[OVERSEAS VIEW]The UN enduresSandwiched between great publicity concerning the Iraq Study Group report, and the cool White House reaction thereto, soft-spoken United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan made his farewell speech at the Truman Library. He is turning the very tough job of heading the UN over to Ban Ki-moon, the former foreign minister of South Korea.
The venue was selected to highlight the contrast between Presidents Harry S. Truman and George W. Bush, in particular the internationalism of the former and the go-it-alone penchant of the latter. Mr. Truman took America to war in 1950, but as part of a comprehensive UN coalition to oppose the North Korean invasion of South Korea. His secretaries of state Dean Acheson and George Marshall constructed the Marshall Plan and the NATO alliance.
Mr. Annan’s address was blunt ― especially for him ― in criticizing the Bush administration for being both unilateral and confrontational, and specifically for the invasion of Iraq. Not surprisingly, partisan Republicans have reacted very harshly to the speech.
Much more important, not-so-partisan newspapers and other media in the U.S. have complained about Annan’s performance, stressing UN ineffectiveness ― especially in keeping the peace and preventing atrocities; corruption ― especially in the Iraq oil for food scandal; and general inefficiency.
Frustration with the UN is understandable and defensible. The global gabfest goes on endlessly, dominated by diplomats whose self-importance is frequently inversely related to the actual power of the nations they represent. There was far-reaching financial corruption associated with UN supervision of the Iraq oil-for-food exchange. For these reasons and others, Mr. Bush’s tough talk has considerable resonance within parts of the American public.
Yet realism requires working with ― not against ― the United Nations, as Mr. Bush himself recognizes. The president has made major policy statements from the UN podium. As U.S. problems have mounted in Iraq, the administration has turned to the UN for assistance. When North Korea exploded a nuclear device, the initial sentence of the initial public statement by Mr. Bush in response mentioned the UN. Despite the Bush base on the political right, there has been no suggestion of getting the U.S. out of the UN, a slogan for decades of extreme conservatives.
Part of the reason is the inherent importance of the United Nations to every nation. The UN family includes the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. In total, these institutions and associated treaties, understandings and practices underpin the relatively open and stable global economic system. Truman administration support of the UN directly reflected the Atlantic Charter vision proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill even before Pearl Harbor.
Incoming Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has a wonderful opportunity to reinforce this vision.
He is generally regarded as a successful politician and diplomat who emphasizes consensus, and is seen as particularly effective in seeking and building policy coalitions. His supporters underscore that he has put policy success above personal visibility, and that approach seems particularly suited to the post of secretary general, where the capacity to persuade a very diverse, egocentric population is essential.
In areas where the UN is most criticized, including ineffectiveness in resisting aggression and civil wars, cooperation from member states is essential. The UN, after all, does not have its own military force.
Ban’s critics, including some American policy analysts as well as partisan conservatives, respond that his tenure as the Republic of Korea’s foreign minister has witnessed growing tensions between Seoul and Washington. This has been true especially though not exclusively in regard to North Korea’s nuclear development. Critics also allege that too much emphasis on conciliation has encouraged Pyongyang’s adventurism.
To be fair, coolness between Seoul and Washington reflects at least in part the very rigid posture of the Bush administration concerning dealings with North Korea. The Sunshine Policy of Seoul to encourage contact with the North resulted in Bush administration complaints almost immediately after his first inauguration.
An enormous asset for the incoming secretary general is the economic success of the Republic of Korea, in stark contrast to the North. South Korea in a few decades has gone from a peasant economy to an advanced industrial powerhouse. The nation has also aggressively pursued corruption at home. For the first time since Dag Hammarskjold in the 1950s, the UN will have a secretary general not bound by the imagery or ideology of the now old-fashioned Third World.
Mr. Ban stresses that he wants to focus on effective management, which must include comprehensive administrative reform of the United Nations mechanisms. This is an often-espoused desirable goal, frustrated literally for decades by UN politics and bureaucracy.
The profound success of South Korea, however, provides the opportunity to make this very lofty goal at least a partial reality. The U.S. should be supportive.
*Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War”(NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at
by Arthur I. Cyr