Before I became the UN's Secretary-General, I was an Asian diplomat.
While I was foreign minister of the Republic of Korea, my Government and I strongly advocated détente with the North. When some in the world called for sanctions and punitive action, South Korea pushed for dialogue. That requires listening as well as speaking. It means sticking to principles, but also attempting to understand the other side, however irrational or intransigent it may sometimes appear.
This remains my style at the United Nations. I believe in the power of diplomacy and engagement. I prioritize dialogue over debate or declaration. Above all, I seek results.
We are doing that now in Myanmar. My Special Adviser, Ibrahim Gambari, has been back in Yangon. His brief is to be the honest broker, the facilitator of a dialogue between government and opposition leaders, particularly Aung San Suu Kyi. The goal is for Myanmar's Government to release all detained students and demonstrators, engage with the opposition, move toward a more democratic society, and rejoin the international community.
This brand of diplomacy is not quick or easy. There is seldom applause, and often no outward evidence of movement. It is a quiet, painstaking slog behind the scenes. You have to work the phones, cajole world leaders to do this or that. It is a symphony—often not a very harmonious one—of small steps that you hope will lead to something greater.
You expect nothing. You can only keep trying, keep pushing. Maybe it works, maybe not. Then you try some more, in a different way, aiming all the while for some small progress that makes the next step possible.
We are at this point in Darfur. I have spent hundreds of hours working behind closed doors with various parties to the conflict—Sudan's Government, rebel leaders, neighbouring countries, and African Union partners. Meanwhile, we are pushing ahead with one of the most complex peacekeeping operations in our history, feeding and protecting hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and sponsoring difficult peace negotiations in Libya.
But even as I push my brand of "Asian" diplomacy, it can sometimes feel a bit lonely to be an Asian at the international community's diplomatic roundtable.
We Asians inhabit the world's largest continent, with the world's largest population and its fastest-growing economies. We have a rich history and ancient cultures. Yet our role in international affairs is far less than it could, or should be.
Asia's contribution to the UN, though significant, could be greater. Its humanitarian assistance, to put it politely, is less than generous. We are the only continent where regional integration and common markets have not taken hold.
Latin Americans and North Americans dream of creating a free-trade zone. Europeans speak of building a United States of Europe. The African Union aspires to become a United States of Africa. Why no United States of Asia?
There are many reasons why is Asia different: history, cultural diversity, unresolved territorial and political disputes, a lack of multilateral experience, and the predominance of one or two centers of power. But the main reason is that we have not tried.
Asia does not do itself justice. As an Asian Secretary-General, I hope to see this change. I hope to see an Asia that is both better integrated and more internationally engaged.
I expect particularly great things of my fellow Koreans, a remarkable people who have come into their own. I hope to see Korea assume more responsibility in the world, commensurate with its growing economic clout—especially in the area of development, one of the three pillars of the UN Charter. Koreans need to step up, speak out, and do more, and that should start with more generous official development assistance.
Koreans have already shown their penchant for multilateral diplomacy and trouble shooting through the six-party talks. Now, they, and Asians at large, need to bring both their skills and their success to bear on the most pressing global issues of the day.
This is not just my hope, it is also Asia's obligation.
This article is adapted from his address to the Asia Society, New York, 6 November 2007.