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.