Yesterday the UN Security Council anointed South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon to succeed Kofi Annan as Secretary General in January. It's an astonishing rise for an 18-year-old from a small village in an impoverished nation who visited America in 1962 courtesy the American Red Cross. It was then, Ban tells us, when he visited the Kennedy White House, that he decided he wanted to be a diplomat.
Ban will begin his term with a crisis that may be unsolvable through normal diplomatic means. North Korea apparently conducted a nuclear test on Sunday. Ban, who will take over on January 1st, says he hopes to visit Pyongyang, but the already scant likelihood of using negotiations to dissuade the North from developing an arsenal has dropped even further. However, deft diplomacy would be helpful in convincing China, Russia, and South Korea that the only hope for a successful negotiation is to begin applying pressure, mainly by reducing economic, energy, and food assistance by the latter two nations to Pyongyang.
Ban is a consummate diplomat, low-key and soft-spoken, able to wend his way through East Asian complications and U.S.-South Korean tensions without making enemies. To win the assent of all of a majority of the Security Council members, without falling afoul of a veto by one of the permanent members, is itself evidence of diplomatic skill.
He has some critics, particularly over his nation's friendly treatment of North Korea and less friendly welcome for North Korean refugees. But the challenges that he will face less reflect his own limitations than the UN's problems. An organization where almost 200 nations have a vote, around a dozen pay most of the bill, and five can veto anything important is not designed for efficient action and competent management.
Still, the UN can be relatively more or less helpful to America, and the organization has tremendous symbolic importance. In this regard Ban's selection almost certainly is positive.
At a time of rising anti-Americanism in the Republic of Korea (ROK), Ban represents an older generation that remembers the horrors of the Korean War and America's intervention that preserved South Korean independence. He twice served in his nation's embassy in Washington. By all accounts he has tempered some of the antagonism towards the U.S. that otherwise infuses the government of President Roh Moo-hyun.
To win the Secretary General position, of course, Ban had to demonstrate to the other powers that he was no American stooge. Indeed, Beijing has expressed its confidence in him. However, no candidate could succeed without convincing all of the major players that he will work with all of them. Having represented a country that is slowly shifting from America's orbit towards that of the People's Republic of China, Ban is poised to help smooth relations between the world's superpower and incipient superpower.
But Ban's rise tells us more about Asia and South Korea than about Ban. The last Asian Secretary General was U Thant of Burma, who left office 35 years ago. While he represented neutralism resulting from weakness, Ban represents multilateralism growing out of strength.
Since then the center of gravity of world affairs has shifted towards Asia. America remains the globe's driving force culturally, economically, and politically; Europe remains a more important economic factor than Asia. But an Asia that was prostrate economically and politically then is now poised for flight.
Asia contains the world's second, fourth, and 12th largest economies (Japan, China, and South Korea, respectively), with India speeding forward. China has emerged as a serious player on the international stage; Japan is steadily distancing itself from post-World War II pacifism; the ROK is becoming a global force, and will be even more so if the two Koreas eventually reunite; India is extending its reach into Southeast Asia.
Ban's success means even more for South Korea. It is the first time that Seoul has fielded a candidate. Although the Secretary General must be independent of his home country to serve successfully, the ROK has worked assiduously -- too much so, in the view of some of Ban's competitors -- for his election. Thus, South Korea deserves at least some of the credit for his success.
Out of this comes at least some good news for America. First, the U.S., far more than any European state, is an Asian power. Although Washington cannot count on continuing to dominate the region as it has in recent years, it will continue to profit from significant cultural, economic, and political ties.
Second, the ROK's rise vindicates America, in the sense that it is because of U.S. policy that South Korea is now a prosperous democracy. Many South Koreans, especially younger people, sharply criticize post-World War II American policy, with some cause. Nevertheless, had Washington not divided the peninsula with the Soviet Union, intervened in the Korean War, and maintained a force presence in succeeding years, the ROK would be part of the hellhole known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In that case, the South Korean people would be immeasurably worse off -- and a Korean would not be preparing to take the helm at the UN.
As Ban Ki-moon prepares for his coronation by the UN Security Council, people of good will the world over should wish him well. The UN is clearly ungovernable and probably unreformable. Still, perhaps Ban can do some good, though no one should have any illusions about the potential for change.
Nevertheless, the U.S. can take quiet satisfaction in Ban's selection. Rather like a parent who watches a child successfully enter adulthood, Washington should applaud as its longtime dependent strides fitfully across the international stage.
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