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Why the World Has Changed in the U.N.'s Favor

Newsweek International (US)

04 June 2007

By Ban Ki-moon

My experience, each morning, may not be unlike yours. We pick up our newspapers or turn on the TV—in New York, Lagos or Jakarta—and peruse a daily digest of human suffering. Lebanon. Darfur. Somalia. Of course, as Secretary General of the United Nations, I at least am in a position to try to do something about these tragedies. And I do, every day.

When I took on this post, nearly five months ago, it was without illusions. A distinguished predecessor famously remarked that it was "the most impossible job in the world." I myself have joked that I am more secretary than general, for after all the Secretary General is no more powerful than his Security Council is united. In the past, as today, that unity has often been elusive. And yet, I remain as optimistic as the day I first entered this office.

That might be hard to understand, given the dimension and intractability of many of the problems we face—nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the Middle East. With demands growing on every front, from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance to health, the U.N. today is being called upon to do more than ever before, even as the resources to do these jobs grow proportionately more scarce. On the other hand, consider some of the ways in which the world has changed, in recent years, to the U.N.'s advantage.

For many reasons other than Iraq, there is today a new appreciation for multilateralism and diplomacy in coping with crises. "Soft power" issues—the U.N.'s natural turf—have risen to the top of the global agenda. In the past year alone, to cite but one example, a consensus has emerged on climate change and the dangers of global warming. Leaders from Bill Gates to Tony Blair to Bono are committed to helping the United Nations achieve its Millennium Development Goals, from reducing poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Perhaps most encouraging, public support for the U.N. remains strikingly high. A new poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found large majorities (74 percent) believe the United Nations should play a stronger role in the world, whether in preventing genocide and defending nations under attack or aggressively investigating human-rights abuses. Even in the United States, where disillusion with the U.N. has lately run deep, three of four Americans favor a stronger United Nations, and nearly as many expect the nation's foreign policy to be conducted in partnership with it. For the U.N., all this, too, amounts to a climate change. I wouldn't quite call it a new San Francisco moment—but it might not be far short, so long as we seize the opportunity.

We Koreans are an energetic people. By nature, we are patient but persistent, determined to accomplish what we set out to do. Like many of my countrymen, I believe in the power of relationships. For years I have carried in my wallet (along with lists of trade and economic statistics) a well-worn scrap of paper inscribed with Chinese characters, each pertaining to one's age and phase in life. At 30, you are in your prime of life. At 50, you are said to know your destiny. At 60, you possess the wisdom of the "soft ear."

This last is my phase. It involves more than mere listening, important as that may be. Perhaps it's best described as discernment—seeing a person or situation in the round, the bad with the good, and being able to establish rapport and an effective working relationship despite disagreements, however sharp. This, I trust, will be the hallmark of my tenure as Secretary General. I believe in engagement, dialogue before confrontation. Sometimes this diplomacy will be public; other times it will take place behind the scenes, since that is where the potential for success is often greatest.

I emphasize the word, potential. Success is seldom foreordained. What is important is to try, as I have been doing in Darfur—among my top priorities. I have pressed very hard, with Washington and other partners, for more time in negotiating with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to deploy an international peacekeeping force under the auspices of the African Union. So far, that has yielded only a partial victory—the Khartoum government's agreement to accept 3,500 U.N. personnel, far short of the 20,000 considered necessary. I remain confident that determined diplomacy can yet yield more satisfactory results. Still, as innocents continue to die, it is also clear that time is not infinite.

In the same spirit, I have visited the Middle East four times in as many months, including several meetings and telephone calls with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, most recently in Damascus. Here, too, my aim is to build a relationship—one that might help moderate events in Lebanon and, ultimately, return Syria more fully into the international community. Quiet diplomacy does not always work, as I say. But it can, even in the most strained circumstances, as we witnessed not long ago in the behind-the-scenes resolution of Britain's hostage crisis with Iran.

Next week, the industrialized nations of the G8 will meet in Germany to discuss, among other things, climate change—a cause I intend to fully embrace. Too often, we speak of global warming as a technical matter. We talk of carbon-trading, global emissions caps, new technologies from more fuel-efficient automobiles to solar power. All are important, needless to say.

Yet the aspect of climate change that I would emphasize is more immediately human. It involves the inherent inequality of the phenomenon. Though global warming affects us all, it affects us all differently. Wealthy nations possess the resources and know-how to adapt. Swiss ski villages may one day lose their snow—or so a colleague tells me, recently returned from an alpine holiday—but its valleys could well become a "new Tuscany," full of sunny vineyards. The trade-offs for Africa, already plagued by desertification, or Indonesia's islanders, fearful that they shall sink beneath the waves, are far more treacherous.

If there is a unifying theme to my work, a vision if you will, it is this human dimension—the ultimate worth of engagement and trusted but clear-eyed diplomatic relationships, coupled with a mindfulness of how global policies—our policies—affect individuals and everyday lives. We may read, each morning, about human tragedies in our newspapers. But how often do we truly hear such people's voices, or try with full force and determination to help? This I pledge to do.

Ban  Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations