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Former UN Secretary General offers insights and critiques of his term


History will not regard Ban Ki-moon as a commanding or charismatic secretary general of the United Nations. A somber, cautious, and conservative diplomat from South Korea, Ban was not an arresting figure on the global stage. However, Ban believes he was a consequential, even visionary, secretary general, and he has written a memoir to make his case.

Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World is an explanation and defense of Ban’s decade (2007-17) as secretary general. It is also an argument, even a plea, by Ban for historians to look past his less than dynamic public image and carefully consider his record.  Ban may be a victim of our tendency to envision consequential global leaders as larger-than-life characters such as Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles De Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Resolved reflects its author; it is methodical, dogged, unadorned, and sober. The book does not have a strong narrative arc and there is little humor or self-deprecation. Rather, it is mostly an issue-by-issue defense of Ban’s record. It applauds diplomacy but does not offer memorable insights about the profession. However, Resolved does provide us with a perspective of what it is like to be secretary general of the UN and hold what one of Ban’s predecessors called, “the most impossible job on this Earth.”

Ban Ki-moon was six years old when the Korean War began in 1950. He and his family suffered severe deprivations and dislocations during the war, and they were profoundly grateful to the UN for preventing the North from overrunning the South and restoring stability to their world. “The importance of the United Nations to the Korean War is hard to overstate—simply put, the organization saved our lives and our country,” he writes.

Ban visited Washington in 1962 as a student and was inspired by President John F. Kennedy when he attended an event on the South Lawn of the White House, “I decided there, on the White House lawn, that I would become a diplomat and help many countries reach development and prosperity.” He joined South Korea’s foreign service and diligently worked his way up the ranks, serving in senior positions in New Delhi, Washington, New York, and elsewhere.

Ban became South Korea’s foreign minister in 2004. Less than two years later, South Korea’s political leadership sponsored his candidacy for secretary general of the UN to succeed Kofi Annan. He prevailed in a carefully orchestrated campaign by keeping a low profile, meeting assiduously and quietly with global leaders, and winning the support of the United States.

Ban Ki-moon’s 376 page memoir, Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World, published earlier this year.

His campaign platform was ambitious but understated, designed to avoid controversy. He pledged to make the UN more efficient, effective, and transparent; develop a global response to climate change; endeavor to end the war in Darfur; and extend the Millennium Development Goals. After months of political maneuvering in the Security Council, Ban was elected in October of 2006.  He recalls no euphoria after securing the job. “I often think I have a wooden heart…. I just quietly accepted the news,” he writes.

In Resolved, Ban discusses his work as UN’s secretary general in some of the most troubled places in the world: North Korea, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Haiti, and Syria. He also describes the daunting issues he tackled such as terrorism, peacekeeping, human rights, sustainable development, climate change, and global health.

Ban offers a succinct and sobering account of the UN’s attempt to end the civil war in Sudan and halt Khartoum’s assault on the western region of Darfur. He is sharply critical of the Security Council for failing to act decisively between 2003 and 2007, as 300,000 Darfuris died and 2.5 million were driven from homes. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Chad and the Central African Republic, destabilizing those nations.

Ban rebukes Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, for his assault on Darfur and his efforts to foil global relief efforts. Ban scorches Bashir for dispatching Sudanese soldiers and government-backed Arab Muslim militias, including the Janjaweed, to kill African Christian Darfuris.

Ban supported South Sudan’s independence bid that bore fruit in July 2011, when South Sudan became the 193rd country to enter the United Nations. “This was one of the proudest days in my diplomatic life,” he writes. Many analysts questioned then, and more have subsequently, if South Sudan was ready for independence.

Ban describes in depressing detail the failed international efforts to end the war in Syria.  He commissioned skilled diplomats such as Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to broker a deal.  However, their creative diplomacy was derailed by Syria’s brutal president, Bashar Assad, and regional and global powers who viewed Syria as a “geostrategic prize” rather than an urgent humanitarian crisis.

Ban also laments the UN’s inability to end a lengthy civil war and consequent human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, in which more than 100,000 civilians died and 800,000 were displaced. “Somehow a generation’s worth of conflict that killed 100,000 civilians had passed without even a Security Council resolution,” he writes angrily, noting the Security Council failed for decades to seriously consider the crisis in Sri Lanka.

Ban helps us understand the difficulty and complexity of UN peacekeeping. In his first months as secretary general in 2007, the UN created five new peacekeeping and political operations in Darfur, the Central African Republic and Chad, Lebanon, Nepal, and in Central Asia. Later during his tenure, UN peacekeepers were dispatched to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali. When he left office,100,000 blue helmets were deployed around the world and the annual peacekeeping budget reached $8 billion. UN peacekeepers now often deal with militias and guerillas rather than standing armies. There are usually more than a dozen UN peacekeeping missions underway at any given time, making them more complicated, costly, and dangerous than ever.

Ban’s memoir does not just chronicle the UN’s frustrations and impossible challenges. He emphasizes the important initiatives that he oversaw. The UN established the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. These eight goals and 21 incremental targets were set to reduce extreme poverty and hunger, empower women and girls, promote early education and combat AIDS, HIV, and malaria.  After arriving at the UN in 2007, Ban convened several groups to monitor progress of the MDGs, and then launch a complementary initiative that would build on them.

Several years of meetings by working groups and task forces, tough negotiations, and a powerful endorsement from Pope Francis, the General Assembly approved the Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015. The SDG’s are 17 interlinked global objectives that are designed to be a blueprint for a better and more sustainable future. They seek to end poverty and hunger, promote health and education, and advance peace, justice and strong institutions. “I wanted the SDGs to be written so clearly and concisely that the language left no room to hide,” Ban writes.

He sees the SDGs as a social contract between governments and peoples, arguing that each of the 17 goals is an ambition and a critical piece of an intricate puzzle. He applauds the “radical universality” of the SDG’s, in which both the developed and developing worlds are expected to contribute. The SDGs, he writes, were “something of a crusade for me.”

Ban proclaims the UN’s leadership on climate change his “proudest achievement.”  Eschewing modesty, he writes that he “championed what would become the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement long before anyone thought the world’s governments could create a consensus to limit greenhouse grass emissions.” He adds that “climate change is the ultimate threat to international peace and security. This was not a common view in 2006, but I nevertheless explained to every diplomat and government minister that climate change would be on the top of my agenda if I were elected secretary general.”

Ban said that he gave more than one hundred statements and speeches on climate change in his first two years in office and had countless private conversations with world leaders, “I did not shy away from raising climate change, even with known skeptics… I called attention to climate change wherever I traveled as secretary general and often chose to visit fragile environments to underscore the peril.”

He traces his personal quest for a sweeping climate agreement, beginning with the Bali Conference of Parties in December 2007, and culminating in the Paris Accord in December 2015.  Approval of the agreement, he writes, “was one of my most exciting days as UN secretary general.”

Ban notes that the Paris Accord entered into force on November 4, 2016, less than two months before he left the UN “and exactly ten years after I had promised to make climate change a priority.”  However, American President Donald Trump announced on June 1, 2017 the U.S.’s withdrawal from Paris.  Ban declares that “with one act, Donald Trump—unpredictable, unreliable, irresponsible, and imperious—undercut the global accord.”  He praises President Joe Biden for returning the U.S. to Paris, but worries the world is racing against time to respond to climate change.

Ban describes the public health challenges the UN helped address from the avian and swine influenza that broke out in 2007, to the Ebola virus that ravaged Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in 2014. From his vantage point as a private citizen, Ban argues the UN could not have prevented Covid-19, but should have done more to limit its devastation. “I believe earlier and more powerful UN strategies could have contained or lessened this epidemic and many others… I am alarmed it took the four months for the Security Council to pass its first coronavirus resolution,” he writes.

Ban sees the UN as an essential institution that is also flawed. He claims the UN he inherited in January 2007 was in sorry shape.  “Every system from the subbasement printing press to the General Assembly’s leaking roof needed to be repaired or updated…. The UN’s problems were financial, physical, political, and environmental,” he writes.

He says that he worked hard to strengthen the UN, and took subtle but clear digs at his predecessors, “Previous agendas had addressed the symptoms, not the causes, of our present situation. We needed to muster our institutional, financial, intellectual, and human resources and be willing to shake them up. It was a daunting task, especially because many of the innovations were interlocking and had to be made simultaneously. These efforts were frequently compared to painting a battleship on the high seas.”

Ban’s frustration with the UN Security Council is a recurring theme of the book. He is angry that the Permanent Five—the U.S. U.K., France, China, and Russia—are far too willing to deploy their veto power. “It is egregious when a government vetoes a resolution because of domestic or strategic considerations rather than because of its effect on international peace and security,” he writes.

He argues that the Security Council and especially the Permanent Five reflect the power structure of 1945 not the contemporary world.  “Of all the inconsistencies and frustrations of the UN system, I think the inability to modernize Security Council membership has been the most damaging,” he writes. “Scores of nations point out that the Arab, Latin, and African nations still do not have a permanent seat, a void that diminishes the organization. This is unlikely to change—ever.”

Resolved is a solid and informative book that compels the reader to think more deeply about Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as the UN’s secretary general.  It is not the final word, but Ban makes a credible case that he was a consequential UN leader.

John Shaw

John Shaw is a contributing writer for the Diplomat and is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.