Steady as he goes

Steady as he goes

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shouldn't come under fire for his steadiness and sensibility, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Singapore --- Surely the United Nations, terribly flawed though it is, offers the world enough benefit that sensible people should want to contribute to its chances of success. This necessary instinct is particularly palpable in Asia, where the United Nation's work in the areas of economic and social assistance is viewed as vital and where it is widely known that the prominent organization is now headed by a fellow Asian for the first time in decades.

To be sure, no one here is under any opium cloud of delusion that, politically speaking, the United Nations is the second coming of some institutional Batman. Everyone knows that the cranky U.N. Security Council, the United Nation's chief political arm, retains its debilitating and antediluvian World War II genetic inheritance: Former powers France and Great Britain, after all, still have veto power, while comparative giants like India, Japan, Brazil and Nigeria do not. How absurd is that?!!

Nevertheless, the United Nations still counts for something. And in 2007, it perhaps meant a little more than usual in Asia. For the first time since the Vietnam War days of U Thant, then from Burma, the organization has an Asian as secretary general. He is Ban Ki-moon, only the eighth secretary general in the United Nation's history, and he is, proudly, from South Korea.

Ban was a very sensible and, at the end of the selection process, very unanimous choice. The respected and hard-working career diplomat rose through the ranks of Asian diplomacy to become his nation's foreign minister. And South Korea is not just some pretty Asiatic stamp collection of a country: It is one of the world's most industrialized states, with an increasingly modern economy and a key geopolitical role to play as a close neighbor of China while also remaining a long-time ally of the United States.

Ban, as its foreign minister, proved the diplomat's decorous diplomat: Never the showboat or the outspoken scold or the headline-seeker -- but always the behind-the-scenes consensus-cooker. It was these qualities, among others, that so impressed Beijing and Washington, which had grown to loathe his predecessor, the charismatic but maverick Kofi Annan.

But now Ban, at the halfway mark of his five-year term, finds the prospect of the second term mysteriously up in the air. In effect, the general criticism at U.N. headquarters in New York is that Ban is, well, too much the humble secretary and not enough the hard-charging general. He is under fire -- in effect -- for not being more like Kofi, which is to say that Ban is being slammed for being more or less exactly what the twin towers of China and the United States thought the United Nations most needed.

What's worse is that Ban is being unfairly tarnished not by any actual evidence of performance deficiencies, but by the United Nation's institutional defects (widely acknowledged) that transcend individual and personality. "Many of the criticisms against [Secretary Generaly] Ban are unfair," asserts George Yeo, foreign minister of Singapore. "He can only do what is within the limits of his powers. He is not the emperor of the world. He has to take into account the views of the permanent members of the Security Council."

Yeo, as intellectually astute and precisely articulate as any foreign minister anywhere, helps little Singapore punch way above its weight in the arena of international diplomacy. He adds, tellingly: "To paraphrase Stalin, the [secretary general] has no divisions of his own. However, Ban does have the moral authority to admonish, to warn, to encourage. These he has done, whether in Darfur, Sri Lanka or Myanmar."

Indeed, the relentlessly peripatetic Ban has draped himself over the world political globe almost as completely as Rand McNally. And he brings to the office unquestionable integrity -- a virtue not to be taken for granted at the United Nations "You won't get any [United Nations secretary general]-level corruption problems with Ki-moon," flatly predicts another Asian diplomat. Adds a former colleague in the South Korean foreign ministry who worked closely with Ban: "Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- works harder than Ki-moon."

Precisely because so much was known about this likable diplomat before coming to the office, many Asians have to wonder about the sudden criticism. They are not suggesting -- at least not yet -- that subtle racism is involved. Or that Ban is underestimated because his spoken French is not that great; or because his English doesn't trip off his tongue as does Prince Charles'; or that somehow a "Korean" doesn't quite cut it as the globe's secular pope.

That is all, basically, baloney. In many respects Ban, with his extensive diplomatic background, may well be the most qualified man ever to get the job. His steely integrity in this age of official corruption is a powerful attribute; and his indefatigable globe-trotting energy ought to be celebrated for its commitment and stoicism, not denigrated as "U.N. Headquarters absenteeism," a knock heard in some circles.

There's something about the Ban criticism that is creepy and uncomfortable. For if you sincerely support the United Nations and care about its future, why not get behind Ban and watch his back, rather than bash and push him from behind? It's past time to give this decent and hard-driving man some breathing room and respect.

What's more, undermining Ban with corrosively poisonous criticism could set in motion an acidic chemistry that winds up eating away at the United Nations itself.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.