Monday, March 26, 2007

Testing the Tightrope

From the April edition of the World Today, journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.

Testing the Tightrope


As Winston Churchill said of his successor Clement Attlee, Ban Ki-Moon is a very modest man. It remains to be seen whether the United Nations Secretary-General also has ‘much to be modest about’. As the traditional hundred-day deadline for assessing new office-holders approaches, there is a quite remarkable lack of information on which to base any assessment. Ban shows no sign of rushing. With unprecedented time to effect a transition, he could have started running with a full team – unless he was waiting for former United States Ambassador John Bolton to go.

Ban Ki-moon brought a team of Koreans with him to the United Nations, seven according to most reports, regardless of his official nominations to office. Most notable is Kim Won-soo who was the mastermind of Ban’s election campaign to become Secretary-General. Now officially the assistant to newly appointed chef de cabinet Vijay Nambiar, UN staff report that Kim is no eminence grise, but is indeed very openly assertive in his authority.

But neither he nor his compatriots at UN headquarters are open about much else. Neither Ban nor his team have taken any great pains to explain themselves to senior staff, let alone to the media and the public.

Consequently, no one can be sure how deeply in debt Ban feels to the Americans for their electoral support, or indeed whether the nature of any such obligation has changed with the removal of Ambassador John Bolton and the change of control in Congress.

Spoils System

Ban’s appointment of B. Lynn Pascoe, a veteran United States diplomat, to head the Department of Political Affairs sent one sign. But his retreat from plans to put the substantive part of the peacekeeping department under the American, and his refinement of original proposals to downgrade disarmament affairs could be a joint product of a change of emphasis in Washington, or resistance from other member states.

Pascoe is an accomplished diplomat, well versed in Asian affairs, who even speaks Mandarin. If it had to be an American, then he is possibly the best for the position. Nonetheless, having an American, or for that matter, in the current state of the relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush, a British nominee in such a crucial position, is bad for the UN and for Washington.

Despite its churlish lack of public enthusiasm, the US relies increasingly on the UN for major parts of global policing that would otherwise consume its increasingly challenged resources. And
one of the advantages of the UN is that its global legitimacy gives it an appearance of neutrality that Pascoe’s presence may belie.

The Security Council permanent members’ spoils system as applied to senior UN positions has led traditionally to a reliance on a kitchen cabinet of people you can trust. However, in Ban’s case, these all seem to be Korean. Senior UN staff report that insofar as the Korean team has manifested an agenda, it is ‘reform’, which it is pursuing with singular intensity – and on which it also seems to be taking advice from the Americans, although it is certainly a personal preoccupation of Ban’s.

Reform Rhetoric

Following an American reform agenda could be very frustrating since the Humpty Dumpty principle applies, ‘When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean, neither more nor less’. For significant constituencies in Washington, reform means that the organisation will do what it is told, when it is told, by the US. In particular it would be expected to drop its traditional support for international law in the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian rights programmes.

One indication of trouble ahead is indeed the Middle East. Retiring Secretary-General Kofi Annan got scant thanks for trying hard to engage Israel in the organisation, without abandoning the Palestinian case in international law and the catalogue of UN decisions. There are some indications that Ban is not overly concerned about the latter, and by being somewhat over-receptive to Washington’s input, is heading for a confrontation with Arab and Islamic states and their non-aligned allies. In the UN version of Kremlinology, it was regarded as significant that Israel steered him away from going to Gaza during his March visit.

The Group of 77 developing nations are, with some justice, concerned because they know the American political agenda lurking beneath the managerial reform rhetoric. Bolton could hardly be accused of hiding it! Many would prefer an inefficient status quo in which their concerns will be addressed, to an efficient machine that excludes their agenda.

It must also be admitted that for a developing country ambassador, the prospects of a reincarnated career in the UN also looms large in the calculations. They know how to work the present system and would not welcome a slimmed down meritocracy they suspect would be under western control.

