Voice

Good Night, Ban Ki-Moon

The U.N. secretary-general must go.

In May 2006, Ban Ki-moon made his public debut as a candidate for U.N. secretary-general at a Q-and-A session at the Council on Foreign Relations. About 20 minutes into the event, Ban's toneless and awkward English and studiously vacuous answers had put me sound asleep. I should have realized then that he was the perfect candidate for the job.

Today, two-thirds of the way into his first term, Ban has worsted even the low expectations that attended his candidacy. States that care about the United Nations -- and above all, the United States -- should prevent him from doing further harm to the institution by ensuring that he does not serve a second term.

Ban's mediocrity is no accident. Secretaries-general, after all, are hired for negative rather than positive attributes. The second person ever appointed to the post, a previously obscure Swedish bureaucrat named Dag Hammarskjold, infused the job with his own deep sense of moral calling, fearlessly offending the world's most powerful states before being killed in a plane crash in 1961. Since then, however, the permanent members of the Security Council, which largely control the selection process, have conscientiously vetted for dynamism. Ronald Reagan's administration was quite prepared to award a third term to Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi who proved to be the most anodyne figure ever to hold the top U.N. job. But he had competition: It was said of his successor, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, that he couldn't make a splash if he fell out of a boat.

Kofi Annan, whom Clinton administration officials identified as the perfect replacement for Boutros Boutros-Ghali -- who had made himself a thorn in Washington's side -- appeared to be the perfect steward: decent, modest, clerical. And yet Annan was the first secretary-general since Hammarskjold to fire the public imagination, calling for states to respect the rights of their own citizens and championing the cause of humanitarian intervention. But Annan fell afoul of George W. Bush's administration when he opposed, if ever so diplomatically, the plan to go to war in Iraq. Opposition from the White House and the American right made the remainder of his tenure hell.

Ban Ki-moon, a colorless South Korean bureaucrat and the favored candidate of U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, was the cure for Annan's dangerous charisma. China, which exercised effective veto rights over the choice of an "Asian candidate," was equally pleased with a figure who would lower the U.N.'s profile.

With no new Iraq melodrama or four-alarm scandal, attention largely shifted away from the U.N. during Ban's first years. The first public hint that the new secretary-general was sapping the U.N.'s strength came last August, when a Norwegian newspaper printed a leaked memo from Norway's deputy U.N. representative, Mona Juul. The memo alleged that the "spineless and charmless" Ban had failed to stand up in the face of massive human rights abuses in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, instead issuing  "irresolute" appeals that "fall on deaf ears." Juul claimed that the U.N. was largely absent from the world's great crises and that Ban had lost the faith and respect of both member states and his own staff.

At the time, I asked officials at human rights organizations, U.N. ambassadors, and members of the U.N. Secretariat about the Juul memo. Few disagreed with her assessment. A peacekeeping official pointed out that Ban had insisted on behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Sri Lanka even as the government was killing thousands of civilians in its campaign to erase the brutal insurgency of the Tamil Tigers: "We're doing everything we can to avoid saying anything at all about it. That's been our line on practically everything. The SG is clear that his final consideration is going to be the political costs of whether he should or shouldn't speak." That's a very real calculation every secretary-general must make. But, he added, "There's no sense that the deliberations include, 'What should we do?'"

For all that, there was no chance that Barack Obama's administration would seek to deny a second term to the most pro-American SG in recent memory, if not ever. An administration official with whom I spoke said that though Susan Rice, the current U.S. ambassador in Turtle Bay, was disappointed with Ban's muted voice, the two worked well together and in any case it was too early to think about a new term. Certainly there was no reason to believe that China, which views the U.N. more as obstacle than instrument, was unhappy with Ban. A prominent Asian ambassador told me that he thought expectations for Ban had been set unfairly high, and he could detect little dissatisfaction in the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, which represents developing-world opinion in the U.N.

Two things have changed since then. First, it's later: Ban's tenure finishes at the end of 2011. Second, another explosive document has emerged: the "end-of-assignment report" by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the outgoing head of the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which mounts investigations into alleged wrongdoing across the entire range of U.N. bodies. Like Juul, Ahlenius alleges that the institution is "drifting into irrelevance" under Ban. But unlike Juul, Ahlenius is an insider -- and a very senior one -- and she concentrates her fire not on Ban's shortcomings as a public figure but on his institutional failures. Ahlenius accuses her boss of trying to undermine the independence of her office by refusing to allow her to hire a highly regarded and pugnacious investigator and by seeking to set up an in-house investigative body, presumably in rivalry with her own. Ban has marketed himself as a hard-headed Korean reformer, but Ahlenius angrily asserts that in his administration there is "no transparency," a "lack of accountability," and, overall, "[no] signs of reform."

