UN chief Ban Ki-moon may have almost blown his chances for re-election by antagonizing Moscow over the Balkans in 2008 but he has since focussed on pleasing the United States, Russia and other big UN powers, making his re-election a certainty.
The South Korean UN secretary-general has gained a reputation at the world body as a staunch friend of the United States and its Western allies, and has managed to keep China happy and placate Russia, UN officials and diplomats say.
His management of the big powers, they say, is why the secretary-general is set to breeze to victory on Tuesday, when the 192-nation General Assembly votes on his reappointment, Reuters reports.
Ban has won warm praise from most of the big powers in his campaign. He is running unopposed and is seen winning handily, after Russia and the other 14 members of the UN Security Council endorsed his bid Friday. His new term would start next January 1, 2012.
Ban’s re-election would come in spite of a certain amount of dissatisfaction with him in the developing world.
Some diplomats there complain that the former South Korean foreign minister has a tendency to echo the positions of the White House or State Department, and they interpret this as a sign that he may be coordinating his moves with Washington.
Arab envoys say Ban’s statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often similar to America’s.
“You might want to call him a US ‘yes man’,” an African diplomat told Reuters.
But Ban has won over a more powerful constituency — the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
In recent weeks, a White House spokesman credited him with “important reforms.” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe praised his “very solid experience and … authority.” China lauded Ban’s “great contributions.”
UN officials deny that the secretary-general coordinates with Washington, though they acknowledge that his views often sound similar to America’s.
They say this stems from a shared world view on the part of the 67-year-old diplomat, who they say believes in Western bedrock principles of democracy, freedom and human rights and watched the United States rebuild his country after the Korean War.
“It isn’t that we’re Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” a senior U.N. official told Reuters about Ban and the United States. “It’s more that we see the world similarly.”
Ban has been travelling constantly for the past month and was unavailable for an interview, aides said. In a speech announcing his re-election bid this month, the secretary-general touted his record in brokering compromise: “Throughout my time in office, I have sought to be a bridge-builder.”
ANTITHESIS OF ANNAN
The big powers like Ban for some of the very reasons the U.S. and others disdained his predecessor, Kofi Annan.
Although he got on with Washington during his first term, the veteran African diplomat infuriated the Bush administration after his re-election by calling the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 “illegal.” Ban keeps a lower profile and tries hard to avoid stepping on the toes of powers like Washington.
“The secretary-general is far too much of a diplomat and far too pragmatic to burn bridges with any member state,” the senior UN official said.
A senior Western official summed up the big powers’ attitude towards Ban in a meeting with several reporters earlier this year: “It’s not as if he’s lightning in a bottle, but we can live with him.”
Ban has his public detractors. Sri Lanka has been furious with him about an investigative panel he set up that suggested government forces might have committed war crimes as they finished off the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. Tehran has said that Ban is “under the influence of some powers” and accused him of interfering in Iran’s internal affairs.
RUN-IN WITH RUSSIA
Although Ban has successfully navigated the often-competing interests of the five permanent Security Council members with the power to veto his second term, he has had run-ins with some of them.
Russia, several UN officials and diplomats told Reuters, went so far as to threaten to veto Ban’s second term because Moscow was unhappy with what it saw as his support for an independent Kosovo after the Albanian-majority government declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.
Faced with a Security Council deadlock on Kosovo, Ban refused to back down from a plan to transfer UN authority in Kosovo to an EU rule-of-law mission.
But he later pleased Russia and Serbia, which do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, by ensuring that UN troops would maintain authority over predominantly Serbian parts of Kosovo.
The Russian UN delegation denies that Moscow threatened to veto Ban’s reappointment. Russia joined the rest of the council on Friday in recommending that the General Assembly give Ban a second term. The assembly is expected to formally confirm it on Tuesday.
Soon after taking office, Ban suffered a public-relations blow when footage of him ducking behind a podium after an explosion in Baghdad in March 2007 was shown for days. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki didn’t flinch.
“It was perfectly understandable,” a UN official said. “People duck. But it sent the wrong message as we were … returning to Iraq after the (2003) bomb attack on the UN”
Then there was a scathing internal memo from Norway’s deputy UN ambassador, Mona Juul, leaked to the Norwegian press in August 2009. That memo, a midterm assessment of Ban sent to her government, described Ban as a “spineless and charmless Secretary-General.”
Late last year, Ban was accused by human rights groups of failing to bring up the issue of detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
To date, Ban hasn’t publicly congratulated Liu for receiving the award or publicly called for his release. A senior UN official denied that Ban had played down Liu during his China visit even though he did not discuss him with Hu.
“We brought it up with everybody else — the entire coalition of China’s leadership,” the official said. “And we brought it up very, very strenuously.”
The officials acknowledge there are limits to the amount of criticism China can take from Ban. “It’s a political job at the end of the day,” a senior Western envoy said.
Ban’s image in the democratic world improved this year with his support for the Arab Spring demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa. UN officials point out that the U.N. chief was ahead of Washington in urging former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to heed protesters’ calls for change.
He also took sides in Ivory Coast after Alassane Ouattara won a UN-certified presidential election in November 2010 that incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo rejected. Gbagbo ordered UN peacekeepers out of the country but Ban refused to budge. Gbagbo was ousted in April after months of civil war.
A BOOST FROM BOLTON
Ban’s promises of reforming a UN administration that many in Washington see as bloated and corrupt have fallen short of what the United States wanted. But Washington still likes Ban.
“He’s not president of the world, he’s not commander-in-chief of the world’s armies,” former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told Reuters. “Understanding that limited role is important.”
Bolton, Washington’s UN envoy under George W. Bush when Ban was elected in 2006, said his low-key style was one of Ban’s best traits: “That is appropriate for a secretary-general, who is not an independent political figure.”
US officials say that the Obama administration’s assessment of Ban is similar to Bolton’s.
David Bosco, professor of international affairs at American University in Washington, said Ban knew how to survive at the helm of the United Nations.
“The secretaries-general who’ve failed to get full second terms have antagonized one of the permanent five Security Council members,” he said. He cited Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who clashed repeatedly with U.S. diplomats in the 1990s. Washington vetoed his bid for a second due to his handling of Bosnia.
Among Ban’s principal successes, UN officials say, are focussing greater attention on climate change and peace, security and poverty in Africa and elsewhere, and creating a new U.N. women’s agency. But they acknowledge that climate talks are stalled and there are unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, Western Sahara, Cyprus and elsewhere.
“The SG (secretary-general) is the first to say that there’s unfinished business,” a senior U.N. official said, adding that Ban prefers quiet diplomacy to “podium-pounding.”