Ebola Crisis Offers Ban Ki-moon a Last Chance to Lead.
By Richard Gowan, Sept. 22, 2014, Column
|Ban Ki-moon con otras celebridades|
en la marcha por el cambio climático.
Perhaps Ban wishes he could fix all global problems with some pungent rhetoric and public protests. He is a self-confessed fan of Hollywood action movies. He must daydream of tackling threats with the speed and stern decisiveness of on-screen world leaders.
Real-world crisis diplomacy is rarely so simple. After taking office in 2007, he was typically tentative in handling crises. The Economist gave him a grade of three out of 10 for speaking truth to power. Stung by such criticisms, he explained that he hewed to “traditional diplomacy which we have learned from a textbook.” He added that he believed that “direct and personal contact between leaders” could resolve impasses.
That sounds an awful lot like a profession of faith in “so-called consultation.” But Ban grasped the limitations of textbook diplomacy well before the explosion of Ebola.
The secretary-general began to change his tactics in 2010 and 2011, speaking out forthrightly on crises such as the bloody post-electoral conflict in Cote d’Ivoire and the mistreatment of Egyptian and Libyan protesters in the first months of the Arab spring. The soft-spoken diplomat suddenly tasted some unexpected public acclaim.
Yet Ban has found that public activism can be as unrewarding as direct contacts with world leaders. He staked a good deal of credibility on resolving the Syrian war, but has been reduced to making impassioned but ineffective declarations of concern about the scale of the suffering there. Last year, he made a similarly commendable effort to raise awareness about the collapse of the Central African Republic, but for a long period he encountered very little interest from any notable U.N. power except France.
As I argued last December, Ban might come to rue his “recent focus on human rights and gain a renewed appreciation for the virtues of quiet diplomacy.” Since then, however, he has arguably suffered a double dose of disillusionment. The secretary-general’s continued efforts at traditional diplomacy have largely failed to resolve this year’s expanding litany of crises. He convened a conference on Syria in Switzerland in January and earned nothing except some abuse from the Syrian foreign minister, while also taking flak in the U.S. for a fumbled effort to invite Iran to join the talks. Early in the Ukrainian crisis, Ban hurried to Moscow for one-on-one discussions with President Vladimir Putin. Their meeting resolved nothing.
But Ban’s efforts at public diplomacy have not delivered much more. A widely reported trip in May to South Sudan, a crisis where the presence of U.N. peacekeepers should give the organization some purchase, achieved little. His statements of outrage over Israel’s attacks on U.N. facilities in the Gaza Strip during its war with Hamas this summer also garnered widespread attention. The only people who appeared to be unmoved were Israeli politicians, who pressed on with their offensive regardless of the U.N.
It’s easy to mock Ban for his repeated mishaps. I for one have called him a “chump.”
But, without entirely retracting that barb, it’s necessary to admit three things about his performance. First, he genuinely cares and worries about the issues on his agenda. Second, he works hard to achieve what little he can even when the odds are bad. His appearance at this weekend’s climate change march in New York bears witness to both these traits: Ban made global warming one of his first priorities and stuck with it doggedly even after the 2009 Copenhagen conference decisively failed.
The third mitigating factor is that the odds against Ban achieving very much on most of today’s crises are long and getting longer. This has nothing to do with him as a person or as a leader, although the fact that he has little more than two years left in office makes him a lame duck-in-waiting. His more fundamental problem is that the basic political foundations on which the U.N.’s efficacy is based are creaking.
The Western and non-Western powers that dominate the Security Council are going through a rocky patch that may prove to be lasting. The European governments that have long paid almost half of the U.N.’s core costs and cover an outsized share of its humanitarian and development budgets are economically anemic. From Syria to South Sudan, obstreperous governments doubt that the U.N. can truly harm them.
So when Ban Ki-moon speaks out on political issues, he faces deep skepticism not because of who he is, but because the body he leads is suffering bad political cramps.
In this context, what could save the U.N.’s reputation and Ban’s legacy? The answer is surely a crisis that cuts across borders, is rooted in natural forces rather than geopolitical divisions, is clearly a humanitarian disaster and could in a worst-case scenario result in horrific global mortality. Very few crises meet all these criteria.
The Ebola epidemic in West Africa does. Ban may not have convinced the world that it should come together and cast off petty differences to fight the long-term threat of climate change. But he may just persuade the U.N.’s members that they should make a hefty, if shorter-term, effort to halt Ebola in its tracks and ensure that the disease does not become more virulent.
If he succeeds, his last years as secretary-general may go down as among the finest in U.N. history. If he fails, Ban’s reputation will be the least of the world’s concerns.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday