Mixed progress report for UN′s Ban Ki-moon | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 02.08.2009
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Mixed progress report for UN's Ban Ki-moon

With Ban Ki-moon having reached the halfway mark of his first term as UN secretary-general, experts point to some successes, but also argue that there is a lot of room for improvement.

Ban Ki-moon at an UN conference

Ban Ki-moon has to focus more on results, say experts

When Ban Ki-moon took over the position of what has been called the world's top diplomat in January 2007, he had large shoes to fill. His predecessor Kofi Annan - while not being very popular with the Bush administration - was generally highly regarded around the world during his tenure. In fact, his international popularity was enhanced due to his frequent public disagreements with Washington.

All that changed when former South Korean diplomat Ban began his five-year term at the United Nations. Not only did Ban enjoy the full support of the United States - still the UN's most important stakeholder - but the tone and style of the rhetoric coming out of UN headquarters in New York also changed.

From the start of his tenure much has been written about Ban's style of speaking and his public perception - a lot of it negative. Ban himself has never claimed to be a great orator but maintains that substance trumps perception.

So now that he has passed the half-way mark of his first term as UN Secretary-General, how has Ban and the United Nations been faring with an approach that differs markedly from that of his predecessor?

While some critics have condemned Ban as a total failure and ridiculed him as the invisible man, the experts Deutsche Welle talked to have a more nuanced take on the UN chief.

"Those who call him an abject failure are certainly wrong, because they misread the challenges he was up to. But those who simply defend him, and say that he has done a good job and no improvement is necessary are also wrong", says Thorsten Benner, a UN expert and Associate Director of Berlin's Global Public Policy Institute. "I think his record so far is mixed."

Tough job

That applies to all roles Ban has to play as secretary-general, namely being the world's top diplomat, the CEO of the world's most troubled bureaucracy and the world's conscience, adds Benner.

UN headquarters in New York

Ban wants to reform the UN's bureaucracy

Kara McDonald, former Director for UN Affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now International Affairs Fellow in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees.

"I would certainly not call him an abject failure. I think a lot of those analyses don't take into account the realism of the job and what he is facing. The post is one of the toughest jobs in the world. It's one that you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy," she says.

As for Ban's biggest achievements so far, both experts say that the secretary-general has tried to push climate change to the forefront of the global agenda, also with specific countries, such as the United States and China, which have been reluctant until recently to take action on the issue.

Another area where Ban tried to make his mark early on has been reforms to the UN's notorious bureaucracy.

Losing steam

Benner and McDonald praise him for raising the issue, but both point out that the initiative quickly lost steam.

"He has been pushing for this, but his leadership style hasn't been conducive at all to get others to follow him", says Benner. "He has given the impression that he surrounds himself with a coterie of Korean advisers on the 38th floor (of the UN building in New York), and by and large the staff of the UN Secretariat have been unwilling to follow him."

Ban's advocacy on climate change has been hampered by similar setbacks, says Benner.

"Due to his very toned-down style and his not very forceful rhetoric not many have noticed his activism on that front," he said.

Picture of Ban

UN Secretary-General Ban during his disappointing trip to Burma

While Benner said Ban must rethink his style but not necessarily the messages themselves, McDonald doesn't see the secretary-general's public rhetoric and profile as the main problem.

"I personally am less concerned about profile than I am about results and occupation with legacy and re-election over the day-to-day operation of the United Nations," she said.

"I think on the latter score, Ban has delegated a substantial amount of authority to his inner circle and to Ambassador Kim, who is his deputy chief-of-staff, in particular, and there has been some criticism of that delegation line and of his inner circle."

Results matter

On a very practical level, Ban needs to re-evaluate his agenda and priorities, argued McDonald, citing his most recent trip to Burma from where he returned largely empty-handed.

"The broader issue of engaging and travelling to countries without a sense of clear results beforehand has harmed the secretary-general," she said.

What's more, added McDonald, any secretary-general must be ready to break some china.

"It's simply not possible to keep everyone happy in the UN system," she said.

Author: Michael Knigge

Editor: Charles Penfold

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