“The World’s Most Dangerous Korean?” Please.

Ban Ki Moon is certainly not above criticism. In contrast to his predecessor, he is much more “secretary” than “general.” No one looks to him as a “secular pope” as many looked to Kofi Annan for moral leadership.  Rather, in his 2 1/2 years in office, it’s become clear that Ban’s diplomatic style is one that favors quiet, direct diplomacy over grandstanding.  

There are benefits and drawbacks to this leadership style.  But he is far from, as Jacob Heilbrunn asserts in Foreign Policy, “the world’s most dangerous Korean” that has “set the standard for failure” among Secretary Generals. 

Heilbrunn is a gifted writer, but his analysis of Ban’s first two and a half years shows only a passing familiarity with what the United Nations has been up to since January 2007.  For example, Heilbrunn suggests that Ban has been passive when it comes to climate change.  This is just plain wrong. Ban has made climate change his signature issue.  In September 2007, Ban invited world leaders, ranging from Nicolas Sarkozy to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Al Gore to the United Nations headquarters for a climate change summit. (Foreign Policy even covered the event!)  And there will be a repeat of this summit in September, which is intended to build some momentum for the climate talks in Copenhagen in December. 

At the center of Heilbrunn’s assertion that Ban is somehow “dangerous” is that in his 2 1/2 years, Ban has no successes of which to speak and that his quiet diplomatic style is making the UN irrelevant.  There are two points to make here.  First, 2 1/2 years is not a very long time with which to pass such sweeping judgments on a Secretary General. Most serve for five or ten years.  Second, Heilbrunn seems to think that the Secretary General is a position with all means of authority over global affairs.  Sure, it’s a big title, but the Sec Gen has no real power other than the moral authority that comes with the title.  Kofi Annan was skilled at wielding moral authority to press for human rights.  For his part, Ban’s been spending his moral capital on climate change. 

The Sec Gen does have some (but not much) authority over how the General Secretariat runs itself.  For example, he can’t open or close new offices or bureaus with out the General Assembly’s approval — but he can make a few suggestions and prod the General Assembly to take them up. One important institutional reform he saw through was dividing the overburdened Department of Peacekeeping Operations into two directorates.  That may not sound like much to outsiders, but it was a huge change in how the UN manages its over 100,000 peacekeepers in the field. 

The bottom line is that Heilbrunn passes some sweeping judgements on the current Secretary General without showing that he knows very much about the position itself. A more useful way of judging the success or failure of a Secretary General is to analyze the extent to which he is able to achieve certain goals within the institutional and legal constraints that he faces.  Simply picking a problem in the world and blaming the Secretary General for not fixing it is an easy way to beat up a Secretary General, but it is pretty unhelpful as a heuristic device.