A big picture can be clearly seen from a distance. Only historians are likely to properly judge the truly remarkable achievements of the most invisible secretary-general in the history of the United Nations — Ban Ki-moon.
His short-sighted critics like to contrast him with “charming” Kofi Annan and “dashing” Dag Hammarskjold, painting Ban as being “passive,” “powerless,” “feckless,” and “colorless.” But, they tend to lose the sight of the forest behind the trees.
When Ban inherited one of the toughest jobs on the planet 10 years ago, the world’s organization was mired in the corruption and mismanagement scandals, facing mounting budget deficits and the great powers increasingly tired of combating “dangerously charismatic” and unresponsive Annan.
It was Ban whom the world leaders of the time called for the rescue. And, an unassuming South Korean diplomat rose to the occasion and proved himself as an astute statesman, great leader of a global organization, and a visionary advocate of universal values and the public good for the benefit of all humanity.
Humble, industrious and amiable Ban, who is not a talker but a doer, proved to be a very effective central administrative officer, who turned the United Nations around by pushing internal reforms that balanced the budget, rooted out corruption and introduced new codes of conduct for U.N. employees.
Under his fair and balanced leadership, the United Nations unequivocally denounced North Korean WMD provocations and military threats and imposed tough sanctions on Pyongyang for repeated violations of the U.N. Security Council resolutions. He condemned human rights atrocities in Syria and organized effective relief for hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Middle East and Africa. Under his watch, the U.N. successfully carried out numerous peace-keeping operations around the world.
His major forward-looking achievement was the successful conclusion of the landmark climate change agreement at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015, a signature project of his entire tenure that will benefit the entire mankind for generations to come.
Some of his impatient critics insist that the U.N. should have reacted faster to global crises and done more to solve the world’s problems. But Ban had to work within the confines of the international law, respect the opinions of the veto-wielding powers of the U.N. Security Council, and operate under the severe constraints imposed on him by a large multinational bureaucracy accustomed to moving at a glacial pace and mostly by inertia. While pushing the proverbial envelope as far as he could, he understood that international diplomacy was the art of the possible.
Ban Ki-moon’s greatest achievement — the continued effectiveness of the United Nations as a universal platform for public expression of diverse, albeit often opposite opinions, and a global mechanism for peaceful conflict resolution among nation-states — can probably be appreciated from the future vantage point.
We live at the time when renewed and escalating East-West conflict undermines one after another existing international institutions, from G-8 to PACE. Historians remind us that the League of Nations collapsed when some great powers were isolated or decided to walk away from it, and its disappearance eventually led to the outbreak of the Second World War in the 1930s.
Ban Ki-moon deserves a lot of credit as the man whose “invisible” hand masterfully steered the United Nations between Scylla and Charybdis and saved it from taking sides, falling victim to great powers rivalries during the emerging second Cold War, and ending up in the dustbin of history just as its ill-famous predecessor.
Alexandre Y. Mansourov, Ph.D., is a former diplomat and security practitioner. He is currently professor of security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and professor of Asian studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
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