by Alykhan Velshi (Oct. 2006)
Kofi Annan’s tenure as UN Secretary General will finish at the end of the year. His legacy will be one of scandal and failure. The UN peacekeeping operation in Congo (Kinshasa) was implicated in an elaborate child prostitution ring. In the Middle East, the UN’s failure to either authorize or prevent the invasion of Iraq showcased its impotence. Then there were the shenanigans over the UN Oil-for-Food Programme, the biggest financial fraud of modern times, a scandal that implicated senior UN officials as well as Kofi Annan’s son, Kojo.
Over the upcoming days and weeks, the Security Council will settle upon Kofi Annan’s replacement. A candidate for Secretary General must obtain the support of at least nine members of the Security Council, including the five veto-wielding permanent members. Then, the candidate must win the confidence of the General Assembly.
After weeks and months of quiet diplomacy, the front-runner is Ban Ki-moon, South Korea‘s former minister of foreign affairs. In previous straw polls taken within the Security Council, Ban has won the support of fourteen of the Council’s fifteen members. In the latest straw poll, taken on Thursday, September 28, he won the support of thirteen members. Since the voting in the straw polls was anonymized, there is no way of knowing for certain whether the votes against Ban were from one of the veto-wielding countries – France, China, the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom.
Still, Ban was well on his way to smooth confirmation as the consensus candidate – until, that is, the gory details of a bribery scandal surrounding his campaign were reported in the media in late September. Now, as UN-watchers reconsider Ban’s record, as well as probe further into his attempts to bribe his way into the top UN job, it is becoming clear that Ban Ki-moon is unfit to be the Secretary General of the United Nations.
The bribery scandal, corruption in Seoul
Not quite Koreagate, and as far as I can tell Tongsun Park, the South Korean businessman behind the Oil-for-Food scandal, is not involved, but the Ban campaign has been dogged by allegations of corruption and bribery.
In March, South Korea announced that it would treble its foreign aid budget by 2008. The coincidence in timing between the increase in South Korea‘s foreign aid outlays and Ban’s bid for the top job at the UN prompted UN-watchers to investigate exactly which countries were recipients of South Korean largesse. It turns out that the money was used to wheedle various Security Council members into voting for Ban.
Unsurprisingly, most of the money went to Tanzania and Ghana, both members of the UN Security Council. Both countries’ support is crucial for Ban Ki-Moon’s success, he requiring nine members of the Secretary General to support his candidacy. The Times of London reported that, “When Mr Ban arrived [in Tanzania] in May he pledged $18 million for an educational programme and also promised to carry out a road and bridge project in western Tanzania. Between 1991 and 2003 South Korean grants to Tanzania totalled $4.7 million. Seoul’s generosity seems to have worked. Yesterday Elly Matango, the Tanzanian Ambassador to Tokyo and Seoul, said that his Government had decided to support Mr Ban.”
There have even been allegations that senior politicians from Afghanistan, as well as political leaders from Uzbekistan, have received money from the Ban campaign. The Times reported that South Korea “contributed tens of thousands of pounds to sponsor this year’s African Union summit in the Gambia in July, when Mr Ban declared 2006 to be “the Year of Africa” for South Korea.” The Washington Post notes that, “President Roh Moo Hyun’s trade mission earlier this month to Greece, which holds the Security Council’s presidency. The visit, the first by a South Korean leader to Greece since 1961, concluded with the signing of trade and tourism agreements.” The Times also reports that South Korea gifted a grand piano to Peru.
And this is just what was disclosed last week – if the Security Council holds off rubber-stamping Ban for a few more weeks, then further investigations can determine exactly who was paid off, by how much, and whether those countries “conveniently” checked Ban’s name in the straw polls.
Although the United Kingdom has not been in any rush to find a replacement for Kofi Annan, and has encouraged more candidates to enter the race, U.S. diplomats have been eager to get the whole affair over with. Early on, U.S. policy has been, as Ambassador John Bolton put it, “to try and reach this decision by the end of September, early October.” Since early voting works to the advantage of the front-runner, Ban has been the beneficiary of this U.S. policy. It is important that the United States abandons this position to allow a deeper inquiry into the bribery scandal. Of course, U.S. policy is not coming from Ambassador Bolton, but from his superiors in the State Department.
Condi’s confused State Department
Condoleezza Rice has been an underwhelming Secretary of State, allowing bureaucratic subordinates in the State Department to dictate policy, refusing to draw bright lines in international negotiations with Iran, and distinguishing herself from her predecessor Colin Powell only by being less perfidious and perhaps more comely.