Tactical not Technocratic

Ban has tried to pre-emptively head off their opposition to his plans with senior appointments carefully spread around the global south. Many people suspect that, unless he has seen hidden depths unobserved by others in some of his appointees, a number of selections have been more tactical than technocratic.

Very late in his second term, Annan went to the long neglected root of the rot in the UN’s personnel system – and even then only after appointing Anne
Veneman, the White House nominee to head the traditional American fiefdom of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to avert US opposition.

Briefly the UN advertised and conducted a passable search process for candidates for senior positions, for example choosing Kemal Dervis of Turkey for the traditional Anglo-Saxon realm of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And then right at the end, under heavy White House pressure, after consulting Ban, Annan appointed a Bush nominee, Josette Sheeran Shiner as head of the World Food Programme. She is a former editor of the Moony-owned Washington Times.

Following that, Ban abandoned this brief burst of genuine reform and has chosen a series of candidates who appear to represent pay-offs to powers that could have, but did not, veto his candidacy. Despite a reform pledge to cycle anyone more than five years in one position, he reappointed the French candidate, Jean-Marie Guéhenno as head of peacekeeping.

Sir John Holmes, a Blair nominee, became head of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, a task in which he may succeed, but for which he is less qualified than the political affairs job the
British hoped for. And of course the reason that London had to accept a consolation prize was the most significant pay-back of all, Pascoe. It may be reform, but hardly root and branch.

Short on Substance

So what are Ban’s prospects? Any Secretary-General has to balance the aspirations of the bulk of the membership and the imperious demands of the great powers, in particular the US. Annan was extremely adept at this, for which he was rewarded with mutterings from the nonaligned that he was an American puppet and a two year campaign of vilification from US conservatives.

The Bush administration policy was ‘Bear not false witness: let the lie/Have time on its own wings to fly’. The White House did not start the slanderous campaign about the failures of the Iraq Oil for Food Programme, but it certainly did nothing to rein it in, and took advantage of Annan's weakened position. Ban should learn the lesson that that American support lasts only
until the first disagreement.

Some observers, unimpressed by Ban’s approach, and perhaps irritated by his own boast to the title of the ‘slippery eel’, for his avoidance of substance, have assumed he is the lacklustre product of a
backroom fix. But that is no truer than of any of his predecessors.

Indeed, while last year’s voting itself had all the transparency of a papal conclave, the campaign was unprecedentedly open, and Ban acquitted himself well on the hustings. For example, when asked about the International Criminal Court, and the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, he declared himself unequivocally in favour of both – even though one was hardly designed to woo Bolton’s vote, while the other was not exactly what Beijing may have wanted.

Like Annan, Ban is personally very affable and approachable, but quietly spoken, and has given evidence of strong ethics. No one could be foreign minister of a fulcrum state like South Korea without developing Annan-like skills at tightrope walking. In recent years South Korea has contrived to loyally disagree with Washington even though its survival has depended on American military support. Indeed, the few hints we see of his decision-making suggest some very intricate balancing acts.

Annan, more than any recent Secretary-General realised that in the absence of serious military or financial power, careful cultivation of a public persona of trustworthy moral authority provided the best substitute. Despite indifferent speaking skills, and very carefully weighing every word, he was
initially very successful in this.

One way in which Annan succeeded was to open up the organisation to the media in an unprecedented way. Previously, staff rules forbade talking to the press, but he reversed the position so that they were mandated to do so on areas in which they had competence. He also surrounded himself with a team that could articulately fill in the gaps in his diplomatically constrained public discussion.

It is to be hoped that Ban may begin to realise what he is missing. There is no point in having the world’s most prominent bully pulpit if he is not prepared to read the occasional sermon and deliver some ringing ex cathedra judgments. He will find that soft power is the strongest weapon in his armoury.

IAN WILLIAMS is Editor of the forthcoming Guide to the UN, published
by CQ Press

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