By Bill Miller
In a recent World Public Opinion Poll, President Barack Obama and the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held the top two slots as most respected world leaders. Obama was at a stratospheric 61%, with Ban running at 40%.
Slightly lower, Germany’s Angela Merkel (40%), UK’s Gordon Brown (38%), and France’s President Sarkozy (36%) rounded out the next three spots in the survey that included 20,000 people in 20 countries. China’s Hu Jintao (32%), Russia’s Vladimir Putin (34%), and Iran’s President Ahmadinejad (28%) brought up the rear.
Polls can be very helpful to project an image to the public and to reflect a public opinion snapshot as to how leaders, policies and issues are perceived at a given moment in time. President Obama still enjoys high personal popularity ratings in the US, even though his poll numbers pertaining to his policies are sagging slightly as the public and his Administration wrestle with the intricacies of how to address the financial meltdown, the health care crisis, climate change and a multitude of other problems.
UN Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki-moon is also benefiting from positive poll numbers, more so overseas rather than in the US, as he crossed the halfway mark in his five-year term as head of the UN. When Ban was elected SG, with the blessing of the Bush White House, he was perceived as having a totally different managerial style and persona from former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Annan had achieved rock star status with his highly visible efforts to reform and strengthen the UN and to challenge some of the key players on what was widely perceived as foreign policy blunders that destabilized peace and security. Kofi Annan and President Bush disagreed on what was, and still is, widely viewed as the US’s illegal invasion of Iraq, an unpopular and unnecessary intrusion into a sovereign country.
Some UN watchers opined that Ban Ki-moon was too closely aligned to the Bush Administration and would be a toady for US foreign policy. Indubitably, the UN does assist US foreign policy goals in many spheres, such as by maintaining 17 peacekeeping missions and promoting peace and security. These missions share the financial burden and keep US troops out of harm’s way. UN programs are also vital in Afghanistan and Iraq by providing humanitarian assistance and arranging the free and democratic elections, just to mention a few.
However, Ban Ki-moon may have been underestimated by the Bush Administration and some of the UN detractors. Ban, who began slowly and quietly, has blossomed into his own person and has developed a managerial style that is quietly effective, yet unobtrusive. He is intelligent, well-prepared and tenacious, in a positive sense, in pursuing his and the UN’s goals.
Just a few examples of his tenacity:
Although the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) normally receives most of the publicity, as well as one-half of the Nobel Peace Prize it shared with Al Gore, SG Ban Ki-moon is widely credited by many UN observers as being the spark plug in moving forward the debate on climate change. Specifically, he was the first secretary-general to lead a delegation to Antarctica and Brazil to experience firsthand the melting of the glaciers and the disappearing rain forest. When a climate conference in Bali, Indonesia was on the verge of collapse, Ban dropped his plans, flew to Bali and rallied the participants to move forward with their discussions, which ultimately proved successful.
And in 2008, after the ferocious Cyclone Nargis killed nearly 140,000 people and devastated the Irrawady River Delta Region of Myanmar (formerly Burma), dozens of aid agencies queued up in Bangkok, hoping to get into Myanmar. Due to an upcoming election regarding a constitutional change and a general paranoia of outside meddling, the military strongmen, led by General Than Shwe, refused to allow entrance. After a few frustrating weeks in a standoff, Ban got on a plane, flew to Myanmar, met with the general and got a crack in the door that ultimately allowed humanitarian relief to be delivered.
Ban Ki-moon appears to be constantly in motion. Barbara Crossette, UN columnist for The Nation and a former New York Times reporter, wrote that just a few of his activities last May included: attending a UN World Health Organization Assembly and convincing leaders of pharmaceutical companies to donate vaccines; helping coordinate UN strategies to combat the Swine Flu outbreak; visiting with Congressional leaders in Washington to discuss UN funding; addressing an international summit in Bahrain on disaster planning; encouraging business leaders in Copenhagen to get involved in overcoming climate change; conducting 21 meetings in one day with various Danish leaders and environmental experts, and then heading off to an official visit in Finland. And the list goes on.
Ban has been criticized for a variety of managerial decisions and personality traits, such as some curious upper-level personnel appointments, surrounding himself with a small cadre of Koreans, having his reform efforts stymied by various UN member countries, being isolated from public input, not speaking English well, being a behind-the-scenes, low-keyed negotiator and not speaking forcefully enough on atrocities in Gaza, Sri Lanka and the Congo.
