Ban Ki-moon, the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations, is wrapping up his second and final five-year term with the global body at the end of this year. His dedication to the U.N. is strong and personal — he was a recipient of U.N. assistance during and after the Korean War. However, U.N. supporters have criticized him as being, in the words of The Economist, “the dullest — and among the worst” of the individuals serving in that capacity.
Although Ban has had his problems, this characterization is unfair.
I first met him when he was South Korea’s deputy foreign minister, years before he became the U.N. chief. Ban was a sharp and engaging diplomat, with a keen interest and knowledge in global affairs. It didn’t surprise me that he eventually moved up to be foreign minister in 2004.
I was one of the early supporters of Ban’s candidacy for the top post at the U.N. Although he was not considered a serious contender at the beginning of the 2006 secretary-general selection process, he ran a good campaign and ultimately prevailed.
The past nine years have been challenging for the U.N.Ban has received criticism — some fair, some undeserved — for failing to resolve problems and crises confronting the world body during his tenure. Indeed, my own organization, The Heritage Foundation, has been a frequent critic of the U.N. during his tenure.
But it seems that Ban has been held up for special scorn by those who traditionally champion the organization.
Looking back, U.N. devotees have been quick to excuse the failings of previous secretaries-general. Frequently, they quote Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, who described the office as “the most impossible job on this earth.”
Indeed, it is a difficult job. The secretary-general has limited authority and must constantly navigate between the competing interests of the U.N.’s 193 member states.
But the job is made even more difficult by the unrealistic expectations of its strongest advocates.
Consider the perspective of James Traub of the Center on International Cooperation: “The U.N. secretary-general is often called ‘the secular pope’ because his position permits him, indeed compels him, to speak on behalf of all men and women. The world is his flock. Like the pope, he has none of the usual instruments of power, but he does have great moral authority — if he possesses the gift of exercising it.”
What person could meet this standard? The bottom line is that the secretary-general can climb the bully pulpit, but has very little real power at his disposal.
The demands for the secretary-general to take up the flag on various moral causes are endless: development, human rights, gender equality, climate, sustainability, resolving conflicts, and on and on. Repeatedly sounding the alarm on so many issues depreciates the currency of the secretary-general’s limited power. After a while, the clarity of the bully pulpit fades into indistinct clamor and din.
Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, is often praised for his record. He used his charm to great effect in putting himself in the spotlight and highlighting various issues. But let us not forget, the U.N. also experienced significant failings under Annan, including the biggest financial scandal in its history.
Ban took up this challenge, but far less appreciated by the press and the broader public is the management side of the secretary-general’s job. But this is really where the secretary-general should focus his efforts. The U.N. Charter specifically assigns the secretary-general only one function: to be the organization’s chief administrative officer, not a secular pope.
This job is more than enough to occupy the time of the secretary-general. The United Nations has major responsibilities, including thousands of specific tasks and mandates assigned it by the Security Council and the General Assembly.
For 2016-2017, the United Nations‘ regular budget was $5.4 billion. It has more than 10,000 professional and general service employees. The U.N. also deployed, as of July 31, more than 118,000 uniformed and civilian personnel in 16 peacekeeping operations around the world, with a budget of $7.9 billion.
The secretary-general is expected to oversee all of this while lacking the authority to shift resources and personnel to meet waxing and waning priorities. He is burdened, in the meantime, by antiquated mandates, regulations and human resource practices, all while working under the constraints of member states that have resisted efforts to address these problems or to improve oversight, transparency and accountability. Ban has worked closely with the U.S. and other major contributors to constrain budget growth over the past few biennial budgets and improve fiscal transparency.
Any fair evaluation of his tenure has to acknowledge his failings. But Secretary-General Ban has served the international organization with a high degree of dedication and an earnest attempt to improve it. That may not deserve a ticker tape parade, but it merits our respect.
Ed Feulner is the founder of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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