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Ban Ki-moon’s Travels: Escape Hatch or Act of Diplomacy?


Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, visited Nurek, the largest dam and a hydroelectric plant in Tajikistan, in June 2015. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

BERLIN — If you take a close look at the public schedule of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it becomes evident that he travels a lot to member states, even more than his charismatic and most active predecessor Kofi Annan. Why does Ban travel so often?

Some critics suggest that Ban wants to distract public attention away from the disapproval, uttered for quite some time, about his shyness as a secretary-general. Is that analysis plausible?

Let us have a closer look at his personality and at those of his predecessors: Ban’s critics express with some reason their disappointment that he is not a personality like Kofi Annan, who filled the top UN position with convincing charisma, an amazing ability to win over the broad public for UN issues and to gain support among the diplomats of the member states for his ambitious plans.

Of course, Ban, a Korean, cannot be compared with Annan, a Ghanaian, since Ban is quite another type of person. His style is similar to many other UN secretaries-general: hardworking, modest and not strong in mastering English words and dealing with the media.

Ban shares this aloof, low-profile persona with such predecessors as Trygve Lie of Norway, U Thant of Burma, Kurt Waldheim of Austria and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru; while the charismatic type is represented by Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden and Annan. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, stands somewhere between the two kinds of secretary-general: being quite outspoken and eloquent, he represented the leadership type but with only partial success. He succeeded in working out important programmatic UN documents and in starting important reforms in the Secretariat, yet his brusque manner could not win the support of the UN staff, the ambassadors and the general public.

This triple challenge, however, was achieved by Hammarskjold and Annan: the former convinced the hesitating large powers to make reasonable use of the UN in the Cold War and established the reputation of the UN as an important institution in peacekeeping. Annan resumed Hammarskjold’s important persuasion campaign to strengthen the UN by improving its reputation and mobilizing political support for far-reaching changes in the UN system. These include creating the Millennium Development Goals, the Respon­sibility to Protect doctrine, the Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission.

While the broad public throughout the member states long for charming personalities and visionary leaders as UN secretaries-general, politicians of influential member states like China, Russia and the United States prefer sober and effectivity-oriented officers in the top office, which is why they have repeatedly put through the election of such candidates, as demonstrated most obviously in Ban.

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These particular member states prefer a quiet, dogged secretary-general because they expect him to comply with and to utter no public criticism concerning their political initiatives in the UN. Even Hammarskjold and Annan had been considered knowledgeable, low-profile managers when they were elected by the General Assembly to become secretary-general, but they turned out to be appealing personalities in office.

The disappointment of the public about a less persuasive secretary-general is under­standable, yet the history of the UN proves that each one is as strong and attractive as the international political constellations allow him to be: even Hammarskjold and Annan had phases in their terms when they ran into heavy opposition from influential member states and when they had problems carrying out their ambitious plans.

On the other hand, UN history shows that the unspectacular secretaries-general have achieved a lot for human rights as well as for peace and security mostly in negotiations behind the scenes, such as the mediation activities of U Thant in the Cuban crisis in 1962. The UN needs both types — they should take turns.

The uncharismatic secretaries-general must find their specific ways to cope with any lack of public support and praise; one way that Ban attempts to gain popularity is investing energy in political travels to UN member countries.

Ban is hardly the first secretary-general to use traveling as a political instrument, yet he has made much more use of it than his predecessors. Visits by the UN’s top leaders to member countries began to increase toward the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s: Boutros-Ghali made on average 55 travels a year in office, or about four a month; Annan, 43 travels a year in office (about three a month); and Ban has made (so far in his nearly two terms) an average of 60 trips a year while in office (about five a month).

Are Ban’s travels, as his critics argue, an escape from his work in New York, where he is confronted with unending criticism and unfavorable headlines in the news? Of course, Ban may feel more at ease while traveling, but such pauses from the “home problems” in New York were also welcome to Boutros-Ghali after he came under increasing criticism from US diplomats, US Congress and the media. Annan, too, met severe criticism; in his case it happened in 2003, after he called the US-British led intervention in Iraq “illegal” in public statements.

Regarding the agenda of Ban’s travels, he meets a great range of groups, and is thus practicing a strategy of “public diplomacy,” managing international relations “through public communications media and through dealings with the wide range of non-governmental entities (political parties, corporations, trade associations, labour unions, educational institutions . . .  and so on),” as Alan K. Henrikson, a scholar at Tufts University, defined it.

To appeal directly to social groups and media in member countries makes sense as the UN searches for support and solutions to urgent global problems such as climate change. Ban’s talking campaigns — on the spot — are clearly not spectacular, as everyone knows who has heard him speak. Yet in the long run, his traveling might be increasing support for the UN in its 193 member countries.

His next trip? To Norway to check on the glaciers.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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 (

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Ban Ki-moon’s Travels: Escape Hatch or Act of Diplomacy?
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