Reading the Ban

Ban Ki Moon needs to put some distance between himself and Washington: John Bolton could help — by attacking him.

After the invasion of Iraq, a BBC reporter backed Kofi Annan into a corner. Beleaguered by the conservative media, Annan had never explicitly endorsed the war but had tried to keep lines open to Washington by not attacking it either. However, the persistent reporter wrung an admission that the war was “illegal”.

That extorted comment put him on the firing line with those American politicians and media commentators for whom the United Nations is axiomatically always wrong anyway, but who are always eager to find new reasons to back their prejudices.

In contrast, this week, when a German reporter from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was asking Ban Ki Moon how he proposed to resolve that perennial friction between the US and the UN, the new secretary general seemed to be occupying a parallel universe. He replied, “The US plays the main role in the coalition forces in Iraq. America has suffered many casualties. Nobody can doubt that America has played a major role in stabilizing Iraq. We have to appreciate the contribution of the US and their sacrifices. How the US will develop their military presence and strategies in future, they will have to decide themselves, in close cooperation with the coalition forces. The UN will not directly be involved in this.”

Even most Americans now seriously question just how much “stability” the US has contributed to Iraq, so this seems to be taking politeness to rather unrealistic extremes. Or it could reflect a South Korean foreign office view, which sees the world with an event horizon encompassed by Russia, China, Japan, North Korea — and the US as an essential counterbalance. It is not, incidentally a view shared by all South Koreans, a surprising number of whom resent the American presence even in the face of the unprepossessing Kim Jong Il whose response to global calls for downsizing government has been to wear platform shoes.

Certainly Ban has betrayed some lack of appreciation of the finer points of the Middle East until now, instinctively taking the American view — on a recent visit to East Jerusalem where he met a group of Palestinian notables he seemed to be under the impression he was in Israel an impression shared only by the Knesset — since no other government recognizes the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, and the official position of the UN and its members is that until there is a peace settlement, both East and West Jerusalem are supposed to be a UN-administered “corpus separatum”, which precludes them being either Palestinian or Israeli capitals without a further resolution.

There are some signs that he is learning about the region quickly — aided in part by the Guardian‘s leaking of his former envoy Alvaro de Soto’s accurate critique. Only last week, Ban broke with his previous precedent by suggesting that the Israelis should be less eager to use tanks to fire in built up areas.

But he seems to be having difficulty understanding the US-UN relationship, and has not learnt from its history. Both Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan went as far they could to accommodate a demanding Washington, but in the end had to draw a line when they realized that anything other than unconditional surrender to every whim of the White House and Congress would be attacked as an anti-American posture.

Ban’s uncritically enthusiastic adoption of an American “reform agenda”, and his applied acceptance of neocon critiques of previous secretaries-general distorts reality. The UN’s under-secretaries for management under both Boutros Ghali and Annan were American presidential patronage appointees, which should have made him think twice about the American media’s ritual incantations of waste, mismanagement and corruption at the UN.

There is little doubt that Ban Ki Moon sincerely believes in what he is doing. He differs strongly with the US on the International Criminal Court, on the death penalty and other issues, and was clearly miffed when the US disrupted his arduously relentless diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese President with an ill-timed bout of sanctions.

In fact, that, along with the funny business about UN peacekeeping dues where the US votes for operations, indeed often proposes them, and then does not fund its full share of their costs, should have taught Ban a lesson. There is a significant constituency in the United States, ranging from reincarnated isolationists to uninhibited unilateralists, for whom the UN is always wrong. Pandering to them will get him no favours, and alienates most other members of the organization, which is most countries in the world. Indeed, it could alienate most Americans who now see the failures and costs of faith-based policies.

He should put some distance from the failed policies of a failed administration. Perhaps to establish his own credibility the best thing he could do is to provoke the former uncomfirmed US ambassador John Bolton, who has so far been praising him, into denouncing him. Maybe a long speech of support for the International Criminal Court, attacking the bilateral agreements that Bolton secured, opting Americans out of its jurisdiction, would do the trick. It would do wonders for Ban’s image with members and staff alike.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Kax said on July 18th, 2007 at 11:35am #


    Interesting commentary on UN/US/Bolton/Ban.


  2. Kax said on July 18th, 2007 at 11:44am #

    I loved the UN and everything for which it stands. I remember growing up, not far from the UN in NY, as it was being created. After THE WAR , the whiole world placed its hope for world peace in th