The good news for Ban Ki-Moon is that he has become Secretary-General of the United Nations at a time when the prospects for conflict involving the world’s great powers the United States, China, Japan, Russia, the European Union and India are remote. The bad news is that the prospects for just about every other sort of conflict are high and the international agenda is both crowded and demanding.
Ban needs to begin with a cold, hard assessment of his new position. A UN secretary-general is more secretary than general. He cannot command; it is not the same as being a president or a CEO; he possesses more influence than power.
The UN comprises sovereign states but is not itself sovereign and cannot act as if it were.
More than anything else, the UN reflects the ability of the major powers (above all, the US, China, Russia, France, and Britain the five permanent, veto-equipped members of the Security Council) to agree and to back up their agreements with resources.
When they are willing and able to do so, the UN can make a difference; when they are not, the UN can act in only the most limited way, if at all, regardless of what the secretary-general wants.
Consider Darfur. The world has largely stood by in the face of genocide. This is not a failure of the UN or of the secretary-general so much as a reflection of the reality that the major powers are divided.
China clings to a notion of sovereignty that allows governments freedom of action within their borders. In today’s world, such an unconditional definition of sovereignty is in- adequate.
But the reality is that no amount of time spent negotiating in New York will turn things round. What matters are the instructions sent to China’s UN ambassador from Beijing. In this case, Ban needs to spend time in China’s capital, arguing the case that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens, and that when they are failing to do so (as Sudan’s Government clearly is), they forfeit some of the advantages normally associated with sovereignty.
Ban can also contend that there is no justification in today’s world for terrorism, defined here as the intentional harming of civilians for political purposes. Not just governments, but religious and other leaders need to be persuaded to denounce terrorism, shaming and de-legitimising those who carry it out.
Two other areas exist where practical changes are both achievable and desirable.
Ban should support the creation of an international mechanism that would provide governments access to (but not physical control of) enriched uranium and plutonium for the generation of electrical power. Such an innovation would help stem the spread of nuclear materials and weapons and move the world away from the use of oil and gas while reducing global warming.
The other area is peacekeeping.
Establishing a large, standing international force under the UN’s control is not feasible and may not be the best of ideas. But providing incentives for governments to maintain such forces at a high level of alert and setting standards for equipment, training, and professionalism are things the UN can and should do.
Such suggestions highlight what might be any secretary-general’s most important asset: his voice. What Ban chooses to say, and how and where he says it, can strengthen his influence.
All this will be especially important now, given the status of the US, the most powerful country in the world, but one that has an often uneasy relationship with the UN.
Opinion polls indicate a good deal of support among the American public for the UN. But there is also intense distrust of the UN among segments of the public and with certain elites.
Here again, Ban would be well advised to leave New York and spend more time in the capital and around the country. The US needs, and benefits from, effective multilateralism in a global world, one in which challenges cannot be met by any single country acting by itself.
The US has a particular need for effective international cooperation now, when it is stretched militarily, economically and politically, owing to its policies on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Contributing to the emergence of a more productive relationship between the world’s most important international organisation and its most powerful member would be no small feat.
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