Ban Ki-Moon and the post of UN Secretary-General
Ban Ki-Moon takes up office at UN Secretary-General on the 1st January 2007. What is the role of Secretary-General and how will Ban Ki-Moon carry it out?
Generally speaking, the United Nations is not a wholly popular organization in the United States. It is certainly not popular with the Bush Administration over the stand taken by Kofi Annan on the war in Iraq. Annan deplored the notion of unilateral action. The United States view is that the Secretary-General is essentially an administrator, presiding over the management of the complex set of organizations (fourteen directly in the system and a number that are allied to it) that make up the United Nations. Annan adjusted the role to one of highly-level diplomacy (building on changes made by earlier Secretary-Generals) but in the process let the ball drop with respect to managerial issues and corruption in the oil-for-food program was thought to be the result. Annan was open to the creative conflicts within the job and chose to raise issues of reform, and the marginalization of Africa whilst keeping a focus on poverty and peace.
The ‘job specification’ is it would seem, both specific and general. Specifically the Secretary-General is defined as the ‘chief administrative officer’ and therefore the efficiency or better still I would argue, the effectiveness of United Nations activities are the direct responsibility of the Secretary General whoever he or she may be. CAO or CEO functions include reporting, monitoring, evaluating and prioritizing. Additional activities can be delegated to the Secretary-General from the Security Council. According to the Secretary-General’s web site, an exceptionally significant role is that of ‘good offices’ — mediating both in public and in private to prevent the escalation of disputes amongst Member States. However, the context is the fluid world of international relations and in a context of rapid change and enhanced danger, the role and the person occupying it needs to adjust and adapt and, above all, that person needs to get the balance right. It has been ever thus and Ban Ki-Moon is taking office in a period that some see as the most dangerous of times (though others look to the positive range of achievements that have also taken place since the end of the Cold War).
The role is complex. At the moment, the United States has one set of expectations about the office and some of the wider Membership has a differing set. China is not yet clearly determined on any particular role in the organization; it is still working out what its role in the international arena is to be. This is illustrated to some extent by its critical comments against North Korea and by its hesitancy over being too tough (for reasons that are perhaps largely pragmatic). Any Secretary-General needs to win the respect and confidence of all the Member States and, at least to some extent, reach to the wider international public in order to enhance effectiveness and respect.
How does Ban Ki-Moon see his role? He intends, according to his acceptance speech, delivered in English and with some passages in French, to build upon Annan’s legacy with respect to peace and prosperity. He has been given considerable time to prepare for the post. He has made it clear that he will ‘consult widely on how best to proceed with our common agenda of reform and revitalization’. This ought to help him ease his way into office with some sort of an agenda. He is clear that the promise of the United Nations is useless without delivery. An emergent theme may be that of promising less and of delivering more. He sees the UN in the 21st century as an institution that helps ‘to strengthen the inter-state system so that humanity may be better served amidst new challenges’. He will continue Kofi Annan’s aim, according to his speech, ‘to protect the most vulnerable members of humanity’. The reform agenda will be continued though the Members need to be on board. In the process he has committed himself to remain faithful to the principles of ‘harmonious leadership’ that he has incorporated into his diplomatic life. Holding the UN system and its administrators to the ‘highest standards of professionalism’ will be essential to his mission. Ban Ki-Moon was careful not to spell out in detail his priorities and to ensure Member States that he will now engage in a period of listening.
Ban Ki-Moon’s speech seems to put him more in the chief executive camp than in the high-level diplomat camp and this no doubt pleases the United States. Keeping on the right side of the United Sates is significant for the role but how this is achieved needs to be the outcome of a management strategy on the part of the Secretary-General. Within the UN he will need to establish his even-handedness with respect to all Members. The fact that he has also earned China’s support is interesting as it implied that it too is favourable to issues relating to good administration. This ‘chief executive’ approach seems to conform to what is known about his style. The BBC’s Charles Scanlon talks of Ban Ki-Moon’s ‘consensual style’ and his preference for ‘the back-room deal over the grand public gesture’. Saying less and delivering more, through careful and patient consensus building, can be an optimal strategy in tricky situations. Influence rather than power is the way to proceed. It may just be that Ban Ki-Mon has the right collection of skills and appropriate experience of making diplomatic judgments likely to be required for success. In this, only time will tell.