Ever since the Harriet Miers imbroglio, where President Bush passed over his horse to appoint his personal lawyer to the Supreme Court, the conventional wisdom is that the Bush administration appoints based on friendship rather than qualifications. Disquietingly, the same thing seems to be happening again with the Ban nomination, except this time it is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who is privileging a friend over others that are more qualified.
At the gala at July 2006’s ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Kuala Lumpur, Ban and Rice regaled the attending diplomats with a vaudeville and high-classical routine. For his part, according to the BBC, Ban donned a “green sequined jacket” and led the South Korean delegation in a performance of Abba, proving once and for all that saving face is an overrated commodity in international diplomacy.
Rice, an accomplished pianist, performed a piano recital, which apparently was quite elegant. Rice and Ban bonded over their love for the piano, and this formed the basis of a friendship that continues to this day. According to sources involved in the Secretary General race, this friendship has shaped U.S. policy in Ban’s favor. Of course, the rest of the U.S. team at the United Nations is on the whole rather more divided about Ban, with those less wooed by Ban’s personal overtures pointing to his sorry record as South Korea‘s foreign affairs minister.
Ban previously distinguished himself as a fierce critic of U.S. policies regarding the Korean peninsula. When Rice appeared at her Senate confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State, she called North Korea an “outpost of tyranny.” This drew a very sharp rebuke from Ban, who said Rice’s words “would never help create an atmosphere of dialogue.” At a time when North Korea was cocking a snook at the Six Party Talks framework, for South Korea to break ranks severely undermined U.S. policy and the united front that formed the basis of negotiations with North Korea. This set off a series of events that culminated in North Korea testing a variety of short-range and long-range missiles. These tests, which were for the most part unsuccessful, massively destabilized the existing regional balance, leading to a strengthening of U.S.-Japanese military ties on sea-based missile interceptors, and stoking fears of a Sino-Japanese arms race.
Seeking to balance against a rising Japan, rather than issue a stern condemnation of North Korea’s destabilizing missile tests, the official South Korean reaction was to say that, “There is no reason to fuss over this … like Japan, but every reason to do the opposite.” Ban has been at the forefront of attempts to play down the North Korean menace, to excuse its every act, and to shift focus and attention to Japan, a historical enemy of Koreans. Ban’s manipulation of foreign policy crises to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment, as well as his excuses for North Korean provocations, compromised U.S. strategy, as well as had a profoundly destabilizing impact in the region.
As Secretary General, Ban’s previously held views on the Korean peninsula will fatally undermine his objectivity if there is a crisis in the Korean peninsula. The United States will correctly view him as biased, North Korea will agitate against him on the grounds that he served in the South Korean government, he lacks the trust of Japan and Taiwan, and any statement he makes will be measured against his previous comments. Most important of all, Ban’s views about North Korea are profoundly at odds with the United States’ – at a time when U.S. policy is to prevent the emergence of rogue states armed with nuclear weapons, this alone should cause it to oppose a Ban candidacy.
Rewarding South Korea, why?
In his invaluable book, “The Future of the United Nations,” Joshua Muravchik includes several appendices ranking UN member states’ relative contribution to the 2005 UN regular budget and its peacekeeping budget, as well as how often each member state voted with the United States in the General Assembly that year.
The appendices make for sober reading, because they show precisely who is a U.S. ally, and who isn’t. France, for all the criticism it receives for being a nation of withered apple-johns, ranked seventh, just behind the United Kingdom and Australia, in terms of countries that voted with the United States. South Korea, by contrast, ranked 50th, voting with the United States only 39% of the time.
In spite of this, South Korea remains, rightly in my opinion, a valued and valuable ally, with whom the United States is joined at the hip by a shared menace as well as a shared experience fighting the good fight during the Cold War. The United States should pursue a closer friendship with Asian countries that share our values, and South Korea is certainly one of them.
However this should not include rewarding the South Koreans for their unhelpfulness and obstructionism at the UN by helping one of their own win its top job. U.S. overtures toward South Korea should focus on areas of shared interest: bilateral trade agreements, cultural and educations exchanges, and so on. With respect to diplomacy, however, our rewards for South Korea should be carefully tailored to areas of mutual cooperation – South Korea‘s voting record in the UN General Assembly suggests that supporting their candidate for Secretary General is not one of them.
It is perhaps worthwhile diagnosing the cause of the current cooling of relations between the United States and South Korea in the diplomatic and geopolitical arena. It is based on, I believe, three factors. First, the Bush administration has, since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, adopted a less conciliatory policy towards North Korea, whereas South Korea, under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, has sought even closer engagement with North Korea. The South Koreans continue to favor the policy articulated in 1998 by then President Kim Dae-jung, the so-called “Sunshine Policy”, which called for stronger ties with North Korea. One of the causes of the “Sunshine Policy” is the emergence in influential positions in the South Korean government of a new crop of politicians. The young turks of the Kim Dae-jung administration were in their student days part of the movement that resisted the pro-U.S. South Korean dictator Park Chung Lee. The student movement opposed to Park Chung Lee was weaned on an anti-Americanism that remains unabated as yesterday’s student leaders morphed into today’s leading politicians.
