Adrian Hamilton: Another in the long line of ineffective UN leaders

It's not that anyone has anything against Ban Ki-Moon, but no one has much for him either
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The flags should be flying at half mast over the United Nations on Monday. If all goes according to schedule, the global organisation will confirm yet another in a long line of ineffectual and largely powerless functionaries as its next Secretary General.

It's not that anyone has anything particularly against Ban Ki-Moon, the South Korean foreign minister who has already gained a decisive majority of the members of the Security Council, including a unanimous approval from the five permanent members.

But then, no one has very much for him either. Ever since he applied for the job last February, Ki-Moon has assiduously courted the members of the UN and, more important, made certain he made no enemies. His speeches have been bland, his vision non-existent, his grasp of world events limited. He believes in "reform" of the institution - who doesn't?- but not much else.

Why has he floated so unremarkably to the top of the list? You can blame it partly on the UN's arcane system of voting, with its unspoken assumption that the secretary generalship should revolve around regions, and then puts the whole process through an opaque process of choice. This time it was Asia's turn, and the candidates were limited to a small field of half-a-dozen professional bureaucrats and diplomats like Ki-Moon who put their names forward.

You could also blame it on the Iraq war, which has so divided the Security Council and the UN's principal members that the least contentious candidate became the most easily acceptable.

Coming from South Korea, Mr Ki-Moon was clearly welcome to the US, Seoul's closest ally. He raised no objections from the Chinese, who are now quite comfortable with the extent to which South Korea has fallen within its sphere of influence. As for the UK, France, Russia and the mass of ordinary members of the UN, so long as Ki-Moon was acceptable to those two, they saw no reason to object. And he made sure that he gave them nothing to object to.

But the really worrying thing about the choice of Ban Ki-Moon is not that the system threw up such a poor list of candidates, but that the major powers didn't want better. The UN has had such a poor record of secretary generals because that is what has suited the Security Council, and particularly its permanent members.

Washington's attitude to the institution is well known. It regards it as an expensive, bothersome fact of life that cannot be abolished but should be kept to as mundane a role as possible.

But it is equally true of the French and British as the Chinese and Russians. They like the influence that members of the Security Council gives them, but none of them has the faintest desire for the UN to develop an active role that might cut across their interests. It should help them pursue their interests and policies but not at their expense.

Maybe this was all right during the Cold War, when the UN primarily served as a convenient means for the two great powers to negotiate their stand-offs and the world at large could be fobbed off with the appearance of influence through jobs and money from the UN and its associate enterprises.

But now that the Cold War has ended and power in the world has become more fluid, the role of the UN has proved more vital yet less certain. The melting of the Cold War ice has revealed a host of regional tensions and reduced the means of controlling them. The US remained as the sole superpower, but Iraq has shown the limit of its power. Europe has failed to cohere as an alternative source of authority. China is too driven by its nationalist needs to perform the role.

Kofi Annan's failure as Secretary General has not been so much that he has been weak - although even his supporters would never claim him as a statesman - but that he couldn't resolve the confused desires of his paymasters.

He was fine so long as he was a bureaucrat seeking to reduce costs and clean up the organisation. He fell as soon as he was asked to act as an umpire over Iraq or to perform a proactive role in the disasters of Rwanda and the Balkans. If he had acted more robustly, perhaps the UN could have done more to prevent the massacres there. But he was chosen, just as Ban Ki-Moon, in the first instance, precisely because he wouldn't act on his own initiative or extend the role of the UN in a manner unacceptable to Washington.

The conflicts and pressures of the 21st century world are not going to go away, nor the call on the UN to solve them. You only have to look to the Middle East, or Africa, to see that. The UN is needed not so much as a supranational power or some institution of global governance. It is needed because there are too many explosive tensions that cannot be resolved at national or regional level, nor, after Iraq, through the good offices of the US as a global policeman. The world at large demands intervention and resolution.

Ban Ki-Moon, 62, a man forged in the Cold War and the diplomacy of the last century, isn't the person to lead the UN to the new world emerging now. The best that can be hoped is that he won't make too many mistakes, or upset the US and the other members of the Security Council too much, while waiting for Bush and Blair to leave the stage and a new generation of better leaders to take their place.