[Interview] As UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon is “toward the bottom”

Posted on : 2016-06-20 17:08 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Experts says Ban hasn’t developed UN’s reputation, or expanded the organization’s moral high ground
 a meeting with senior journalists
a meeting with senior journalists

After US Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hinted that he might run for president during a visit to South Korea at the end of last month, Ban’s presidential ambitions has been provoking controversy even at the UN.

In order to get a scholarly assessment of Ban, whose term as UN Secretary-General will be over at the end of December, the Hankyoreh spoke with Thomas Weiss, 70, who is considered a scholarly authority on the UN.

Weiss, who is Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), sat down with the Hankyoreh on June 14 at the university, located in Manhattan.

When Weiss was asked to rank Ban among past UN Secretary-Generals, he placed Ban “toward the bottom.”

“There’s nothing you could say is Ban’s legacy over the past 10 years,” he added.

After completing his undergraduate studies at Harvard, Weiss received a master‘s degree and a doctorate from Princeton. He worked at various UN agencies and has been the Presidential Professor at CUNY’s political science graduate program since 1998.

Weiss is the author of numerous books about the UN and its role, including “Humanitarian Intervention,” “The United Nations and Changing World Politics,” and “Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Gwanghun Forum
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Gwanghun Forum

Hankyoreh (Hani): There has been a controversy recently about Ban Ki-moon’s removal of the Saudi-led Arab coalition from the blacklist in its 2015 report about children’s rights.

Thomas Weiss (Weiss): Obviously, Ban has a bigger problem. He always wants everyone to like him. He tries to avoid provoking not only big countries and small countries, but even mid-sized countries like Saudi Arabia. He might justify this decision by saying that Saudi Arabia will pay less money if it’s added to the list, and if that happens more women and children will suffer. But that’s a cowardly decision and a bad idea. The only weapon that the UN Secretary-General has is the ability to bring widespread attention to issues, which is based on having the moral high ground. Give that up, and the UN Secretary-General might as well be dead.

Hani: The New York Times defended Ban, saying that he was right to go public about the blackmail from Saudi Arabia, and criticized Saudi Arabia for putting pressure on him.

Weiss: Individual countries pursue their own extremely narrow interests. This is what they have always done to the UN Secretary-General since the UN was founded in 1945. On those grounds, you could criticize every country on the planet, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and Argentina.

There is nothing surprising about individual countries acting like that. I think that the UN Secretary-General ought to be standing up to individual countries. Admittedly, this is my personal opinion, but I think that Ban has consistently been very reluctant to stand up publicly to individual countries. If Ban had truly wanted to stand up to Saudi Arabia, I think he ought to have placed them on the blacklist instead of omitting them from the list and then going public about how they blackmailed him.

Hani: To be brutally honest, there has been little for the UN Secretary-General to do since the UN became a US-dominated unipolar organization after the close of the Cold War. That is, aren‘t there structural limitations that prevent the UN from escaping American influence?

Weiss: The UN Secretary-General is a moral leader who is responsible for the only organization in the world that aspires to be universal. That was true during the Cold War, and it remains true in the post-Cold War world. What did change after the Cold War was the political balance between East and West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even so, the role of the UN Secretary-General should be maintaining balance between the great powers - between the US and the Soviet Union and between the US and China.

Furthermore, in recent years there are an increasing number of issues on which the great powers see eye to eye, including human rights and humanitarian disputes. There are a number of issues on which the UN Secretary-General can play a bigger role than during the Cold War. These include protecting basic human rights, the responsibility to protect [the principle that the UN should take action when a particular country fails to protect its people from crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing] and stationing UN peacekeepers to regions following disputes in order to restore peace.

Hani: If you were to rank all of the UN Secretary-Generals, where would you place Ban?

Weiss: I guess it would depend on what standard you’re using, but he would be toward the bottom. Personally, I would place Dag Hammarskj?ld [2nd UN Secretary-General] and Kofi Annan [7th] at the top of the list. After that would be Javier Pérez de Cuéllar [5th] and Boutros Boutros-Ghali [6th]. The revelation that Waldheim had served as a soldier under the Nazis left a stain on the UN‘s reputation. I guess that Ban and Trygve Lie [1st] would be above Waldheim.

Hani: Why would you rank Ban so low?

Weiss: There’s nothing you could say is Ban’s legacy over the past 10 years.

Hani: Shouldn’t Ban get some credit for the Paris climate agreement?

Weiss: Aside from a dozen Republicans in Washington, is there anyone who doesn’t think that climate change is an important issue? I wouldn’t say that Ban deserves credit for that. Credit ought to go to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [which has recognized the risk of climate change caused by human activity].

I can’t think of any distinctive decisions or issues that Ban has made on his own. He didn’t even improve the UN’s reputation. During the past 10 years [when Ban has been in office], the UN has appeared in the news more often because of a variety of crises in Libya and Syria, but that doesn’t mean that the UN has been successful. As I see it, Ban has moved the UN closer to the periphery than to the center of global politics. Other regional organizations, civil society and the G20 are playing bigger roles than the UN.

Hani: Koreans have a tendency to see the UN Secretary-General as the “president of the world,” which is to say as someone who is more powerful than the leaders of specific countries.

Weiss: Stalin once observed that the Pope doesn’t have an army. You could say the same of the UN Secretary-General. What the UN Secretary-General can do is ask various countries for help. The Pope and the UN Secretary-General play a symbolic role on the world stage. Their role is to draw attention to issues, to put the focus to issues that are truly important, that are being neglected, or that are being hidden.

Therefore, the authority of the Secretary-General derives from moral authority, not from physical force. That’s a completely different kind of power from the power held by leaders of specific countries.

Hani: If Ban became the president of South Korea, do you think he would do well in that role?

Weiss: Since I really don’t know much about South Korea, I can’t answer that question.

Hani: After a UN Secretary-General leaves office, what do you think is the ideal way for them to contribute to the international community?

Weiss: There are many models for this. Kurt Waldheim became president of Austria. Pérez de Cuéllar ran for President of Peru but was defeated.

The most interesting role is the one that Kofi Annan has been pioneering since leaving office. He established the Kofi Annan Foundation and has been working on crisis management in Syria and Kenya and agricultural development in Africa.

If I had been UN Secretary-General, I would be more interested in doing that kind of work than becoming the leader of a certain country. But the choice of what to do after leaving office is up to the individual.

By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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