UN: The Tragic Triviality of Dilettantism

In the most recent issue of Foreign Policy, Jacob Heilbrunn writes that Ban Ki-moon is ‘the Nowhere Man’ since he is nowhere to be seen on the global stage. He even calls Mr. Ban the ‘most dangerous Korean’, thus elevating him above Kim Jong Il, the little-understood ruler of the northern part of the divided Korean peninsula.

Heilbrunn’s frontal attack against the current UN General Secretary is not really surprising for someone who is a senior editor at the right-wing National Interest. His likening of Mr. Ban to a dictator is just plain tasteless. His text is beaming with factual inaccuracies and presumably deliberate distortions of facts.

Yet what left me truly troubled is that despite its acidity and baseness, Heilbrunn’s op-ed is a truly refreshing read.

“Even in [the] unimpressive company [of the late former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, Boutros Boutros Ghali and most recently Kofi Annan who led the UN Peacekeeping branch when the Rwanda genocide took place],” Heilbrunn cauterizes,

Ban Ki-moon appears to have set the standard for failure. It’s not that Ban has committed any particularly egregious mistakes in his 2½ years on the job. But at a time when global leadership is urgently needed, when climate change and international terrorism and the biggest financial crisis in 60 years might seem to require some—any!—response, the former South Korean foreign minister has instead been trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command. He has become a kind of accidental tourist, a dilettante on the international stage.

What is so remarkable about this assessment is that it was to be expected when Mr. Ban was appointed. Heilbrunn mentions how former Secretary of State Rice championed his candidacy, but he conveniently omits the main reason – namely that the Administration of Bush junior considered Annan’s succession a major opportunity to paralyze the UN. Looking at the role of the organization in the most recent global crisis, it seems that this plan is working rather well. Even The Economist agrees that Mr. Ban’s performance at mid-point is wanting.

This sobering stocktaking exercise does of course beg the question whether or not a new Secretary General can turn the UN around. Heilbrunn seems to suggest that charismatic and passionate leaders wield the power to steer the blue bureaucracy down the right routes. Republicans have always been sympathetic with the idea of a strong leader, so this argument, too, should not surprise anyone. (That Heilbrunn has retained this faith in spite of recent political developments in the United States may be more astonishing.)

Skepticism is indeed warranted. The UN reform towards ‘delivering as one’ is stalling (it never got very far in the first place); the organization’s recruitment practices remain muddled and its internal decision-making and priority setting highly obscure. The rise of less-than-democratic countries such as China and Russia to the round table of global economic politics is curtailing the UN’s influence further.

So, will things improve significantly with a new bureaucrat at the helm of the global diplomatic apparatus? Probably not.

The good news is: it can hardly get worse.

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