Normally, the Wall Street Journal confines its vitriolic attacks against the UN to its editorial pages, but not always. Recently it did a supposedly straight news piece on “The UN’s Invisible Man,” Ban Ki-moon. The article contained some legitimate concerns but downplayed most of Ban’s major accomplishments. Organizations such as the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times, as well as Heritage and other right-wing groups, seem to be on an untiring crusade to disparage the UN.
Of course, the clear winner in the character assassination and distortion category has to be the Journal of Foreign Policy’s (July/August 2009) article on the “Most Dangerous Korean.” Jacob Heilbrunn, senior editor of the National Interest (an ultra-conservative publication) had a rambling, perhaps libelous, screed about Ban being an “accidental tourist…(Ban) frittering away his influence.” Apparently, Mr. Heilbrunn has little knowledge of Ban’s accomplishments, forgot that Kim Jong Il is a Korean (North, that is) and failed to even remotely prove that Ban was a danger to anybody or a failure. The article’s title and content were 180 degrees apart.
With articles like Mr. Heilbrunn’s, Foreign Policy may be trying to become the print version of Fox News, as well as the gossip tabloid in the international relations field. One inevitable conclusion is that the journalistic professionalism of the WSJ and the FP has certainly been damaged.
Given that it is legitimate to criticize and scrutinize many UN programs and activities, the US media should not give the UN or Ban Ki-moon a pass, but should cover the UN objectively and professionally. However, that is not what is happening. Each day, major decisions that impact billions of people are discussed at the UN. Little coverage actually takes place.
The UN has an immense challenge to get its message out to the media and the general public. Following are just a few examples of media bias it encounters:
-- Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the UN’s World Health Organization, has led the charge against the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic. Seldom do any media outlets identify WHO as a UN agency or Ms. Chan as a UN official. This bias is prevalent in most stories about almost all UN agencies.
-- Often when the UN sponsors a conference -- and a heavy percentage of international conferences are under the UN’s auspices -- on climate change or AIDs for example, the media lists it as an “international conference,” and seldom mentions the UN’s involvement. PBS recently ran a documentary on the founding and evolution of the International Criminal Court and failed to mention the UN’s role in establishing this unique body.
-- The UN has a host of activities it is sponsoring that receive virtually zero recognition, much less commendation, such as putting together the free and democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, mobilizing the world to combat piracy, launching major international campaigns against autism and suicide, and the list has hundreds more examples of services provided.
-- In 2001 when former Secretary General Kofi Annan and the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize, US News and World Report (another notorious UN basher) scarcely mentioned this Herculean accomplishment. Shortly afterwards, it did a full-page spread on Annan being on the Muppets Show, which trivialized Annan and made him look foolish.
-- Another challenge is the “Foxization” of the news in general and the UN in particular. Fox Television personalities start their unverifiable attacks on the UN and many other entities with three commentators on Fox and Friends in the morning, do a modicum of objective reporting during the day, and wrap-up in the evening with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, who consistently present a biased and distorted portrayal of the news, facts and issues, especially when discussing the UN. CNN’s Lou Dobbs also falls into this category to a lesser degree.
The “Foxization” effect follows Mark Twain’s sage advice to “Get your facts first, then you can distort them how you please,” rather than be “fair and balanced” as Fox purports to be.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicated that 81% of Americans had never heard of Ban Ki-moon or had an opinion about him. Even SG Ban indicated that he felt like an “invisible man.” Although Ban may be unknown by most Americans, a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project Poll reported that the UN’s popularity in the US has spiked from 47% in 2007 to 61% in 2009.
Ban Ki-moon appears to be a low-keyed, consensus builder who is more of a “work horse” rather than “show horse.” Achieving the goal and getting the job done appear to be his key criteria. This has worked to his advantage in helping to promote cooperation, forge consensus-building and maintain lines of communication, while not making waves.
Ban Ki-moon grew up knowing the horrors of the Korean War, which arguably shaped his belief in the UN and what it could do to promote peace in an intractable conflict, much as it did when the US and other allies liberated South Korea from 1950-1953.
Also, Ban is the first SG to have an advanced degree in public administration. Undoubtedly, this provided him with a certain professional development outlook, and a toolbox of skills that emphasizes diplomacy, fact-finding, objectivity, determination and results-oriented approaches to dealing with problems.
The first UN Secretary General, Trygve Lie, said to Dag Hammarskjold, the second SG, that being UN Secretary General was the “most impossible” job in the world. Ban Ki-moon may actually agree with that prophetic statement.
Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”