UNITED NATIONS. READING TEA LEAVES BAN KI MOON

 

READING TEA LEAVES

15 November 2006

Ban Ki Moon must have done a very good deed in his life. How else would one explain his double-barreled luck: being selected U.N. Secretary General despite belonging to a country in conflict with its neighbour; and being given a month and a half full-time to prepare his takeover. By mid-November, he will start his selection process, personally supervising a transition team for which Mr. Annan had designated two of his aides: Alicia Barcena and Bob Orr. Don't try to figure out the names on the Korean side. You have time to remember them by repetition in due course.

Most U.N. occasions these days, from a Greek concert on U.N. Day to a U.N. Correspondent's luncheon, are loaded with speculations. Diplomats and senior Secretariat officials ask each other subtle, sometimes bluntly open questions on what's in store and what to expect. As one seasoned senior official put it, we are dealing with a totally new culture here. The newly-elected Secretary General knows the U.N. in his own way; but the U.N. does not really know him. He has an excellent personal reputation; he comes from a culture of hard work and professional honour in performing challenging tasks. But very few in the building, where he had spent about a year with a former General Assembly President, would claim to predict his real approach. He has several acquaintances, but very few would claim a close friendship. That's to his advantage; indeed to his credit. No clique; no baggage. He is free to choose his own team, his own division commanders without too many personal obligations -- except, of course, the understandings reached with key powers during the campaign. Hence the first questions are about what do the Americans, Chinese, British, French, and Russians want? What would they settle for? Repeated word is that the Americans are no more interested in management. They have managed to the backbone. Now they want to go back to where they started with Dr. Ralph Bunche: Political Affairs. Failing that they would take Peacekeeping. The British would like to regain their initial turf in Peacekeeping as with Brian Urquhart and Marrack (Mig) Goulding, but may settle for a more recently lost ground in Political Affairs. But what about the current African chief of Political Affairs. The question may turn mute if a female African is selected as Deputy Secretary General. Yet if the capable Ibrahim Gambari pulls a rabbit in Myanmar with the release of our long-detained princess of democracy, some reward will have to be granted: possibly in Cyprus where he displayed at least a logistical success after an embarrassing impasse, or Darfur where his country Nigeria plays a key role, or stay where he is where he ably represents the Third World. But what about the French. Ever since they bargained with Kofi Annan for it, they will certainly wish to keep his Peacekeeping job, although the French government may not be too keen on its current "representative" in the Secretariat; it may eventually propose someone other than Jean-Marie Guehenno, after a period of grace to allow for a decent exit "pour la forme." The Russians may be fed up with Geneva and would wish a more substantive post, although the European Office remains a tempting -- and fairly autonomous -- operation for an influential Russian. On the nature of the Russian "share," the matter is mostly in the experienced hands of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, one of the most accomplished exports on U.N. matters. He will certainly balance the situation with a realist's eye. The Chinese most likely have been rewarded and awarded, whether in New York, Geneva, or elsewhere. Such matters are handled, Asian-style (that is, quietly and discreetly).

There is another somewhat overlooked category to be accommodated: Security Council non-permanent members who voted the right way, particularly those leaving the Council by January, and more particularly those approaching retirement. At least one or two of the most vocal supporters would appreciate recognition - which might not be difficult to arrange in this wide world of alphabet soup assignments.

No Secretary General could afford to overlook the Developing countries; including the Group of 77, now over 110. Kofi Annan paid a high price for straying away and had to pay additional dues to return. Here, again, it is not beyond an experienced conciliator like Ben Ki Moon to reach out for an accommodation possibly in the Development or Communications fields. He may initiate contact with some of their currently prominent active figures in New York like South Africa's Dumisani Kumalo, Algeria's Abdellah Bali, Pakistan's Munir Akram. The Algerian would have an edge of covering the Arab world, North Africa and the developing countries in one stroke.

The Scandinavian who had a field day of appointments during Mr. Annan's tenure would hope to get some compensation for Paradise Lost. Two in particular, a Swede and Norwegian, are lobbying very hard (the Norwegian through certain business interests) although Mr. Ban may not be aware of it yet. That leads to questions about the current heads of departments, Under-Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries General. Most of them would not take a hint until Christopher Burnham, the American in charge of the Management Department, showed the way by announcing his departure. During a retreat at the week-end that followed, senior officials received advice that they better show some gracious attitude by offering to vacate their posts to allow Mr. Ban a less fettered hand.

Months earlier, Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch-Brown indicated that he will be out by end December. Particularly with a new American political scene, where he has a number of influential friends, his options are varied. The new Secretary General may wish to ask him to stay for a transitional period to maintain stability in a changing process. Otherwise he could lead a purposeful venture in the private sector with an interest in international human development. Some would see a posting for him in a British Cabinet headed by Mr. Gordon-Brown. Whatever is decided, the choice for the post of Deputy Secretary General will be very indicative of the style of management of the new Secretary General.

On the light side, you see a number of self-promoting opportunists with little to show but a feverish passion for networking, running around pretending they were on urgent missions but stopping nevertheless to find out what was really going on. Some of these pompous characters who took full advantage of Annan's years have turned into meek souls in the hope of keeping their prize jobs. The ruthless and rude who for years hardly bothered to recognize their own staff are suddenly making nice, seeking support from their chronically wronged staff. Now you see them saying "hello," waving good-bye and attending functions, hanging around just in case the call comes through. Now you see them. Next year, hopefully, you won't.