WHY DO THEY SAY SUCH THINGS
THE UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY
Incumbent Ban Ki-moon
announces for a 2nd term
What’s surprising about the
probable confirmation of incumbent United Nations Secretary General
Ban ki-moon for a second five-year term is not its near-certainty. It
is the virtual lack of controversy surrounding it.
This is to say that if you
judged the former South Korean foreign minister’s first term solely by
the generally critical news media coverage of it, you might be led to
conclude that his tenure has been a failure. And yet the probability
is that the member states of the Security Council and the General
Assembly will react to his formal announcement of candidacy this week
with little dissent at all.
So the question we might want
to ask is: Why in the world is that? Why do we read and see one
version of reality in our news media, and yet the true reality would
appear to be something quite different.
There are several reasons.
The first is that the vast
percentage of the negative coverage of Ban’s first term has come from
the news media of the West. You can troll all day in the news media of
Asia, for example, and be hard pressed to find much disapproval of
this quiet man. To be sure, you might be tempted to dismiss this
virtual negative-news blackout as homeboy favoritism. Or it just might
be that much of Asia is actually pretty comfortable with Ban’s
performance, noting that at least his administration has not been hit
with the kind of embarrassing scandals that plagued the administration
of his predecessor Kofi Annan. Absent as well has been the kind of
dysfunctional antagonism from the permanent members of the UN Security
Council that confined to one term the UN career of Annan’s predecessor
There is an additional,
related reason. The fact of matter is that much of the non-Western
world loathes us Western journalists and our constant sock-em-in-the-eye
faultfinding approach to everything. Negative but honest journalism
absolutely has its place but too much of it is depressing, like rank
It might not even be too much
to suggest that Ban’s chance for renewal only increased in the eyes of
some Asian member states with each negative story in the Western
press. Certainly Beijing, whose influence in this UN process these
days cannot be overestimated, has had little but contempt for the
general Western coverage of Ban’s work. Having agreed in 2006 to Ban’s
candidacy in concurrence with Washington – a particularly useful
example of substantive Sino-American cooperation at the highest level
– Beijing was not about to have its judgment second-guessed by
so-called news media experts anywhere, especially in the West. The
enormous and disproportionate influence of the Western news media on
the world media stage, even as it is being eroded daily by the
free-for-all of the Internet, sometimes boomerangs. As, for example,
it did in this case.
Yet another factor is the
considerable loathing – in Beijing and elsewhere, but particularly in
Asia – of the media’s insatiable appetite for what is usually termed
charisma. Over and over and over, the Western media especially has
correctly reported that Ban doesn’t have much of it, to which his many
supporters retort: So what? How shall we define charisma and is it
more chimera than content?
Questioning the value of
charisma is particularly relevant in assessing Ban. While he certainly
is not, as has been pointed out by one senior Western official who
declined to be identified, “lightning in a bottle,” he has brought to
the UN a number of other qualities that make you suspect that maybe
charisma (however defined) is overrated.
And what might some of these
For starters: basic and
indeed advanced competence. Ban has been a professional diplomat all
his life and his last non-UN job – that of South Korean foreign
minister – is no joke (especially when you consider what lurks up
north, and who else prowls around that difficult neighborhood). Ban
has also previously served at the UN in New York and had done so with
distinction. Notably, he has not feared to put the UN behind the
toughest issues, especially global warming.
What’s more, Ban has
demonstrated in his first term a quality that has impressed even those
who are not the biggest of Ban fans at the UN: workaholism. Okay, so
you don’t get a flashy showboat; but you do get an endlessly tireless
and wholly competent worker. This is not exactly a worthless commodity
to have in the UN’s number-one, especially when critics in Congress
and everywhere else never tire of complaining about inefficiency,
waste and malfeasance at the UN (as if there is none in Congress…or,
say, the International Monetary Fund…oh, don’t get me started!).
So how much is a pound of
solid workaholism worth as compared to a pound of preening charisma? I
don’t know but it looks like a many member-states of the UN believe it
is worth a lot more than nothing. This is why Ban is getting a second
term. He is a worker. And, as you may have noticed lately, the world
sure does need a lot of work.
So guess what? Some people
think a guy who works hard and is obviously honest and tries the best
with what has been given to him (both genetically, and
institutionally) deserves a pat on the back – and in this case five
more years in office.
Makes sense to me.