Some U.N. officials to whom I've spoken view Ahlenius as a classically self-righteous prosecutor who picks fights and then launches accusations of obstruction. The merits of her specific claims are at least open to debate. What's more, even Ban's worst critics don't believe that he has tolerated corruption or sought to block investigations. In this regard, he is almost certainly a tougher leader than Annan was. But Ahlenius's broad claims still ring true: Ban has failed to drive his own reform agenda, which he has largely entrusted to Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, a marginal figure; has concentrated power inside a tiny circle of advisors; has issued edicts rather than seeking to gain consensus; and treats dissent as disloyalty. "I kept hoping things would change," one senior staff member said to me. "I've essentially given up that hope."

Ban lacks the moral leadership of a Hammarskjold or an Annan, and he can't lead his own institution either. Can the U.N. really afford another five years of his tenure? Waldheim couldn't do much harm because the U.N. just didn't matter in the 1980s. Now it does. Even Bush, for all his dim regard for multilateral bodies, sought the Security Council's imprimatur for the war in Iraq. When Annan was implicated in the oil-for-food scandal, William Safire and other American conservatives howled for blood. Their claims were wildly overblown and not a little disingenuous -- they wanted Annan's head because he wouldn't put his seal of approval on Bush's war -- but they were also a perverse tribute to the U.N.'s much-scorned legitimacy. It will be interesting to see whether conservatives' professed concern for the U.N.'s well-being will lead them to equally scathing critiques of Annan's successor.

But the only force that can dislodge Ban is the White House. Obama has repeatedly said that he needs the U.N. in order to advance his agenda on nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and other major issues. His recently released National Security Strategy stipulates, "We need a U.N. capable of fulfilling its founding purpose -- maintaining international peace and security, promoting global cooperation, and advancing human rights."

Ban is scarcely the only obstacle to an effective U.N.; even Hammarskjold would throw up his hands in despair at the organization's current problems. But Obama simply cannot get where he wants to go with the current U.N. leadership. Administration officials should be quietly consulting China and other allies, and should be looking for candidates -- Asian or not -- with the strength and stature to lead the organization. Ban Ki-moon is not such a man.

David Goldman/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Attack of the Zeros

Will the rise of a new class of Cold Warriors doom Obama's nuke treaty?

Earlier this week, I was invited to a screening of Nuclear Tipping Point, which makes the case for eliminating nuclear weapons. As polemical documentaries go, it's an old-fashioned eye-glazer (unlike the far glitzier Countdown to Zero, which opens in theaters July 23). The film consists mostly of two old conservative Democrats -- former Sen. Sam Nunn and former Defense Secretary William Perry -- and two very old moderate Republicans -- former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, now as slow and grave as an ancient sea tortoise -- speaking against a black background while portentous kettledrums thump offstage. None of them cops to even the tiniest grain of guilt over the role he played in sustaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal prior to his conversion experience. But in a way, that's the point: These old Cold Warriors, founders of the Nuclear Security Project, haven't gone soft; they've realized that nuclear weapons are now more of a threat than a shield to America's national security.

The essence of the movie's argument is that, in a world of rogue states and suicidal terrorists, the Cold War dynamic of matching nuclear arsenals into the dizzying thousands -- that is, deterrence -- must give way to a new nonproliferation model focused on gaining control over bombs and nuclear material and then eliminating them over time. The case for zero has gained almost consensual status among strategic thinkers: Two-thirds of living U.S. secretaries of state and defense and national security advisors have endorsed the Nuclear Security Project. This is no longer a left-right issue -- except in today's Washington, where Henry Kissinger counts as a sissy. President Barack Obama's administration is now fighting tooth and nail to find 67 senators willing to sign the new START treaty with Russia, an important step forward but a modest down payment on Obama's own professed goal of creating a world without nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the entire Obama agenda on nonproliferation has been warped and blunted by the exigencies of catering to Senate Republicans -- and to those elements of the military and nuclear-weapons establishment that cling to the old Cold War paradigm. In his nuclear policy review, issued in April after months of delay and last-minute editing, Obama consistently chose cautious formulations over the bold steps he had advocated during the campaign. The Four Armchair Warriors of Nuclear Tipping Point point out, for example, that removing U.S. bombers from the high-alert status mandated during the Cold War, when planes had to be airborne before Soviet missiles could take them out, is perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit of strategic doctrine reform; but the Obama report concluded that "the current alert posture . . . should be maintained for the present."

In a Q-and-A session after the film, Nunn said that he was "disappointed" with the posture review and that the caution on de-alerting "went beyond what I thought was rational." You wouldn't expect Barack Obama to position himself to the right of Sam Nunn; but, given the rabid political atmosphere, Obama was in no position to stand up to his own generals. What's more, in February the administration announced that it would grant a 13 percent increase to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear infrastructure -- the largest increase awarded to any agency. This was a ransom payment to Senate Republicans, who had written to the president in December asserting that further arms reduction would not be in the U.S. national security interest "in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent."

The Obama administration has paid, and paid dearly, to ensure passage of START, a win which officials were once foolish enough to think would be fairly painless. But they might not have paid enough to satisfy the right. In recent days, conservatives have begun priming the pump of opposition, including a Washington Post op-ed by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney so ludicrously ill-founded that Richard Lugar, the mild-mannered Republican senator, felt compelled to denounce it as a "hyperbolic" peddling of "misreadings and myths." Lugar is the only Senate Republican to have pledged to support the treaty. Jon Kyl, the Republican whip and a leader of the arms-control refuseniks, has not yet revealed his view, though in his own op-ed he criticized the treaty in much milder terms than Romney and even cited several "sensible positions" adopted in the posture review (thus perhaps confirming Obama's highly pragmatic calculations). A senior administration official told me that he remains optimistic that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote out the treaty before the Aug. 9 recess, but admitted that he still "didn't have a good sense" of what would happen in the full Senate, or when.

The Senate may well confirm START, but the troglodyte position of many Republicans -- as well as Obama's political vulnerability on the subject -- might doom the larger vision of transforming the nuclear debate. As it happens, several months ago I had a long conversation about nuclear issues with Kyl. The Arizona senator is not counted among the true GOP mossbacks, like Jim DeMint or James Inhofe, but I came away thinking that he really does view Kissinger and his ilk as wimps. Kyl told me that he considers treaties "to a large extent useless "because bad actors won't honor them. The United States, he said, should be free to develop nuclear weapons as needed and should never agree to forgo nuclear testing, as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would require. Other countries may rail against America, but Kyl takes a dim view of them anyway.

When I asked Kyl about the central axiom of Obama and the Armchair Warriors, that states will not agree to restraints on proliferation unless the United States and other nuclear powers move toward disarmament, he snorted, "It's a great theoretical argument if you're up at 2 in the morning in the dormitory, but it has no application in the real world." The actual problem, he said, is that countries eager to stick it to the United States refuse to sign on to U.S. efforts to stop nuclear malefactors. "Have any of these countries been effectively supportive of U.S. efforts to effect a regime change in Iran?" he asked. I didn't know how to answer; I said that I hadn't known the United States was doing that.

The refuseniks seem to think the Cold War never ended, and the United States needs to keep all those B-52s around lest it tempt the Soviets -- sorry, the Russians -- with its weakness. You can't fight that kind of obscurantism. Nevertheless, Kyl's objection to the "theoretical argument" cannot simply be dismissed. After all, dismantling the nuclear arsenal is a matter of urgency not because U.S. or Russian weapons represent an imminent threat to humanity, as they did a generation ago, but rather because disarmament is said to be the sole means of persuading the non nuclear states to take nonproliferation seriously. Although the Armchair Warriors tend to view this axiom as self-evident, an Obama administration arms-control official said to me last year, "These are propositions that have to be demonstrated."

Indeed they are; and they can be. Last September, after intense U.S. lobbying, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1887 calling for strict controls on the export of nuclear materials and committing states to ratify the CTBT, negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material, and adopt protocols that would allow nuclear monitors to conduct intrusive inspections. At the U.N. review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May, states reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen nonproliferation standards and, no less significantly, isolated Iran, which came to play the role of spoiler. And there's no question that it was Obama's personal commitment to reducing the size and role of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that persuaded states to adopt these measures. So it's not, in fact, a theoretical argument.

As tough as the political environment for Obama is now, it will only get worse after the midterm election reduces the Democratic majority in the Senate. The prospects for the CTBT, or for a treaty mandating much deeper cuts between the United States and Russia, are marginal. From a political point of view, nuclear proliferation looks like global warming: The problem will have to get much worse before it becomes possible to summon the political will to act effectively. The one thing we can feel confident about is that the problem will, in fact, get much worse.

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