Second, South Korea has never had friendly relations with the Japanese, who have a history of brutalization of the region, the Korean peninsula in particular, through conquest. Japan’s inability to come to terms with its savage past, its political leadership’s budding nationalism, and the gradual movement towards remilitarization of Japan, have made many South Koreans weary of a rising Japan, which preoccupies them far more than a rising China. Demagoguery concerning past historical grievances with Japan is much better received by the South Korean public than saber rattling towards North Korea. Factoring in the United States‘ tacit encouragement of Japan‘s rise in Asia, it is no surprise that the United States is having difficulty maintaining optimal relations with South Korea‘s political leadership.
And, third, the current generation of younger South Koreans are very anti-American. They see the presence of U.S. military bases throughout their country as a provocation to North Korea. These bases are filled with American soldiers who, as a rule, are not known for their ability to make nice with the locals. Partly because the Korean War is not part of the collective memory of the current generation of South Korean youth, the presence of U.S. military bases is seen as a cowering to U.S. regional hegemony rather than part of a campaign of deterrence and collective self-defense.
These ingredients combine to tilt South Korean policy in an anti-American direction, a trend that is likely to be exacerbated as the current generation of young South Koreans gradually assume political power. A sop to South Korea in the form of letting one of their own be Secretary General will not make a dent in underlying trends, especially since the South Korean press has noticed, correctly, that it is the Chinese government that is championing Ban, while the U.S government is being, at best, a reluctant supporter.
South Korea as a global citizen
South Korea has played the role of cheapskate when it comes to funding the UN – donating the minimum amount necessary and letting others pick up the slack. As Muravchik explains in his book, South Korea contributed 1.8% of the UN’s regular budget in 2005, which is paltry compared to other U.S. allies in the region. Japan, for example, contributed 19% of the regular UN budget. In fact, Mexico, which is not exactly rolling in pesos, contributed more to the UN budget than South Korea.
Even worse, South Korea contributed a paltry 1.5% to the UN peacekeeping budget, even though it, perhaps more than any country in the world, should appreciate the importance of peacekeepers. I do not see the reason for how rewarding a country that contributes so little to the UN with its top job will incentivize other UN members to increase their funding commitments – which, given the UN’s ever-expanding and ambitious agenda, is probably the only way for it to remain solvent.
Let us assume that, against all odds, the Security Council rebuffed Ban’s candidacy. Who are the other contenders?
I will mention a few: Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist and prominent UN official; Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia’s current president, a lapsed Canadian, and the only female candidate in the race; Nirj Deva, a dual Sri Lankan-British citizen who is a member of the European Parliament; Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s post-war finance minister, who Emerging Markets magazine voted as Asia’s best finance minister in 2003. There are others, too. In fact, if Ban’s candidacy is defeated, even if no one else decides to run, there is still a very solid field of people vying for the top UN job.
None of these candidates has corrupted the UN system through soft-bribery and all would be massive improvements over the status quo. It is a shame that the public focus has been on Ban Ki-moon, but there is still a slim, and fading, opportunity to counteract this in October’s straw polls, the first of which is on October 2nd.
There is no reason why one of these excellent candidates should not emerge as the next UN Secretary General. Some have cut their teeth in the UN bureaucracy, others have combated corruption at home, still others have helped rebuild their impoverished and war-torn societies. These, I believe, are the candidates most able to fix the serious problems afflicting the UN. Yet the candidate of the status quo, a man who personifies the culture of corruption and incompetence that has come to define the UN, is the front-runner. Ban Ki-moon’s anointment as UN Secretary General will signal that UN reform is a dead issue.
Whoever emerges as the next Secretary General will have a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy. Kofi Annan perfected the art of soft-balancing against the United States and her allies, delivering the perfectly timed rhetorical barb, taking obvious sides in international conflicts, and frustrating the implementation of Security Council disarmament resolutions.
The United States and her allies face a choice. Either they can let Ban Ki-moon become the next Secretary General – ensuring that UN reform efforts are doomed for the next five years, rewarding a man who bribed his way into office, and letting an ardent critic of U.S. foreign policy assume the top diplomatic job in the world – or they can veto his candidacy.
Alykhan Velshi, a former president of the Model United Nations society at the Toronto French School, is the manager of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He can be emailed at [email protected].
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