Friday, January 11, 2008

Ban Ki-moon's First Year

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the end of his first year in office has a set of tepidly critical reviews from the world Press. The Associated Press and Reuters, the world's two most influential news agencies, had almost identical year-end assessments.

AP led with: "Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew 125,000 miles (200,000 kilometers) and visited six continents during his first year as U.N. chief, gaining a reputation as a workaholic and a staunch advocate for peace in Darfur and global action to combat climate change. But at U.N. headquarters, he's had a tougher time making progress on his goal of changing U.N. culture and re-engineering a giant international bureaucracy where 192 countries often have competing interests." Ban, said the report, "has yet to master the soundbite, which is critical for a global personality."

Reuters said: "Flying 346,000 km and visiting 39 countries, Ban Ki-moon has put tireless energy into his first year as U.N. secretary-general but has struggled to raise the profile of the much-criticized body. While pursuing an agenda headed by climate change and the crisis in Darfur, Ban Ki-moon has spent an unwelcome amount of time fending off critics of a closed management style they say comes from his native South Korea. As the year ends, diplomats and analysts give Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, good marks for persistence, but say many member states find his decision-making secretive and the man himself lacking in vision -- charges he rejects."

In-house critics are far harsher, saying that Ban's attempt to get a handle on the UN Secretariat by importing a "Korean mafia" -- five officials he brought with him from the the Foreign Ministry in Seoul-- shows little respect for a multinational structure that has a strong self-protective ethos. The five officials are part of the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, but sit in different Departments as his eyes and ears. The disregard for "the house" was the main reason, insiders say, that Ban "hit the ground stumbling." The quotation is from a widely circulated story that appeared in The Australian shortly after Ban assumed the UN's top job and had a major run-in with the Group of 77, the 132-member caucus of developing countries that dominates the General Assembly. Ban tried to push through changes in the Secretariat without adequately consulting the G-77, and paid for it with weeks of alarums and excursions.

It does not help that Ban is manifestly uncomfortable with journalists, and that his efforts to seem at ease only make things worse. At the 2006 UN Correspondents Association Ball, when he was Secretary-General elect, he sang "Ban Ki-moon is coming to town" to the tune of Santa Claus is coming to town. It got a laugh, but a half-embarrassed one; it was not seen to be in keeping with the gravitas of the post he was soon to occupy. That has been a recurring problem. Even scripted appearances before the Press seem miscued. This is how he ended a written speech for the annual Dag Hammarskjold Fund lunch meeting in December 2007 (a fellowship program organized by journalists at the UN):

"A few of you have advised me that I should improve my technique in delivering remarks. Warren Hoge of The New York Times even told me I had a wooden style of delivery. I’d like to answer the charge by paraphrasing Elvis Presley. For you, the correspondents, breaking my heart in two is not hard to do. If you abandoned me, I know that I would cry -- maybe I would die. After all, you were the first people I saw on the morning of my first day in office. It was always you from the start. And I’m not a man with a wooden heart.

"Nor do I have a wooden tongue. Let me prove it to you. Allow me to offer holiday greetings by borrowing from the traditional poem of the Season, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:

'Twas the night before UNCA, when all through the house
The only thing stirring was the Secretariat mouse.
The deadlines were past, stories finished with care,
In hopes that a scoop would soon be on the air;
The editors slumbered like logs in their beds,
While dreams of exclusives danced in their heads;
Michèle in her bonnet, John Holmes in his cap,
Had finally left for a long winter's nap,
When on the North Lawn there arose such a chatter,
That OIOS came to study the matter.
A sleigh and a driver, lit up by the moon,
The driver none other than me, Ban Ki-moon!
Behind me some glad correspondents then came,
I whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Go, Edie! Go Laura! Go Maggie! Go Benny!
When you fly my sleigh I am quicker than any!”
I’m faster than Branson’s new jet when we roll,
So James Bone flew with me to the South Pole!
Did I bring you all back a sleigh full of toys?
Well I’ve kept a long list of all girls and boys,
Who’ve been nice or naughty since this time last year,
I told you I would -- I was singing right here.
Did you write a blog about me every week?
Did Nambiar enquire into who was the leak?
You'll all be kept waiting until Christmas Eve
Before you find out what I have up my sleeve.
I’m off now to Bali, climate change I must fight,
Or else Christmas next will be even less white,
For now let me say as I drive out of sight
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

If 2008 is to be a better year for Ban and the UN, some major retooling in the image-projection apparatus will be necessary. At the very least.

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