Tall order for U.N.'s new leader

January 01, 2007|By Patrick M. Cronin and Raffaello Pantucci

LONDON -- New United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who assumes office today, faces a tough job. Not only is the South Korean coming into a job as the other half of his motherland is testing the international community with nuclear saber-rattling, but he is also taking the helm at an institution that increasingly appears to have lost its way.

The United Nations' loss of credibility is in part due to a disconnect among what it can do, what people think it can do, and what it was created to do. It was never intended to be an international security guarantor, but rather a forum in which nations could work together to foster international prosperity and prevent conflicts. The Security Council was intended as a venue for powerful nations to develop a consensus, not a grouping where the world's problems could be resolved.

This is completely at odds with most people's perception of the United Nations, which they understand to be a guarantor of international peace. The result is a huge sense of disappointment and blame toward the institution whenever people suffer, resulting in a further loss of U.N. legitimacy in the world.

Wrapped up within this problem is a lack of understanding about the secretary-general's powers. The secretary-general is not a CEO but a manager in an institution made up of 192 independent members, over which he has no power of enforcement. Unfortunately, as chief bureaucrat, he bears the burden of blame for any institutional failings.

Secretary-General Ban need not inherit such a poisoned chalice. He can avoid getting too wrapped up in the minutiae of institutional repairs by appointing an able deputy to push this acrimonious agenda. In such a way, he can sidestep the problems that dogged the latter years of Kofi Annan's tenure, and instead seize the opportunity to try to implement a few strategic reforms within the United Nations.

South Korea has always been at the nexus of the major powers: able to punch well above its weight thanks to stellar economic growth and good brokering skills borne of its precarious geography. Recent events on the Korean peninsula have highlighted how much Seoul must rely on good relations with the major powers.

Mr. Ban, who comes to the United Nations as South Korea's foreign minister, can build on South Korea's special relationship to coax the United States into taking a more constructive approach to the United Nations, so that it does not simply use it as a whipping post for a domestic audience. The United Nations will never function without American support, and the United States needs the United Nations to confer the international legitimacy it craves to advance its foreign policy goals. However, the relationship will not function as it is presently structured, and future presidents must be persuaded to engage and reform the United Nations in a manner consonant with the institution's importance. The American ambassador to the United Nations can practice tough love, but he or she should understand that open derision and hostility toward the United Nations will not work to America's benefit.

In dealing with Russia and China, Mr. Ban must encourage them to take on a more global role rather than act in an obstructive or opportunistic manner. For China, this means a greater willingness to share responsibility for international order. Russia must take a step back from the meddlesome and contrarian policies of its current government, which is not simply nationalistic but at times goonishly coarse. Both are great states that should assume a worthy mantle in global affairs.

Mr. Ban should also nudge Japan further into the international fold and to dissuade it from striking out alone in a region where memories of former Japanese domination are still fresh. The European Union remains a solid U.N. supporter, but the Iraq war has done much to undermine the United Nations' credibility across the EU. An able secretary-general will be able to mend this through careful management of other relations within the United Nations and Security Council, proving to Europeans that the major powers (including the United States) are eager to support the United Nations' position as pre-eminent global consensus builder.

Finally, Indian engagement with the United Nations is necessary and can become emblematic of an institution eager to embrace and give voice to rising powers and the developing world. Ensuring that United Nations support is embedded early into India's foreign policy DNA, foundations can be laid that will help both in the short and long term.

Superseding all other concerns is the need to keep the United Nations functioning. The League of Nations failed to survive because it was not able to maintain a consensus among the major powers; the incoming secretary-general must place a heavy emphasis on nurturing a stable modus vivendi among the major powers.

Secretary-General Ban is taking the helm of an institution facing an existential crisis that is being addressed with the Band-Aid of managerial reform. Let us hope that he outsources the institutional reforms to able staff, while he concentrates on fostering a comity among the major powers that helps the United Nations reassess its crucial role in the world and starts a process of rehabilitation to restore it to its position as global peace bringer in an increasingly dangerous world.

Patrick M. Cronin is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. His e-mail is cronin@iiss.org. Raffaello Pantucci is a research associate at the institute. His e-mail is pantucci@iiss.org.

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