United Nations

Mystery man or superman?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 December, 2006, 12:00am

Much of the world has no sure idea of what it may be getting with its new United Nations secretary-general. Ban Ki-moon, the former South Korean foreign minister who takes over on January 1, is an enigma to pretty much everyone except the international diplomatic community.

In a real sense, Mr Ban is the world's most prominent diplomat that almost nobody knows. What's more, there is another, quite different, population that could not care less about the character and talent of the incoming UN secretary-general. They have long given up any hope in the utility and relevance of this world organisation that was forged in the shattered aftermath of the second world war.

The latter is the group that would prefer to convert the iconic UN secretariat building on the East River of Manhattan into something like a large, used-furniture warehouse. Fiery letters to the editor of the New York Post have said it all, not only about the institution but about its outgoing leader, Kofi Annan. 'Corrupt and shameful'; 'Good riddance, Annan'; and 'A complete failure during his tenure' were just a few of the comments.

Indeed, Mr Annan, a majestic-looking man ('like a lion king', enthused one awestruck woman watching the UN handover ceremonies last week) is not stepping down so much on a high note as on an ominously low one.

Even the delegates who rose to their feet in the cavernous General Assembly hall to offer Mr Annan his last standing ovation know that the UN is in serious trouble.

Mr Annan isn't wholly to blame, but it was, after all, on his 10-year watch as UN chief that Darfur deteriorated into a contemporary holocaust meltdown, that the people of Bosnia were driven to hell and back and that his close relatives became implicated in money scandals arising from the controversial oil-for-food programme in Iraq.

And so when Mr Annan's chosen successor rose from his seat in the VIP section to the side of the General Assembly hall to stride to the central podium for his oath of office, everyone in the room focused on this slightly built and quietly spoken diplomat as if he were one improbable superman.

And that he may be. History may perhaps show that this South Korean was not just the first from his country to garner this top post but the last of its occupants about whom anyone will really care. For if Mr Ban proves to be a flop, as Mr Annan's scandal-plagued second-term rather turned out to be, it is hard to see this organisation going anywhere.

Against such broad pessimism, though, can be placed a pair of generally positive facts. The first is that Mr Ban himself would appear to be a model of integrity and trustworthiness. Throughout his many decades as a diplomat, nothing has surfaced to suggest otherwise.

Moreover, if hard work can produce miracles, then the world may have found its miracle worker in Mr Ban. He is a workaholic who can inspire colleagues to comparable fatigue; he is a pragmatist, a listener and a careful sorter of differing options. He would be more likely to listen than declaim, would rather understand than denounce and would prefer to look you in the eye so as to see into your soul than glad-hand you in a flurry of phoney gestures.

His style is not that of the promiser but of the doer. Few may now believe that he will be able to orchestrate significant reform of the UN - but then again, no one thought he'd be able to reform the tradition-burdened South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr Ban is the working man's diplomat. No one will call him a 'lion king', or lionise him for his charismatic appearance and showboating wife. But for all this, paradoxically, Mr Ban, over the long run, will benefit from the current, unkind comparisons to his predecessor.

His main advantage? That he is a Mr Ban, not a Mr Annan.

One New York letter-writer put it this way: 'People all over the world will be celebrating that Annan is finally out. Anyone could do a better job than he did.'

Mr Ban is anything but just 'anyone'.

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre