A Quiet Diplomat for Challenging Times

Ban Ki-moon was appointed to a second five-year term as Secretary-General of the United Nations in his typical style: quietly. In a time of divisive power plays in the Security Council, all 15 members supported him and, a week later, the General Assembly gave its unanimous consent. No other candidate had been put forward and no fuss was raised among Member States. This was an impressive achievement for Ban Ki-moon—one that should be saluted as a major political victory.

Yet, Ban Ki-moon’s first term did not get off to an easy start. His first six months in office received poor reviews from the Western press. Halfway through his first term, these did not show much improvement. “He ducks too easily,” wrote The Economist, criticizing in particular his management style and low-profile diplomacy.

The year 2011 marked a turning point in Ban Ki-moon’s political career. Richard Gowan of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation argued that the recent track record of the United Nations in peace operations was an important factor in Ban Ki-moon’s reappointment. In fact, the Secretary-General took a strong stance against Laurent Gbagbo, the defeated incumbent President of Côte d’Ivoire, demanding that he cede power. Mr. Ban was also closely involved in the United Nations oversight of the successful referendum on the self-determination of South Sudan and in Haiti’s controversial elections. His conduct during the volatile situation in the Arab world has been praised by the international community. According to Gowan, United Nations officials now have “a new respect for his political judgment and courage.”1

Which Ban Ki-moon—the criticized early version, or the latest, emboldened edition—will be seen during his second term leading the world body in pursuit of international peace and security? Although an in-depth treatment is beyond the scope of this article, in the hope of stimulating further analysis, a few words can be said on the pivotal functions of the Secretary-General. In the area of peace and security, the Secretary-General wears several hats: he is the general of peacekeeping, the political prince of world diplomacy, the secular pope of the values of the Charter, and the global CEO of a complex, international bureaucracy. All of these roles are intertwined and complementary, but for the sake of analytical clarity, this article addresses each one separately.

After five years in this post, it seems clear that Ban Ki-moon most prefers the hat of the world diplomat, and he wears it in discreet style. Since taking office, Mr. Ban’s statements and actions suggest a purposeful shift from peacekeeping to peacemaking. He spent most of his first year in office hammering out the intricacies of a peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Ban Ki-moon’s style was a break from that of his predecessor. He advised against new sanctions on Sudan and relentlessly lobbied China, a key ally of Khartoum. His efforts were rewarded, when an African Union/United Nations hybrid operation was deployed in Darfur. However, his focus on diplomacy produced only marginal success: the mission was on the ground, but it suffered from a lack of military assets and a host of managerial and coordination shortcomings. No one has spoken of new hybrid missions since then.

In subsequent crises, Mr. Ban continued to show his preference for gradual engagement and quiet diplomacy. In Kosovo, he chose to create a neutral framework within which “countries could decide, over time, whether or not to recognize Kosovo’s independence”.2 During the 2008 humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he sent a special envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to mediate. Obasanjo was credited for securing a rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda—a fact that further strengthened the argument in favour of diplomatic engagement over other more costly peacekeeping options.

The real headliner for Ban Ki-moon, however, was his response to the 2011 Côte d’Ivoire crisis, when defeated President Gbagbo refused to step down, thus igniting a new round of violence in the already battered West African country. Ban Ki-moon moved quickly and called for Gbagbo to step down before the Security Council took action. Eventually, the Council joined the call, authorizing the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, supported by French troops, to use all necessary means to stop the killings. This paved the way for the elected president, Alassane Ouattara, to take office after the capture and arrest of Gbagbo. It was an unusually dangerous bet for Ban Ki-moon, but his move received high praises.

Côte d’Ivoire was, and may arguably be, the exception to Ban Ki-moon’s typical preference for mediation and preventive diplomacy. In the November 2011 informal session on mediation at United Nations Headquarters in New York, he once again stressed the need for the Organization to enhance its capacity to provide mediation support in order to prevent conflict worldwide. This mirrors a growing interest in conflict prevention and peacemaking within the United Nations system, among Member States and other actors. The Secretary-General’s new Group of Friends of Mediation, which is composed of 12 Member States and which championed the recent General Assembly resolution on this issue, is one example of this renewed activism. This trend is also the indirect result of a double dynamic on the world stage. While cash-strapped governments in Europe, Japan, and the United States prefer less costly initiatives to peacekeeping, emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil also favour less interventionist approaches over troop deployment. These trends will very likely continue.

Another way in which the Secretary-General can engage in issues concerning peace and security is by wearing the hat of the secular pope in support of the principles of the United Nations Charter. His bully pulpit, of course, may conflict more openly with his quiet diplomatic role. Here, once again, Mr. Ban preferred to tilt the balance toward diplomacy working quietly in several circumstances. Little was heard from him on human rights violations in Zimbabwe and Myanmar, on the grim civilian casualty figures in Sri Lanka, or over the fighting in Gaza. He preferred to advise against new sanctions on Khartoum in order to leave the door open to the deployment of a peace operation. In implementing the controversial responsibility to protect (R2P), he gave far greater weight to early warning, prevention, and addressing the structural causes of mass atrocities, choosing to stay away from the more interventionist aspects of R2P highlighted by some Western Governments.

Finally, the Secretary-General is the chief administrator of a large international bureaucracy that encompasses many departments and agencies. Although his role as “secretary” goes beyond peace and security, the hub of bodies involved in conflict and post-conflict situations is intimidating. As manager, Mr. Ban coherently chose to enhance the crisis diplomacy side of the house. Separating the logistics of peacekeeping missions from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reduced the institutional centrality of DPKO, with the creation of the new Department of Field Support (DFS). Meanwhile, with an increased emphasis on political missions, the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) made important progress in improving operating procedures, budgeting, and backstopping field missions. The relationship between the head of DPA and the Secretary-General is said to be one of the closest among United Nations senior managers. This may be different in the second term, since DPA will change its leadership in early 2012.

The Next Five Years

Mr. Ban’s preference for quiet diplomacy and gradual engagement will also, arguably, characterize his second term in office. The Secretary-General, unlike his predecessor, will stay away from intractable issues such as Security Council reform and the Middle East peace process. However, as the cases of Côte d’Ivoire and the Arab Spring showed, specific crises can push Ban Ki-moon to wear the hat of general or secular pope, albeit, reluctantly. The mission in Libya and in South Sudan will most likely pose serious challenges next year.

The tectonic shifts in power and influence at the global level will not make things any easier for Ban Ki-moon. The Secretary-General will have a marginal role in shaping these geopolitical dynamics. However, the views of emerging economies are increasingly influential when it comes to climate change, Darfur, sanctions, contributing troops to peacekeeping operations, or the use of force, to name just a few. The Secretary-General will need to continue to work hard to generate a better understanding between Western and emerging powers on these challenging issues. Member States have grown increasingly divided, and bridging this gap will be part of the Secretary-General’s legacy.

The combination of continued pressure from Member States for more cost-efficiency, and the internal restructuring of DPKO and DPA as mentioned above, may represent an additional opportunity for the Secretary-General to rationalize the United Nations response in the field of peace and security. In recent years, different departments within the Secretariat have produced strategic and operational documents, including the 2009 “non-paper” A New Partnership Agenda: Charting a New Horizon for UN Peacekeeping, the Secretary-General’s report on Peacebuilding in the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict, the 2010 Report of the Secretary-General on the Global Field Support Strategy, the 2011 Civilian Capacity Review, and the Secretary-General’s first-ever report on Preventive Diplomacy: Delivering Results. These forward-looking documents provide the perfect background material to help develop a unified vision and strategy for the Secretariat as a whole.

Despite dramatic changes in the nature of the threats to international peace and security, the United Nations still operates on the basis of the 1992 An Agenda for Peace. This landmark document provided much of the vision for what the United Nations has been doing recently in the realm of peace and security. The lessons from An Agenda for Peace may have been over-learned, as new entities of the United Nations created over the past 10 years have led, in practice, to the compartmentalization of the organization’s responses in the field of peace and security. The time has come to recognize the limitations of the concepts of conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding as outlined in that report, and the departmental silos and institutional arrangements that flowed from these concepts. There is a pressing need to breakdown current institutional stove- piped processes to better capture the critical connections among political, security, and development efforts.

The Secretary-General could rationalize the recommendations of the many different reports published in recent years into one coherent vision for the Secretariat’s work in international peace and security. This could be seen as a new Agenda for Peace that lays out the rationale for institutional adaptation in a changed political and economic environment. The next five years represent an opportunity for Mr. Ban to put to bed the strong words of his detractors and, more importantly, to leave a legacy for generations to come.


1 Richard Gowan, “Floating Down the River of History: Ban Ki-Moon and Peacekeeping, 2007-2011,” Global Governance 17 (2011), 399.

2 David Harland, “Kosovo and the UN,” Survival 52, No. 5 (2010), 94.

The article was first published in the UN Chronicle.