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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006

Fresh leadership at the United Nations


NEW YORK -- The world has no sure idea of what it may be getting with its newly designated United Nations secretary general. Ban Ki Moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, is more or less an enigma except to a small population engaged in international diplomacy.

What's more, there is another, different population that could not care less about the character and talent of the incoming U.N. secretary general. For they have long ago given up any hope in the utility and relevance of this world organization that was forged together in the shattered aftermath of World War II.

The latter is the group that would prefer to convert the iconic U.N. secretariat building on the East River of Manhattan into something like a large furniture warehouse. Fiery letters to the editor of the New York Post last week said it all, not only about the institution but about its outgoing leader, Kofi Annan: "corrupt and shameful," "Good riddance, Annan," "a complete failure during his tenure."

Indeed, Annan is not stepping down so much on a high note as on an ominously low one. Even the member-state delegates who rose to their feet in the cavernous General Assembly hall to offer Annan his last standing ovation knew in their hearts that the U.N. is in very serious trouble.

Annan isn't wholly to blame. But it was, after all, on his 10-year watch as U.N. chief that Darfur deteriorated into a contemporary holocaust, that the people of Bosnia were driven to hell and back, and that his close relatives became implicated in money scandals arising from the controversial Oil-for-Food program in Iraq.

And so when Annan's chosen successor rose from his seat in the VIP section to the side of the General Assembly hall to stride to the central podium for his oath of office, everyone in the room focused on this slight, soft-spoken diplomat as if he were one improbable superman.

And that he may be: History may perhaps show that this South Korean was not just the first from his country to garner this top post, but the last of its occupants who anyone will really care about. For if Ban proves to be one big bust as Annan's scandal-plagued second term turned out to be, it is hard to see this organization going anywhere except down.

Against such broad pessimism, though, can be placed a pair of generally positive facts: The first is that Ban himself would appear to be a model of integrity and trustworthiness. Throughout his many decades as a diplomat, nothing has surfaced to suggest that he is anything but a Boy Scout armed with a Harvard degree. Before this column endorsed him over the summer for this job, it sought negative opinions about his professionalism and talent, even from diplomats thought to be equally qualified candidates for the job he was to win. We could find no one who did not admire Ban.

Moreover, if hard work can work miracles, then the world may have found its U.N. miracle worker in Ban. He is a tireless workaholic who can inspire colleagues to comparable fatigue; he is a pragmatist, a listener and a careful sorter of different options. He would more likely listen than declaim, would rather understand than denounce and would prefer to look you in the eye so as to see into your soul than glad-hand you in a flurry of meaningless, phony gestures.

His style is not that of the promisor but of the doer. Few may now believe that he will be able to orchestrate significant reform of the U.N. -- but then again, no one thought he'd be able to reform South Korea's tradition-landed Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ban, we will see, is no showboat -- he is the working man's diplomat. No one will lionize him for his charismatic appearance. But for all this, paradoxically, Ban over the long run will benefit from the current negative comparisons to his predecessor.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright Tom Plate 2006.


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