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Transatlantic Voices

Ban Ki-Moon's second term: the bridge to where?

On January 1 Ban Ki-Moon starts his second term as UN Secretary-General. To leave a lasting mark Ban needs to go beyond his role as a 'global bridge-builder' argues Thorsten Benner in this Transatlantic Voices column.

Ban Ki-moon

Ban Ki-moon has been the UN Secretary-General since 2007

Thorsten Benner is co-founder and associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin and a co-author of "The New World of UN Peace Operations: Learning to Build Peace?"(Oxford University Press 2011).

"This is the World Cup of diplomacy - it's happening fast and furious." These are the lines with which a recent UN-produced image video seeks to create excitement about the work of UN chief, Ban Ki-Moon.

Yet, there is precious little excitement to be found as the UN Secretary-General begins his second five-year term this Sunday. Not among UN member states who in a rare show of unity re-elected Ban unanimously in June not least because his unexciting style does not cause them much trouble. Not among UN staff who do not seem to be fired up by the prospect of having Ban as their boss for another half decade.

Thorsten Benner

Thorsten Benner

And not among the world public where Ban's hard and committed daily work as the UN's standard-bearer mostly goes unnoticed. Ban's lack of rhetorical skills tends to make him a non-entity for the global media. Virtually the only one excited seems to be Ban himself. In the promotional video he proclaims: "I start every morning as if this is the first day in my office as Secretary-General."

Presumably, part of what keeps Ban going is the pride in his record as a self-styled "harmonizer and bridge-builder - among the member states, within the United Nations system and among a rich diversity of global partners." At a time of momentous geopolitical shifts and global crises, this is no small feat. Unfortunately, this will not be enough to turn himself into an effective leader of the world's premier universal body for the years to come.

Building bridges is a fine pursuit. But at long as it remains unclear where these bridges lead and as long as the world's pivotal powers refuse to cross them in the right direction it is also a rather futile activity. Right now, at the UN the old powers of the West all too often cling to their privileges while the rising powers refuse to contribute in a meaningful way to global public goods. All the while the majority of poor countries mostly content themselves with engaging in predictably petty politics of grandstanding and patronage in the fora where they make their voices heard due to the "one country, one vote" principle.

While Ban should continue to seek for common ground among the UN's 193 member states, for the sake of "we, the peoples," he should not shy away from calling them out if they are so evidently acting in bad faith. Liberated from the need to curry anyone's favors in order to win another term, Ban might as well do just that. To this end, Ban can take a leaf from the playbook of his very courageous stance on the Arab uprisings. He called on the region's rulers to "act boldly, now, before it is too late," to make use of this "once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance freedom and democracy."

On Syria, Ban has argued that the killings "cannot go on. In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act." Ban was even bolder on Libya taking sides against the Gadhafi regime early on. In doing so, Ban argues that "we have carved out a new dimension for the responsibility to protect." He even took the step of defending NATO's interpretation of the Libya resolution arguing that the "military operation done by the NATO forces was strictly within (resolution) 1973." Ban might have gotten a bit ahead of himself with this rather one-eyed assessment. Ironically, in this case we might need more of Ban the bridge-builder.

As UN analysts Richard Gowan and Bruce Jones have pointed out, Ban will "need to work hard at generating better understandings between the western and emerging powers on the issues that confront the UN on human rights, responsibility to protect, and the use of force" - while continuing to speak out for universal rights and responsibilities.

But there are a host of other issues where Ban will need to speak out forcefully against conventional UN wisdom. Let us just name three: climate change, peace operations and global development. On climate change, Ban's signature topic, it becomes increasingly clear that the current multilateral negotiation process in the UN-sponsored UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - the ed.) will not be able to prevent catastrophic climate change. Rather than claiming that "at Durban, we defied the sceptics," Ban should advocate for creative ways to complement the UNFCCC process.

On peace operations, the UN's flagship activity, Ban has demonstrated rather limited interest. It is about time he spelled out a blueprint for a better political and knowledge architecture for these missions while recognizing their limits. On global development, with the UN's "Millennium Development Goals (MDG)" nearing (and likely missing) their target dates in 2015, there is an urgent need for Ban to spearhead a fundamental re-assessment of global development governance beyond the MDGs.

Ban can only be successful at all this if he also brings his own house in order and reconnects with the UN's staff. You cannot govern the multinational UN bureaucracy like the Korean foreign ministry but Ban tried exactly that. At a senior management retreat in 2009, Ban complained, "I tried to lead by example. Nobody followed," without quite understanding why he failed to change an apparatus that indeed urgently needs shaking up. It did not help that he added that "in choosing my senior advisers, I have always cared less about a person's intellectual attainments than his or her ability to work well with others."

With that attitude, one can imagine the stimulating exchanges within the UN's senior leadership team. Committing to a five-year term limit for his senior staff, Ban has vowed to "build a new team that is strong on substance and diverse in composition" for his second term. To this end, he should appoint independent-minded leaders to key positions and encourage them to challenge him. UN member states should take inspiration from Ban's policy of a five-year term limit for senior staff and in the future also apply it to the position of the UN Secretary-General.

That way, UN leaders can be bold from day one because they will not need to campaign for re-election. And member states might be more open to choosing competent, charismatic and independent personalities for the job. After all, they would only have to live with them for five years.

Editor: Rob Mudge

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