Ban Ki-moon isn't having a good year for public relations. Halfway through a five-year term as U.N. secretary-general, he's been hit with a wave of negative assessments by the Financial Times, The Economist, London Times, Foreign Policy and other media organizations. In a March 2009 editorial entitled "Whereabouts Unknown," the Times said Ban was "virtually inaudible" on pressing issues of international security and "ineffectual" on climate change, the one issue that Ban claims he has made the biggest difference on. The Economist gave him a mixed report card, assigning him two out of 10 points for his management skills while praising him on climate change (eight out of 10 points).
This week, Norway's Aftenposten newspaper made an unpleasant situation much worse. It published a confidential memo assessing Ban's 2-1/2 years in office from Oslo's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mona Juul, to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Juul's report is scathing -- and it comes from a representative of one of the world's body's top financial contributors. She says the former South Korean foreign minister suffers from a "lack of charisma" and has "constant temper tantrums" in his offices on the 38th floor of the United Nations building in midtown Manhattan.
She describes Ban as a "powerless observer" during the fighting in Sri Lanka earlier this year when thousands of civilians were killed as government forces ended a 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, trapping them on a narrow strip of coast in the country's northeast. In Darfur, Somalia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Congo, she wrote, Ban's "passive and not very committed appeals seem to fall on deaf ears." She says that his recent trip to Myanmar was a failure and that some people in Washington refer to Ban as a "one-term" secretary-general.
Juul's letter could hardly have come at a more inopportune time. Ban is planning to visit Norway in the coming weeks, where he intends to meet with government officials and visit the Arctic circle to see for himself the effects of global warming and the melting polar ice. Now U.N. officials fear reporters will be more interested in what he says about Juul's memo than climate change.
So far Ban has not reacted to the letter. However, a Norwegian diplomat told Reuters that Ban's press office had been instructed to hold off on confirming his visit to Norway shortly after the news of Juul's memo began to spread.
Ban's PR difficulties didn't start this year. In March 2008, his chief of staff Vijay Nambiar sent a memo to U.N. employees explaining how to say his boss's name. "Many world leaders, some of whom are well acquainted with the Secretary-General, still use his first name mistakenly as his surname and address him wrongly as Mr. Ki-moon or Mr. Moon," Nambiar complained.
Then came Ban's own speech to senior U.N. officials in Turin, Italy last year, in which he described how difficult it was to improve the working culture inside the United Nations. The secretary-general seemed to acknowledge that his internal management style had failed. "I tried to lead by example," Ban said. "Nobody followed."
Ban's aides vehemently defend him, saying he's being treated unfairly by the press. One senior U.N. official suggested privately that Ban could very well turn out to be "the greatest secretary-general ever." They complain that people continue to compare him to his predecessor Kofi Annan, who was a very different U.N. chief and relied less on "quiet diplomacy" than Ban. Annan became a hero to many people around the world for standing up to the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Annan called the March 2003 invasion illegal. U.N. officials also complain bitterly about the indefatigable blogger Matthew Lee, whose website Inner City Press regularly accuses Ban and other U.N. officials of hypocrisy and failing to keep their promises to reform the United Nations and root out corruption. (Some U.N. officials accuse Lee of not always getting his facts right, but his blog has become unofficial required reading for U.N. staffers around the world.)
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, diplomats in New York say, is among those supporting a campaign against a second term for Ban. Juul's memo said Helen Clark, New Zealand's former prime minister and current head of the U.N. Development Program, "could quickly become a competitor for Ban's second term." But diplomats say they expect the United States, Britain and other major powers to reluctantly back a second term for Ban, if only because there appears to be no viable alternative whom Russia and China would support.
A recent article in the Times of London said the best U.N. chief in the organization's 64-year history was not Swedish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dag Hammarskjold but the Peruvian diplomat Javier Perez de Cuellar, who held the top U.N. post for 10 years until 1992. Nicknamed "mumbles" because he was so difficult to understand, Perez de Cuellar kept a low profile and, like Ban, preferred backroom diplomacy, not Annan's bully pulpit. Among the Peruvian diplomat's successes were managing the end of the Cold War, leading a long-delayed revival of U.N. peacekeeping and encouraging member states to back a U.S.-led military operation to drive Iraq's invading forces out of Kuwait in 1991.
Will Ban's preference for quiet diplomacy make him as good or better than Perez de Cuellar? That remains to be seen.