Has Ban Ki-Moon Lived Up to His Goals as UN Chief?

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Ban Ki-Moon won a second term as United Nations Secretary General yesterday,  affirmed by applause as he was the only candidate. Ban pitched himself as a mediator and bridge-builder, so it’s not surprising that he has been a less visible, less controversial and, his critics would say, less charismatic Secretary General than his predecessor, Kofi Annan. But that’s a question of style. It takes more than charm to make an organization like the UN effective. Has he succeeded?

Ban set out a clear set of priorities for himself, so it’s worth taking a moment to look at how well he’s lived up to his stated goals. On some of them, he has made clear although not dramatic progress. The Copenhagen talks may have been an “unmitigated disaster,” according to my colleague Bryan Walsh, but action on climate change is now a real international debate.  However contentious, ideas like cap-and-trade and the carbon tax are now real proposals, and it is one of the few issues on which the U.S., India and China have begun to speak frankly about the differences between them.

Ban inherited the Millennium Development Goals from his predecessor and with a second term, will still be in office in 2015, when those goals are almost certain to be missed.  But his consensus-building style has been effective here. The UN has help raise the visibility of maternal health and fighting malaria – both achievable goals. In the middle of a financial crisis and soaring food costs, ending poverty doesn’t look so realistic. But Ban has smartly used the MDG as a benchmark to measure the effect of the global recession on the poor and to push for continued commitment from richer countries to help them.

Ban has shown himself to be forceful on occasion – as he was with Libya. He advocated early for military action to protect civilians, using the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, of which he has been a champion, as justification. There is, of course, continued debate about that intervention, but no one can criticize Ban or the UN or failing to act quickly or decisively.

On other priorities related to peace, security and human rights, it’s hard to see much progress. The U.S. and Russia may have pledged to cut their nuclear arsenals but the relationship between India and Pakistan, surely the most volatile between two nuclear-armed nations, is at a low point, and the UN has little credibility with either country to improve it. Similarly, Ban missed an obvious opportunity to raise human rights concerns with China when he met with Hu Jintao. With Sri Lanka, on the other hand, he tried repeatedly to raise human rights issues over its treatment of civilians during the end of the civil war, but — at least so far — he has been outfoxed by the Sri Lankan government, who have used the support of China, Pakistan and India to prevent the UN from taking any real action.

Ban’s leadership of the UN, without any big scandals to date, has improved its credibility with the western world. In this, he has distinguished himself from his predecessor, who may have been charismatic but also presided over the oil-for-food digrace. In his second term, Ban’s biggest challenge will be to make the UN relevant and effective in its dealings with countries like India and China, who have long resisted any intervention by the UN as interference by the West.