BERLIN — Like his predecessors, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon started his second term, in January, by presenting a program to the General Assembly and to the public, adorned with a momentous title: The Five Year Action Agenda, “The Future We Want.”
It outlines in ambitious rhetoric the key areas where Ban thinks the UN should strive for major progress: promoting sustainable development, preventing conflicts and disasters, human rights abuses and development setbacks, building a safer world based on democratic principles, supporting nations in transition and working for women and young people.
The agenda is the classic catalogue of tasks the world body has faced since its founding in 1945.
So Ban’s new promises are, in fact, the old promises previous secretaries-general sought, but that is not his fault. Every incumbent in this post has to keep up these goals, define them in concrete terms and attempt to create and maintain public awareness and political support among UN member nations. Then foreign-policy makers are motivated to seek global consensus and generate the resources to carry the UN decisions out.
What are Ban’s prospects in making progress in winning support for the UN’s goals? Can he manage the difficult job of speaking out and inspiring political action? The answers might be found in his first-term achievements and failures.
His main weakness was his cautious political approach: in the beginning, he was timid and soft-spoken, conveying an image of being afraid to comment clearly on political conflicts and human rights violations and focusing instead on tiny management reforms in the Secretariat. Ban needed quite some time to learn that – beside the necessary mediation behind the scenes – the secretary-general must speak out about violations of the basic principles of the UN Charter. By learning to use his moral position dynamically, Ban gained stature accordingly. In the Sudan conflict and events of the Arab Spring, Ban proved that he could pronounce on tough matters. This he showed again by his sharp criticism of the Syrian government this year.
His other obvious weakness was his hesitation to disagree with the superpowers in the UN. Here again, he developed political standing slowly. The climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 was the decisive moment when Ban pressured Russia and China to reach meaningful progress, even if the conference outcome was meager. Nongovernmental organizations and the press were impressed by Ban’s firm stance, and his profile grew more defined.
His third weakness was – and, unfortunately, still is – his tendency to develop his policy and to prepare his decisions within his executive office and to neglect vital political and social interaction with the diplomats – the permanent representatives – of the 193 UN member countries.
Reordering the deck
Like the stubborn Boutros Boutros-Ghali, secretary-general from 1992-1996, and unlike the sociable Kofi Annan, who was in the post from 1997 to 2006, Ban continues to make mistakes in the everyday business of the UN because he does not involve diplomats, accredited to the UN by their governments, in his decisions, which would enlarge his political base. His reshuffling this winter of top positions in the Secretariat, a usual habit of the secretary-general in a new term, is evidence of this persistent flaw. Even if some of his choices turned out to be meaningful – picking Jan Eliasson, of Sweden, as the new deputy secretary-general – he ran into much criticism from, among others, African UN members, who complained about the continent’s lessening influence in the Secretariat.
The reshuffling does not necessarily bring much new creativity into the Secretariat but resembles a complicated game change, where the top staff move chairs and the five permanent members of the Security Council have a decisive say.
So what are Ban’s chances of carrying out his ambitious agenda? He might be partly successful because of the political framework: the Arab Spring and enormous environmental problems have increased the readiness of many countries to act. On the other hand, Russia and China do not seem interested in playing a strong supportive role at the UN right now, which they proved explicitly by preventing the Security Council, through their veto, from adopting a tough resolution on Syria. (Though Russia and China recently agreed to a presidential statement from the council on Syria.) Yet Ban could play an essential role in this context by helping to maintain pressure on both countries in the Security Council and in the General Assembly.
Ban’s enhanced political profile might enable him to play a much bigger role in defusing conflicts and solving global problems. A predecessor, Xavier Pérez de Cuéllar, is a good example of how to forge a better second term, as he resolved several long-term conflicts in his latter five years.
Ban would, without doubt, increase his successes if he learned how to make friends with UN ambassadors and let them contribute to the work of the UN.
Certainly the UN secretary-general is a kind of world conscience, but to put his political values and visions into practice, he needs the backing of the member countries, which entails persuading and talking to their representatives. Annan knew how to play this game, and he may still.
It would be beneficial if Ban learned this skill quickly.
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This is an opinion essay.
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Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).