Looking for an Emblematic Figure for the Bolton Era? Try Ban Ki-moon

World Politics Review, 26.03.2018
Richard Gowan, profesor en Columbia University, miembro asociado de European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Is Ban Ki-moon the emblematic international figure of our times?

Ban Ki-moon listens as John Bolton, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., speaks after Ban’s nomination to become secretary-general was approved.(AP/Stephen Chernin).

This is probably not a proposition you have considered before. Although it is only 15 months since Ban ended his 10-year tenure as secretary-general of the United Nations, he feels like a distant memory.

Ban was a cautious and often marginal figure in a world of mounting crises. While he played a significant role in ensuring the ratification of the Paris climate change agreement in his last year in office, he could only do so because the United States, China and other major states were on his side. A little over a year into the Trump administration, the notion of such concerted big-power cooperation feels almost too alien to bear.

After leaving the U.N., Ban launched a brief bid for the South Korean presidency that fizzled. He is now busy with lectures and a new policy center. He is unlikely to maintain a prominent role in international diplomacy, unlike his predecessor, Kofi Annan. But he should enjoy a well-deserved post-U.N. retirement.

I have nonetheless found myself thinking about Ban a little more than usual over the past week.

One reason for this is parochial. Oxford University Press has published a new volume, “The U.N. Secretary-General and the Security Council,” tracking each office-holder’s political activities over time. As one of the exceedingly few academics to have studied Ban closely, I inevitably got to write the chapter on his term.

The thought of a 9,000-word chapter on Ban’s political evolution might leave some readers unmoved. Yet looking back, his story seems unexpectedly relevant right now.

The main reason for this is John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. whom President Donald Trump appointed his next national security adviser last week. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ban owes his ascent to Bolton, who orchestrated the Security Council’s selection of the instinctively pro-American former South Korean foreign minister as secretary-general. Bolton, whose stint in New York lasted from mid-2005 to the end of 2006, detested Kofi Annan over his opposition to the Iraq war and belief in the U.N.’s independence, and wanted to ensure that Annan’s successor was a more pliable figure.

So if you want to know how Bolton will approach his job, Ban is a useful point of reference. The incoming U.S. national security adviser clearly likes his foreign counterparts to be unassuming and respectful of American power. After having left the U.S. mission to the U.N., Bolton penned an opinion piece praising Ban’s habit of “deferring to member states,” by which he presumably meant the United States. By contrast, Bolton has been repeatedly critical of the current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, for being not only a socialist but a European.

U.N. officials often complained that Ban fulfilled Bolton’s desiderata and bowed to the U.S. too easily, even though the Obama administration took the edge off U.S.-U.N. relations. Some of his external critics fueled these complaints by publishing pieces calling Ban an “American poodle” and worse. Yet what is really striking about Ban is not his fealty to the U.S., but his gradual realization that maintaining good relations with Washington was not enough to keep the U.N. relevant.

In 2009, Ban told journalists that he had to navigate a world where America was not “the only power” but just “one of the global powers." He was especially careful to avoid frictions with China, dancing around references to Beijing’s human rights record in a way that angered Western rights activists. As his tenure unfolded, he saw Moscow and Beijing assert themselves in the Security Council over Syria. Ban typically found ways to stay on America’s side as the situation in the Middle East deteriorated. But the decline of U.S. influence in the Security Council meant that his final years at the U.N. were increasingly frustrating.

Ban was lucky to leave the U.N. at the end of December 2016, three weeks before the Trump administration took office. This left Guterres to build relations with Trump’s advisers. Freed from the shackles of his U.N. post, Ban has been openly criticalof the new administration’s disregard for climate change. “[The] United States is a big problem now,” he told The Guardian in an interview at the beginning of this month. “I think that the United States’ decision to withdraw from this Paris agreement really creates a serious problem.”

Ban is still not ready to attack Trump in broader terms. In another interview this month, he noted that he had tried to “interpret in a more positive way” some of the president’s rhetorical attacks on North Korea.

We do not know if John Bolton noted his former protégé’s comments. If he did, he is unlikely to worry too much about what an ex-secretary-general thinks. And yet Ban’s passage from U.S. loyalist to partial critic symbolizes the tensions affecting the U.N. and the wider international system at present. The diffusion of global power, tentatively flagged by Ban nearly a decade ago, has left Washington’s instinctual friends adrift and uncertain about their strategic options. The Trump administration’s disregard for the international system, which Bolton is certain to reinforce, has left pro-American figures like Ban even less confident in their commitments.

And so, quite unintentionally and unwillingly, Ban Ki-moon personifies the dilemmas of all policymakers who believe that an American-led international order is a good thing that deserves upholding. He was active in the global arena during the previous phase of the decline of that order, as the Syrian war revealed the limits of American power. Back in private life, he may feel obliged to criticize Bolton, the man who helped him to the U.N.’s top job, as that decline enters a new and more worrying phase. Ban, a man who takes protocol seriously, may find this especially uncomfortable.

But if Ban finds the current political climate perplexing, he should take comfort from the fact that most observers who care about the international system do, too. A few years ago, Ban’s tepid leadership at the U.N. looked like a real problem for the future of multilateralism. From today’s perspective, it pales in comparison to the other threats the U.N. faces. I once calledhim a “chump.” Perhaps, in the Bolton era, we are all Ban Ki-moon.

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