[Viewpoint] A strengthened UNU.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton generated considerable and generally very positive media coverage on an extensive recent tour of Asia. Then, just after her trip, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, paid a surprise visit to North Korea and secured the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two journalists detained there.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has returned to Korea this month to attend the World Federation of the United Nations Association, the Global Environment Forum and the Jeju Peace Forum. The Republic of Korea’s UN leadership role in turn draws such global meetings to the nation.
The Clintons’ successful trips are directly related to the UN. In particular, Hillary’s trip underscored the importance of the world body in enforcing sanctions on North Korea.
This has not always been the case. While Kofi Annan, the previous UN secretary-general, had charisma and media flair, his tenure saw considerable friction with the United States and no little controversy. Annan presided over the Iraq Oil-for-Food corruption scandal. An extremely thorough investigation was led by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and at the time head of the International Accounting Standards Board. While Annan was not directly condemned, the investigation concluded various UN representatives as well as some governments and corporations were guilty of graft. Officials were removed, and Annan’s son was sanctioned for corruption.
None of these problems have afflicted the Ban Ki-moon administration. Positive developments include simply the avoidance of any similar scandal during the first two and a half years of his five-year term. Ban was criticized for uncharacteristic bluntness last March in describing the U.S. as a “deadbeat” because $800 million in UN dues had not been paid. Since then, however, Washington has paid its peacekeeping arrears and the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to pay the rest of the funds owed the world body.
More generally, a relatively stable UN environment provides a firm foundation for the conduct of collegial foreign policy not only by the U.S. but by most other governments in the world as well. 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.
Yet realism requires working with, not against, the United Nations, as former President George W. Bush himself eventually recognized. That occupant of the Oval Office from the beginning of his administration made major policy statements from the UN podium. As U.S. problems mounted in Iraq, the administration turned to the UN for assistance. When North Korea exploded a nuclear device, the initial sentence of the initial public statement by Bush in response mentioned the UN.
President Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton are firm United Nations supporters. On regular occasions during the Asia trip and more generally in her State Department tenure, Clinton has referred to the UN, especially in charged remarks underscoring the isolation of the North Korea regime.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon therefore retains the opportunity to reinforce the initial vision of a United Nations, developed by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and their staff during the darkest days of World War II and building directly on the League of Nations championed by Woodrow Wilson. Ban is generally regarded as a diplomat who emphasizes consensus, particularly effective in seeking and building policy coalitions. His supporters underscore that his propensity to put policy success above personal visibility is a great long-term asset, and that approach seems particularly suited to the post of secretary-general, where the capacity to persuade a very diverse, egocentric population is essential.
An enormous asset for the 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.
For the first time since Dag Hammarskjold in the 1950’s, except for the unusual and restricted tenure of Kurt Waldheim of Austria, the UN has a secretary-general not bound by the imagery or ideology of the now old-fashioned third world.
*The writer is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan; Korean ed. Oruem Publishing Co.).
by Arthur I. Cyr