Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a memoir due out in June, is done concealing his anger over Donald Trump’s bad behavior on the international stage.
The UN has always tried hard to maintain strong ties with the United States, its biggest dues-payer and the world’s leading superpower. And Ban, it seems, was careful to keep his true feelings about Trumpian diplomacy to himself even though he had left the UN by the time Trump became president.
Now, however, with Trump out of the White House, Ban is putting his anger on display, particularly when writing about Trump’s handling of momentous nuclear weapons showdowns with Iran and North Korea and the historic Paris accord on climate change.
“Today I am more concerned than ever about the divisions among countries, the dangerous rhetoric of hate spewing from some world leaders, and the threats to multilateralism,” he laments in the book’s preface, before his story even gets underway. “Some countries are balking in their commitments under UN-sponsored accords such as the Paris Climate Agreement, and certain powerful member states are boycotting the UN Human Rights Council and Unesco.”
Ban’s plaint may sound like a general statement, but it is all about Trump. While president, Trump mocked foreigners, immigrants, Muslims, women, nonwhites and many of Washington’s closest allies; worked hard to undermine multilateralism in favor of his preferred “America First” approach to global problems; ignored US commitments under numerous UN-sponsored aid programs and global agreements, including the Paris climate deal; and pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council and Unesco.
His successor, Joe Biden, has begun systematically undoing many of Trump’s most dystopian actions, both international and domestic. But Ban’s observations remain relevant as the crises roll on and the debate continues over Trump’s place in history.
Ban’s second term as secretary-general ended on Dec. 31, 2016. He has kept busy in South Korea giving speeches, teaching and dabbling in high-stakes diplomacy as a member of The Elders, an independent group of senior global leaders formed by Nelson Mandela in 2007 and dedicated to the pursuit of peace, justice and human rights.
It has taken more than four years to get an advance glimpse of Ban’s memoir, “Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World” (Columbia University Press). But his book still helps nail down the legacy of Trump, a man who repeatedly claimed, without basis, that he left the US safer and stronger. Ban makes clear that Trump utterly flopped in his efforts to prevent Iran from developing atomic bombs while ridding North Korea of the nuclear stockpile it had amassed. The bottom line: the US — and the rest of the world — are weaker and less safe.
In one surprising revelation, Ban says that in 2017, six months after leaving the UN, he convinced Nikki Haley, Trump’s first UN ambassador, that carrying out her boss’s threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement would be a disastrous mistake. At Ban’s urging, according to his memoir, Haley agreed with him and promised to press Trump to stick with the deal.
While key foreign capitals and most of Trump’s top foreign policy aides were quietly reassuring him at the time that the nuclear agreement was achieving its goal of keeping nuclear arms out of Tehran’s reach, Haley was publicly attacking the accord as deeply flawed. But behind the scenes, was she doing something quite different, as Ban is suggesting?
As things turned out, Trump did not withdraw from the agreement that year. But he did the next year, claiming he could reach a better deal than the one President Obama wrapped up in 2015. Sadly, this never happened. Instead, Iran has reacted by diving back into the development of atomic bombs and the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them.
“What is done is done, and we must all accept the consequences,” Ban now laments.
He is even more contemptuous of Trump’s attempt to tango with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, likely because, as a longtime senior South Korean diplomat, he has a long history of involvement in a variety of global initiatives to render the Korean peninsula nuclear-free. Ban argues convincingly that pulling out of the Iran deal persuaded Kim that Trump’s word could not be trusted. Rather than seek a deal, Kim played on Trump’s diplomatic naïveté by pretending to pursue serious negotiations.
As we all know by now, Trump did not respect the UN or its goals. A principal thrust of his foreign policy was to steer clear of multilateralist approaches to international peace and security in favor of nationalist appeals, while undermining UN initiatives and agencies disliked by his domestic political base.
The Iran nuclear accord was one of Trump’s first targets as president. The pact, embraced by Tehran, Germany and permanent Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, put tough restrictions on a range of nuclear-related activities for 10 to 15 years and longer.
