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Friday, June 10, 2011

Round two for a U.N. workaholic


LOS ANGELES — What's surprising about the probable confirmation of incumbent United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for a second five-year term is not its near-certainty. It is the virtual lack of controversy surrounding it.

If you judged the former South Korean foreign minister's first term solely by the generally critical news media coverage of it, you might be led to conclude that his tenure has been a failure.

And, yet, the probability is that the member states of the Security Council and the General Assembly will react to his formal announcement of candidacy this week with little dissent at all.

So the question we might want to ask is: Why in the world is that? Why do we read and see one version of reality in our news media, and yet the true reality would appear to be something quite different. There are several reasons.

The first is that the vast percentage of the negative coverage of Ban's first term has come from the news media of the West. You can troll all day in the news media of Asia, for example, and be hard-pressed to find much disapproval of this quiet man.

To be sure, you might be tempted to dismiss this virtual negative-news blackout as homeboy favoritism. Or it just might be that much of Asia is actually pretty comfortable with Ban's performance, noting that at least his administration has not been hit with the kind of embarrassing scandals that plagued the administration of his predecessor Kofi Annan.

Absent as well has been the kind of dysfunctional antagonism from the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that confined to one term the U.N. career of Annan's predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

There is an additional, related reason. The fact of matter is that much of the non-Western world loathes us Western journalists and our constant sock-em-in-the-eye faultfinding approach to everything. Negative but honest journalism has its place but too much of it is depressing, like rank bad weather.

It might not even be too much to suggest that Ban's chance for renewal only increased in the eyes of some Asian member states with each negative story in the Western press.

Certainly Beijing, whose influence in this U.N. process these days cannot be overestimated, has had little but contempt for the general Western coverage of Ban's work. Having agreed in 2006 to Ban's candidacy in concurrence with Washington — a particularly useful example of substantive Sino-American cooperation at the highest level — Beijing was not about to have its judgment second-guessed by so-called news media experts anywhere, especially in the West.

The enormous and disproportionate influence of the Western news media on the world media stage, even as it is being eroded daily by the free-for-all of the Internet, sometimes boomerangs. As, for example, it did in this case.

Yet another factor is the considerable loathing — in Beijing and elsewhere, but particularly in Asia — of the media's insatiable appetite for what is usually termed charisma.

Over and over and over, the Western media especially has correctly reported that Ban doesn't have much of it, to which his many supporters retort: So what? How shall we define charisma and is it more chimera than content?

Questioning the value of charisma is particularly relevant in assessing Ban. While he certainly is not, as has been pointed out by one senior Western official who declined to be identified, "lightning in a bottle," he has brought to the U.N. a number of other qualities that make you suspect that maybe charisma (however defined) is overrated. And what might some of these qualities be?

For starters: basic and indeed advanced competence. Ban has been a professional diplomat all his life and his last non-U.N. job — that of South Korean foreign minister — is no joke (especially when you consider what lurks up north, and who else prowls around that difficult neighborhood).

Ban has also previously served at the U.N. in New York and had done so with distinction. Notably, he has not feared to put the U.N. behind the toughest issues, especially global warming.

What's more, Ban has demonstrated in his first term a quality that has impressed even those who are not the biggest of Ban fans at the U.N.: workaholism.

OK, so you don't get a flashy showboat; but you do get an endlessly tireless and wholly competent worker. This is not exactly a worthless commodity to have as the U.N.'s No. 1, especially when critics in the U.S. Congress and everywhere else never tire of complaining about inefficiency, waste and malfeasance at the U.N. (as if there is none in Congress . . . or, say, the International Monetary Fund . . . don't get me started!).

So how much is a pound of solid workaholism worth compared to a pound of preening charisma?

I don't know but it looks like a many member-states of the U.N. believe it is worth more than nothing. This is why Ban is getting a second term. He is a worker. And as you may have noticed lately, the world sure does need a lot of work.

So guess what: Some people think a guy who works hard and is obviously honest and tries the best with what has been given to him (both genetically, and institutionally) deserves a pat on the back — and in this case five more years in office.

Makes sense to me.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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