- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

UNITED NATIONS | On the eve of the annual meeting here of world leaders, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon complained that he is perceived as “invisible” and that neither he nor his organization gets enough credit for efforts to reform and to alleviate global ills.

The United Nations is “underappreciated” by governments and often the press, Mr. Ban said, in part because the world body doesn’t trumpet its successes. Member states, he added, are often the root causes of the organization’s all-too-frequent deadlocks.

“There is unfair criticism,” Mr. Ban told The Washington Times in an interview. “We are dependent on the resources given by member states. There is a huge lack of political will to support the United Nations. It’s easy to criticize.”

But Mr. Ban, the first Asian secretary-general since U-Thant of Burma served from 1961 to 1971, acknowledged that his own reticent style contributes to the impression that he and the organization he heads are not particularly effective.

“My problem is that I do not talk too much,” he told The Times late last week. “I’m just seen as invisible. … We have [had] many distinguished secretary-generals. … They have done their best, and I’m doing my best. I’m sure I’m doing even more in terms of time and energy, but I do not make it known. I just do what I need to do.”

Throughout the U.N. system - a vast bureaucracy with offices on every continent and 192 capitals to answer to - there are concerns that Mr. Ban is too isolated in his decision-making, falling back on a management style better suited to the South Korean Foreign Ministry he used to run rather than a raucous global enterprise.

He has sought to satisfy the United States - which contributes 22 percent of the organization’s $3.8 billion annual budget - by pressing for reform and stricter ethical standards. But his efforts to bring transparency and accountability often have been thwarted.

For example, the U.N. Development Program rejected his request to pay reparations to a whistleblower as required by a U.N. ethics committee; top managers have filed financial disclosure forms, but none save Mr. Ban has made them public; and efforts to improve cooperation between departments have been hampered by familiar turf wars.

In Turin, Italy, this summer, during an annual meeting of senior U.N. officials, Mr. Ban ripped into his team for failing to make progress on reform.

“We often complain that member states micromanage us. But I have found over the past 20 months that it is more us, rather than member states, who are the micromanagers,” he said in remarks that were quickly leaked to the press. “We must change our U.N. culture. We must move faster. Simplify. Deregulate. Decentralize.”

In the interview in his wood-paneled office overlooking the East River and the Queens skyline, Mr. Ban vented his frustration that the organization has been so difficult to reshape.

“Last year when I led by example, nobody followed,” he said sadly, referring to filling out financial disclosure forms. But he asserted that progress had been made. “Now almost all senior advisers above the director level have done so” even though the documents have not been made public.

In large public settings, Mr. Ban sometimes seems wooden, with heavily accented English overshadowing a mastery of the language accumulated during years in top diplomatic posts after earning his master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

In private, he can be charming: the voice clearer, the thoughts profound and well-articulated.

Diplomats say he can be remarkably forthcoming when he is at ease, and also blunt behind closed doors.

“He’s a bulldog when he gets something in his teeth,” said a top aide to Mr. Ban who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “He can be brutal behind closed doors. It’s a cultural style. It makes journalists unhappy, but it produces better results.”

Mr. Ban, 64, is acutely aware of criticism and vexed by comparisons to his charismatic predecessor, Kofi Annan.

“I’m personally troubled on many occasions when I am compared with my predecessors,” he said plaintively. “Different circumstances require different leadership styles.”

Like Mr. Annan, Mr. Ban faces the difficult task of satisfying the current U.S. administration - which stresses human rights, security issues and U.N. reform - and poorer nations that want him to take the lead on development and globalization issues.

Mr. Ban won his position in large part because of strong support from the Bush administration, which was angered by Mr. Annan’s vocal opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and by a scandal over corruption in a U.N. program that sold Iraqi oil ostensibly to benefit the Iraqi people.

“We think he’s doing a fine job,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “We are working very well with him on a number of issues. He has a hard job. … He has a number of different constituencies beyond the United States.”

However, Nile Gardiner, a U.N. specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Ban was a “mixed bag” from the U.S. perspective: “less hostile” than Mr. Annan but not necessarily “more successful.”

“We don’t see open attacks on U.S. or British foreign policy, but he’s not an outstanding figure in terms of standing up to dictators,” Mr. Gardiner said.

Mr. Ban replies that he is privately critical and points to “heated and emotional” exchanges he says he has had with the autocratic rulers of Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma.

“People seem to believe that just speaking out on a certain issue is something good, but there are many different ways of resolving these issues,” he said. “I have spoken more than enough on Iranian nuclear issues. … On Darfur, I have spoken in a very heated and emotional way with President [Omar] Bashir. On Georgia, I have spoken out about territorial integrity. As secretary-general, you need to look at all the aspects comprehensively, how to resolve the issues in a harmonious and constructive way.”

Mr. Ban also has made global warming a major priority. He has convened regional meetings on the matter, and will chair a global conference on climate change in Copenhagen next year.

“It was me who really raised the awareness of the international community,” he said. “Even two years ago, there was not much debate about climate change. Now climate change has become one of the most serious issues in the world in the mind of world leaders.”

He is seeking explicit benchmarks and targets. “A global universal agreement, very effective, balanced, inclusive and ratifiable treaty” is the goal, he said. “Inclusive means all the countries of the world must get on board, including the United States.”

During the General Assembly’s annual debate - a two-week marathon of sessions with foreign leaders, public speeches and achingly formal diplomacy - Mr. Ban said he will have more than 100 bilateral meetings and maintain a schedule that starts with 7:30 a.m. breakfasts and extends well into the night.

Aides and friends say that the schedule is rigid and demanding, but not so alien to an acknowledged workaholic.

His wife, Yoo Soon-taek, whom he met in high school more than 45 years ago, complained that Mr. Ban brought global warming reports to the beach during their Barbados vacation last summer. And concerned staffers wondered whether there was a way to block his cell phone and e-mail while the couple visited Jackson Hole, Wyo., last month.

Mr. Ban said he enjoyed the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening performance last week but was acutely aware that the pleasure consumed four precious evening hours.

Most of all, he asks for more time before critics make up their minds about his tenure. History, he says, will be his judge “and that is fair and fine.”

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