Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The plot in favour of America

As promised, here is my Guardian Comment is Free post
The editors asked the question, you will note that I did not answer it - insufficient data!

The plot in favour of America

Does Ban Ki-Moon's latest appointment put truth on the rumours of a US-dominated United Nations?
Ian Williams

February 13, 2007 9:45 PM | Printable version

Ban Ki-Moon has finished six weeks as secretary-general of the United Nations. At a similar stage in Kofi Annan's career, Sergei Lavrov, the mordantly witty Foreign Minister of Russia and then ambassador to the UN, asked him why he had not completed his reforms, since the Almighty only took six days to complete the Universe. In one of his infrequent but sharp retorts, Annan pointed out that God did it on his own, without the interference of 190 members.

In reality, most of those 190 have little individual voice - but the permanent five members of the security council and, above all, the US certainly do. In that context, Ban's confirmation or the rumours that he is appointing the US ambassador to Indonesia, Lynn Pascoe, to head the UN's department of political affairs, could be disastrous.

That is no personal comment on Ambassador Pascoe, who is an accomplished diplomat well versed in Asian affairs, and even speaks Mandarin. If it had to be an American then he was a much better choice than, say, John Bolton.

Presumably Ban, in his previous incarnation as South Korean foreign minister had already become professionally acquainted with Pascoe. One can imagine a trade-off: American insistence that an American get the job, but Ban picking one he felt comfortable with. But no-one should have put him in that position.

Having any American, or for that matter, in the current state of the Blair-Bush relationship, any British appointee, in such a crucial position, is bad for the UN and for Washington. Even if Pascoe does not keep his fingers crossed behind his back when he takes his oath as an international civil servant, swearing that he "shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization," who is going to believe him?

When Washington talks about reform and efficiency of the UN it is like Humpty Dumpty - the words mean just what the White House want them to mean, neither more nor less. Humpty Dumpty's great fall in Iraq is strongly persuasive to the rest of the UN membership that little this administration says or does can be put back together into any close proximity to reality. To mention but one important question, will Ambassador Pascoe implement UN resolutions on the Middle East, or for that matter on issues like Western Sahara?

Of course, he may, but Washington wouldn't like it, he will have a huge credibility gap to surmount with the rest of the membership and any hopes of a career in American politics go up in smoke. Yet without heroic efforts on Pascoe's part to establish himself as thoroughly un-American, the UN's every move will now suffer from the perception of being another American plot, which is bad for America.

In fact, the rhetoric and snide asides from the Washington aside, the US has been calling on the UN more than ever before: between African peacekeeping operations, putting pressure on Sudan, on Iran and many other diplomatic initiatives. The appearance of global diplomatic consensus that UN action gives has been far more legitimizing than unilateral decrees from the White House. But the cover is now blown. If Pascoe gets involved in Sudan, then he will be depicted as an envoy of the Crusaders in Washington.

Insofar as reforms mean anything at the UN, it has to be about personnel, where a combination of big power pressure, smaller power diplomatic nepotism, and the most renownedly inefficient and politicized "human resources" department conceivable have perpetuated the situation that a former secretary-general, Perez de Cuellar, epitomized when asked how many people work at the UN. "About half," he replied.

At the core of that is the permanent five's presumption, since the organization was founded, that they could appoint the senior staff of the UN. While Pascoe has to be an improvement over the KGB appointees that Moscow used to foist in the same position before the end of the Cold War, the job is now far more important than providing hard currency and information for a beleaguered Soviet Union.

Very belatedly, in his last term, Kofi Annan began to tackle this, and began a respectable search for candidates for senior posts. And then right at the end, under heavy White House pressure he appointed, after consulting Ban, a Bush appointee Josette Sheeran Shiner, a former editor of the Moony-owned Washington Times, as head of the World Food Programme.

Ban also appointed Sir John Holmes, a chum of Tony Blair as head of the department of humanitarian affairs, a task in which he may succeed. But governments that prate about "reform" should have the decency to blush when they make the UN part of their domestic spoils system.

If there is any ironic satisfaction, it is that UN staff are complaining that no matter who gets what job, the decisions will be taken by one of the Korean kitchen cabinet that Ban Ki-Moon has brought with him. Comparing Seoul's recent foreign policy with Washington's, that is actually reassuring.

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