (where a Norwegian peace mission had failed) and for his unwillingness to take the lead in the global financial crisis. Most commentators did not judge the memo to have been leaked accidentally.

Questions about Ban’s performance have also begun to circulate at midlevel offices in Washington, although the secretary-general has achieved a good rapport with President Barack Obama, UN officials who work with Ban say. Europeans and Americans together have traditionally had the power to decide who will be secretary-general and whether the incumbent gets a second term. Over the last 60-plus years, the Europeans have done well.

Of the seven secretaries-general who preceded Ban, three were Europeans – Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjold and Kurt Waldheim. Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru was of European descent and has a home in Paris, as does Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was French-educated. Kofi Annan went to a British-style school in Ghana, got his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the US and Switzerland and lives in Geneva.

Ban, thoroughly Asian in his upbringing and education, is not in that European-influenced category, and he speaks Western languages with a heavy accent. The only Asian to hold the job before Ban was U Thant of Burma, who was also a conciliator – when the big powers would let him follow his instincts.

Asia is a very different and more powerful region, economically and politically, than it was in the 1960s, when U Thant held the office, and it is unlikely that Asian nations will let Ban become the victim of Western impatience with the secretary-general’s Asian-style diplomacy, which can move at a snail’s pace, cloaked in niceties. In any case, activist secretaries-general are not what the Security Council usually seeks.

Writing in Forbes magazine in September, Ruth Wedgwood, professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, suggested that what apparently bothers people is that Ban is not a New York celebrity.

“The former South Korean diplomat, claim these critics, looks like the man in a grey flannel suit, unable to move the passions of the Western public,” she wrote. She called his detractors “coffee-lounge diplomats.”

Wedgwood also listed some of Ban’s quiet (and mostly unreported) accomplishments, including persuading the Burmese generals to allow international aid workers to enter the country after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, cajoling leading pharmaceutical companies to donate vaccines against the H1N1 virus for poor countries and cracking open Darfur to a large peacekeeping force.

His convening of a summit of world leaders in September to exchange ideas about how to get to a new global emissions treaty in December produced some breakthroughs, most notably from China.

Ban, a former Korean foreign minister, still seems to have support in Africa, where he campaigned tirelessly when he was seeking the secretary-general’s job. So far, most Latin Americans have not joined in the Euro-American skepticism.

In Washington, where the Obama administration has made a point of re-engaging with international organizations, it would seem that there would be little to gain and much to lose, in Wedgwood’s words, by “launching political artillery shells to bombard Turtle Bay.”

Barbara Crossette is the United Nations correspondent for The Nation and former New York Times UN bureau chief.

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