For such a seemingly crucial position, the secretary-generalship of the United Nations has historically had a rather low bar for success. Kurt Waldheim? In his memoir, A Dangerous Place, Daniel Patrick Moynihan recounted that Waldheim functioned as "a post office, a somewhat antique but reasonably efficient public service run along Austro-Hungarian lines. As one sat down with him, he would be mentally sorting the mail while making small conversation." Boutros Boutros-Ghali? His arrogance and fecklessness as the Serbs laid waste to Bosnia prompted the Clinton administration to veto a second term. Kofi Annan? Brought low by his son Kojo's financial peculation in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.
Even in this unimpressive company, though, Ban Ki-moon appears to have set the standard for failure. It's not that Ban has committed any particularly egregious mistakes in his 2½ years on the job. But at a time when global leadership is urgently needed, when climate change and international terrorism and the biggest financial crisis in 60 years might seem to require some—any!—response, the former South Korean foreign minister has instead been trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command. He has become a kind of accidental tourist, a dilettante on the international stage.
Not for him bold speeches or attempts to mobilize public opinion behind what could be an organization that helps tackle nuclear proliferation or reconstruct Afghanistan. Not for him championing human rights, or even rallying in defense of beleaguered civilians. Visiting Malta in April for yet another honorary degree, he was evasive when asked about the island's penchant for sending illegal African immigrants packing off to Italy, saying, "I am not in a position to intervene." As tens of thousands of Tamil refugees lingered under fire on a narrow strip of beach in Sri Lanka, Ban and his advisors did little more than huddle in New York and wring their hands, only making a trip to the war zone after hostilities ended. Under his stewardship, the United Nations isn't merely an unhelpful place—it's a largely irrelevant one.