Ban Ki-moon stepped down as U.N. Secretary-General after ten years on January 1, leaving behind a legacy marked by almost total obedience to Washington.
The U.N.’s legitimacy rests on its neutrality, and a secretary-general’s reputation on the ability to navigate a course independent of the major powers and in defence of the world’s population. That’s how Dag Hammarskjöld defined it. The second secretary-general set the standard against which his successors are judged.
“The right of the Secretariat to full independence, as laid down in the Charter, is an inalienable right,” he said shortly after his election in 1953. The U.N.’s purpose, he said, was not to submit to the major powers but to seek “solutions which approach the common interest.”
Despite his elite background, his defence of the “common interest” distinguished Hammarskjöld and alarmed the world’s elites. His championing of the common interest of Africans and other colonized people put him at odds with apartheid South Africa, the U.S. and colonial Britain. It may have led to his death, as I reported in 2014.
“The discretion and impartiality required of the Secretary-General may not degenerate into a policy of expedience,” Hammarskjöld said. When he also angered the Soviet Union, which demanded his resignation, he responded: “It is very easy to resign. It is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wishes of a Big Power. It is another matter to resist.”
Daring to Criticize Washington
No other Secretary-General has come close to Hammarskjöld’s independence or his inventiveness in creating peacekeeping and personal mediation.
U Thant played an important role in the Cuban missile crisis for which he’s never given credit, and he early on opposed the Vietnam War. He was snubbed by LBJ on a trip to Washington to discuss the war but eventually the Paris peace process was built on many of U Thant’s ideas.
Kurt Waldheim dared criticize the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and Nixon publicly berated him in a press conference, dismissing him as a dupe of the Communists.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s insubordination to Washington in defending developing countries in the face of America’s post-Cold War, unilateralist expansion into spaces vacated by the Soviet Union cost him a second term. He had the temerity to tell Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., that Washington was his “problem.” Albright told him that he was her problem.
“Coming from a developing country,” Boutros-Ghali wrote in his memoir, “I was trained extensively in international law and diplomacy, and mistakenly assumed that the great powers, especially the United States, also trained their representatives in diplomacy and accepted the value of it. But the Roman Empire had no need of diplomacy. Neither does the United States.”
Kofi Annan, the only sub-Saharan secretary-general, was a proponent of U.S. initiatives: the controversial responsibility to protect doctrine of military intervention (as applied in Kosovo) and a U.N. partnership with private corporations, the so-called Global Compact, ultimately giving U.N. cover for neo-liberal and multi-national misdeeds.
Though a darling of Washington, Annan crossed the line when he told an insistent BBC interviewer that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was “illegal.” The Bush administration made the remainder of his second term miserable. They tried to pin the Oil-for-Food scandal on him, though it was a program run by the Security Council.
By contrast, the South Korean Ban was seen by the Americans as their man from the start. We “got exactly what we asked for”: an administrator and not an activist, said John Bolton, America’s irascible U.N. ambassador when Ban was elected in 2005. The U.N. charter doesn’t call the secretary-general “president of the world” or “chief poet and visionary,” Bolton said sarcastically in an interview with me and a colleague for The Wall Street Journal.
Ban said his “biggest blunder” until then had been in 2001 when, as South Korea’s chairman of its nuclear test-ban treaty organization, he wrote a letter in favor of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty just a few months after George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the treaty. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung issued a public apology and fired Ban for his impertinence. It was the act of a vassal state and a servile diplomat.
Once he was installed at the U.N. in 2007, Ban broke with tradition by naming Americans–two former State Department diplomats–to be his chief political officers during his ten-year tenure. They brought with them a State Department perspective to the most politically influential job in the organization.
Ban carefully toed the U.S. line in his public pronouncements. Though, as I reported, he privately fumed over Saudi behavior in Yemen and in its dealings with the U.N., he never dared blame America’s ally. Likewise, on occasions when Ban sharply criticized Israel for its bombardment of U.N. schools in Gaza, killing scores of innocent people, he spoke only after the State Department had made the same criticism, almost word for word.
When the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed U.S. mass surveillance of people all over the world, Ban condemned Snowden rather than defend the common interest.
In ten years, he failed to distinguish himself on a single African issue, merely endorsing whatever the U.S., Britain and France were up to on the continent.
Ban entered office as the geo-strategic battle of our times was heating up: America’s unilateral push for global hegemony versus an emerging multi-polar world, led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The BRICS held their first formal summit in 2006, just months before Ban took office.
As the premiere multilateral organization, the U.N. would seem like a natural ally. But Ban backed the U.S. in every geo-strategic question against Russia and China during his time in office. On Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea Ban parroted Washington and made no effort to mediate. He never condemned the U.S.-backed coup in Kiev or its support for extremists in Syria, which Russia has confronted. He called for regime change in Damascus (only after Obama did.)
Ban was a prominent champion in the struggle to combat climate change. It was a position fully endorsed by the Obama administration, but denied by Trump.
The new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, is inheriting crises that bedeviled Ban. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and head of the U.N.’s refugee agency, whom I interviewed a couple of years ago for an hour without any handlers present, is smart, realistic and is outspoken in favor of multilateralism. It won’t be long before it’s known if he will cross swords with the Trump administration, in the tradition of Hammarskjöld, or go the way of Ban and let Washington always get its way.