15 FEBRUARY 2009


The question is being whispered but not yet raised. Before the election of President Obama, there were some diplomatic rumours -- which remained just that -- about certain Security Council Permanent members, which had expressed unhappiness with positions taken or overlooked by the current Secretary General. For example, Russia on Georgia; China on several questions including the influence of Mr. Kim; the U.K. on senior posts; France because of a new President (who eventually got his own candidate the Peacekeeping post). The group of Developing countries had already expressed displeasure over the handling of varied issues from budget, to jobs, to politics.

However, the arrival of a new U.S. administration with a new President whose campaign was based on "change" and "yes, we can" placed the question into a strategic -- not just personal -- perspective.

Clearly, President Barack Obama considers the U.N. essential -- "indispensable though imperfect." His designation of Ambassador Susan Rice, a close adviser, reflected his intention to deal seriously and regularly with and through the only available comprehensively inclusive international framework. His Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is equally keen on the role of the U.N., not only as the former Senator from New York, but as former First Lady. Her active leadership was displayed since participating in the international summits against poverty in Copenhagen (1994), Beijing on women (1995) and the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Declaration of Human Rights in New York (1997). Her lifelong career was closely linked to U.N.-related issues, thinking globally while acting nationally. Now she has a unique opportunity while keeping in mind national politics to both think and act globally.

Every eight years the post of U.N. Secretary General gets entangled with the election of a new U.S. President. Dr. Boutros-Ghali, for example, had been elected during former (Republican) President George W.H. Bush's tenure, while his re-election came up after the election of (Democratic) President Clinton, who single-handedly opposed it. Now, the renewal for Ban Ki-moon, who was enthusiastically -- almost single handedly -- pushed by the administration of (Republican) George W. Bush (particularly Ambassador Bolton), will be coming up after the election of (Democratic) President Barack Obama.

It is often said that those who do not learn from history will be condemned to repeat it; or that history repeats itself at a different price. Whatever glib language used, the fact is that there is a valid question, particularly if you start reading the tea leaves; if not the writing on the wall.

Since January, we are being told sometimes by Mr. Ban personally that he and the new administration were actually "reading from the same page." That may not be easy to believe. More likely it is a different book. Anyway, the U.N. Secretary General, at least officially, reads only from the U.N. Charter. Naturally, he (or hopefully she in due course) should take into full consideration the vital interests of member states, particularly permanent members, and most particularly the host country. But reading from the same page could be quite a task, as the new U.S. administration has not yet written it.

There is also that amateur photo which keeps popping up of a 2007 chance encounter on a Washington-New York shuttle between Mr. Ban and (at the time) candidate Obama. They are shown gladly shaking hands for the camera. We are in 2009, for God's sake. If the only photo to show is from February 2007, what does it tell about the relationship?!

Which naturally raises a basic question: When did Ban Ki-moon last see President Obama?

Several questions would follow, like: Was Mr. Ban invited to the inauguration ceremony? How many days did it take for President Obama to return his first call?

We will not attempt to provide factual answers. Nor would anyone expect the new U.S. administration to show its hand so early. That would be very unusual and impractical, if not totally unwise.

Meanwhile, it may help if those around the Secretary General lose that 2007 photograph!