15 April 2007

New Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would do well to follow his own advice. He seems better at acting than talking and talks better in conversations than in officially prepared statements.

Why does he need to issue a statement on everything under the sun every single day, even on week-ends, is an open question. They are picked up by no one, while being open for anyone to pick on. They may sound contradictory over time (witness Darfur, Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire, Kosovo, etc.). Admittedly, it is an inherited practice. Public Relations advisers to outgoing Secretary General Annan had started it for reasons which require a different analysis. But what was good for Mr. Annan may not be good for Mr. Ban Ki-Moon. Perhaps some expert advice could be obtained on the wisdom, frequency and timing of issuing official statements.

Secretary General Ban's maiden visit to the Middle East turned out to be much better than initially feared for someone plunging into a new rough neighbourhood. His pre-visit "eel style" response about the Saudi-Arab peace plan pleased no one. World-wide photos of him ducking during a bombing at a Baghdad press conference did not help. But steadily and surely, he seemed to recover on the way to Riyadh where he was preceded, coincidentally perhaps, by an official visit of the Korean President and the signature of a wide-ranging trade and economic agreement.

Mr. Ban gave an impression of a "very polite, very clever" man. Assembled Arab heads of state and governments generally felt he was a good listener, keen on acting appropriately, and open to what could be helpful. Arriving in Riyadh on a plane offered by Qatar (with the sensitivity between the two countries) was conveniently overlooked. Perhaps his most effective approach was to "act more, talk less" during that sensitive gathering. Another advantage may have been in the focus. There was no huge entourage to divert attention or make side demands; no egos of other "envoys" or senior officials to seek attention. No one with political baggage to irritate or draw boos, like what happened during his predecessor's November visit to Beirut. To everyone's relief, it was clear who was in charge. As usual, there were one or two minor characters who connected with some of the accompanying media to play up their own role for future reference. But reporters are used to such opportunistic practice and take it in stride. Similarly in Beirut, the chain of command was clear. It was the Secretary General, followed and accompanied by none other than his newly-promoted Special Representative Gere Pedersen who did an admirable job in balancing the meetings with key personalities and powerful players, keeping doors open while maintaining an orderly -- and appropriate -- process. Statements were kept to substantive positions while paying attention to the required ceremonial presentations. With so many potential traps, he moved carefully and nicely keeping that curious somewhat puzzled smile which seemed to rub on his team. More to the point in such difficult visits, no harm done and very limited cost to pay in a region where all parties are seeking a piece of the United Nations.

Evaluations of the first 100 days, like those of maiden visits, are more symbolic and topical than an academic or an objective review. They entail mainly a general impression. If there is one, we would suggest that our Secretary General do what he suggested upon taking over: Act more, talk less.