People used to equate the vice-presidency of the United States with a “pitcher of warm spit.” Since Dick Cheney occupied the position, the spittle has become more potently venomous and the office consequently more important and noticeable. Similarly, the secretary-generalship of the United Nations is a very malleable office. The contrast with a predecessor’s personality can make the successor’s style more or less noticeable. Ban Ki Moon’s tenure so far has been on the low decibel end of the scale, even compared with Kofi Annan, who always spoke softly, realizing that there was no big stick at hand.

Technically, the secretary general is the UN’s office manager, and on the official protocol totem pole only equates to a foreign minister. In fact, the frequently overlookable President of the General Assembly officially outranks him. (Until now, only men have served as UN secretaries general.)

However, like his predecessors, Ban can phone heads of state, confident that they will answer his calls. His real powers derive from his ability to put questions on the agenda –which can mean putting the great powers on the spot by raising issues that they would rather see buried. That’s an integral part of his real power – it’s the practical leverage by which he can symbolize the UN Charter and the world community for the peoples of the world.

It’s a power that recent incumbents have under-used rather than abused. One of the reasons for this is that the role of the world’s conscience contradicts the other role that has accreted to the office, which is to be the global Arch-Envoy. It’s difficult to remain the public keeper of the global conscience when shaking the bloodstained hands of the statesmen of the world is an essential part of your job description. And it’s difficult to keep shaking the hands of people that you may name and shame.

First Six Months

So where does Ban Ki Moon fit into the pattern after six months in office? One suspects that his neophyte Korean-dominated team doesn’t really realize that there is a pattern. In some ways, his tenure is reminiscent of the initial intellectual arrogance of Boutros Boutros Ghali, who ran the show peremptorily and autocratically until experience taught him differently. In Ban’s case, it’s more oligarchic than autocratic. His team of Korean advisors is collectively running the show, but these advisors really do think they have little to learn from the existing office-holders, many of whom they have cleared out.

Indeed, so thoroughgoing has been their exclusion of most of Annan’s personnel that one can only presume they believed the John Bolton/Fox TV image of the Annan administration as hopelessly anti-American and incorrigibly corrupt.

That lack of institutional memory leads to a reinvention of the wheel. The fractious ending of their terms of office obscured the fact many Non-Aligned delegations regarded both Boutros-Ghali and Annan as being pro-American to the point of being tools of Washington. Ban has, naturally, declared that U.S.-UN relations are to be a major priority, but his Korean back up staff seem to think that they are being innovative with this. In reality they are marching briskly into the same prejudiced swamp as their predecessors.

Annan and the United States

Indeed, Annan, a U.S. nominee, went as far as possible in constructive engagement of Washington, and, realizing its importance on Capitol Hill, to bring in Israel and American pro-Israeli organizations into the United Nations.

However, Annan realized that there was some considerable dissonance between what American politicians wanted and what the UN Charter and international law mandates. He didn’t ostentatiously flaunt disagreements, but when he was pushed there were lines he would not cross. In the end, he had to admit that the invasion of Iraq was illegal – but no one could accuse him of being ostentatious in his delivery of the message. Similarly, even as he worked to get Israel fully participating in the UN and accepting a role for the UN in the Middle East, he occasionally reminded the world that there were relevant and important resolutions to consider.

Unlike tits predecessors, Ban’s team seems unaware that maintaining some distance from Washington – especially when it is scoffing at the UN Charter and International Law – is essential to keep the rest of the membership happy. That’s nowhere more apparent than on Middle East issues, where in his leaked confidential report on his resignation as the UN Representative for the Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto revealed an almost complete capitulation to the American/Israeli positions. De Soto complained of the “unprecedented access” Israel had to the Secretary General’s office, which insiders confirm, and which goes as far as helping choose officials as well as determining positions on the Palestine conflict.

Ban and the Middle East

Some of this results from the historical experience of Ban and the South Koreans, who after all, are more likely to see the United States as guardian angel than predatory superpower. In fact, UN officials report that Ban sees Israel as South Korea and the Palestinians as North Korea, with the United States backing the good guys. That misconception is reinforced because South Korea simply has not had a dog in the Middle East fight, which has been an almost entirely peripheral issue for Seoul. Ban and his team simply don’t appreciate the significance of the issue for the UN, for international law, and the diplomacy of most of the rest of the world.

Ironically, sources inside the UN suggest that the under-secretary general for political affairs, former U.S. diplomat B. Lynn Pascoe, has been more objective over the Middle East than some of the Europeans that Ban’s team appointed and is taking his responsibilities as an independent international civil servant more seriously than many expected when Ban announced the appointment of an American.

However, by aligning himself with the United States and Israel, Ban is making it difficult for him to woo and work with the Non-Aligned and Muslim majority in the General Assembly. Their defensiveness against Washington and its allies is being reflected in voting in, for example, the Human Rights Council.

No Trained Poodle

Ban is a person of principles: if he panders to the United States and Israel, it’s because he has chosen to, not because he is a trained poodle. He has publicly supported a global moratorium on the death penalty, and supported the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect, which certainly are not playing to the Texan gallery in Washington. He has shown signs of a deep and abiding interest in Africa, and as we go to press, his persistence in nagging Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir – admittedly backed by increasing Western exasperation and Chinese embarrassment – may have secured a UN/African Union force with teeth in Darfur. If he succeeds, it will be because he has refused to grandstand on the issue but rather just work away on Al-Bashir without fanfare.

It’s not impossible that faced with the continued arrogance of Washington and Israel, Ban Ki Moon will soon realize that there are limits to cooperation if he, his office, and the UN are to maintain any integrity. If he sticks to UN decisions, then he will soon discover that the race in Washington is not always to the nice. It will be his call.

One issue could be the continuing refusal of the U.S. Congress to release the funds the legislators promised to pay for the U.S. share of UN peacekeeping, and of the White House to expend any political capital on the issue, even as the United States mandates more and more peacekeeping operations.

The other issue is, of course, the Middle East, in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel, Iraq and Iran.

Ban will discover, in de Soto’s words, how much of a “heavy burden” he has: that much of the world will judge his independence, and hence his efficacy, on the mark he leaves in the Fertile Crescent.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy In Focus ( on UN and international affairs. More of his work is available on

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