While it was not perfect, the agreement won the endorsement of the Security Council — and there was no Plan B. But even though Tehran was meeting all its obligations under the deal, Israel strongly opposed it and Trump found it an easy target by tying it to Obama, his favorite punching bag. During his 2016 presidential campaign, certainly without ever having read it, Trump dismissed it as “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
Haley, in her 2019 book, “With All Due Respect: Defending America With Grit and Grace,” boasts nonstop of her awesome ability to influence Trump. Even today, as she prepares for a presidential run in 2024, she is especially proud of her role in pushing Trump to get out of the Iran deal.
So it’s particularly interesting to read in Ban’s book that he learned from Haley a few months after he had left the UN that she shared his view that Trump should stick with the agreement.
Ban first met with Haley in June 2017, at his request. She had become Trump’s UN envoy in January of that year.
“Although we had no prior relationship, she graciously received me in the US Mission,” Ban writes. “I spoke openly with Ambassador Haley, urging her not to let Washington make the mistake of leaving Iran uncontrolled. ‘A nuclear Iran will be much more difficult to handle than nuclear North Korea,’ I told her. ‘The Iranian nuclear issue has made the Middle East even more complex.'”
“I asked, ‘What kind of message will the North Koreans take from the decertification of the Iranian deal so soon after a change of US administration?’ ‘Scrapping the agreement will send the wrong message to the North Korean leadership that the United States does not keep its promises.'”
“She agreed,” Ban wrote. “Ambassador Haley told me that she would immediately share my views with President Trump, possibly by the next day. To my great relief, the president did not decertify Iran’s compliance the following month.”
But in May a year later, he pulled out of the agreement after all, Ban writes. “This effectively killed the accord that so many nations had agreed was the best — or even the only — way to contain Iran’s nuclear program.”
“As someone who worked for so many years in constructive and positive partnership with the United States, I could not understand the logic behind President Trump’s decision. The once-solid word of the United States was now provisional; America had become an unreliable negotiator,” Ban writes.
“There was no guarantee that Iran would have honored its commitment to abandon prohibited enrichment and expansion for fifteen years. Certainly, I had my doubts,” he continues. “But for President Trump to destroy the JCPOA [nuclear agreement] all but gave Iran permission to restart enrichment as well as research and development. Nor did pulling out of the deal help address Iran’s regional behavior that so alarms Iran’s critics and neighbors.”
As Ban feared, Trump’s plans for North Korea also ended in disaster. Bizarrely, he began it all in his first address to the UN General Assembly in 2017, belittling its leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man.” Not the best way to begin a friendship with an adversary.
A year later, Trump switched gears and announced that the two men “fell in love.” But their negotiations went in circles. Soon Kim was expanding his nuclear arsenal and fine-tuning the abilities of his ballistic missiles.
“Populist bullies are perhaps the least effective diplomats,” Ban writes. “These leaders, often egotists, give away their strategies and boast about their outcomes — the antithesis of international diplomacy. US President Donald Trump repeatedly promised Americans that North Korea would surrender its nuclear weapons program, strengthening Kim Jong-un’s hand by showing how important a deal was to him personally.”
Ban was particularly angry that Trump, in the middle of the to-and-fro, had appeared to switch goals, suggesting that his priority was no longer denuclearization but protecting the American continent. “This is of great concern in Asia because it shows that the United States is thinking about the impact of North Korean missiles on North America, not their impact here in the region,” Ban writes. “This is an unacceptable position in an ally.”
Ban was also deeply upset by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. (Biden reversed that action with an executive order signed on the first day of his presidency.)
“The Paris Agreement was a historic commitment. Backing out was a historic mistake,” Ban writes of the deal, which has been embraced by 197 countries as of mid-February. “But with one act, Donald Trump — unpredictable, unreliable, irresponsible and imperious — undercut the global accord.”
Ban clearly enjoys putting his anti-Trump rhetoric down on paper.
“I could never have said that as secretary-general,” he sums up. “It felt good to speak my mind now that I am, for almost the first time in my adult life, a private citizen. I am no longer speaking for the interests of [all] 193 [UN members], or even just one, and I am no longer muted by the traditions of diplomacy.”
“Resolved: Uniting Nations in A Divided World,” by Ban Ki-moon; 9780231198721
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.