By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
UNITED NATIONS -- When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon paid his first official visit to Washington last month, he received the White House version of a seal of approval: a presidential pat on the back and an invitation to phone President Bush whenever he needs help in responding to an international crisis.
Ban's warm reception appeared to signal an end to an era of U.S. confrontation with the United Nations that was marked by quarrels over the Iraq war, Republican-led corruption hearings on Capitol Hill and relentless threats of funding cuts.
But such a turn of fortune in Washington comes at a price: Ban is facing a diplomatic backlash from developing nations, which suspect the former South Korean foreign minister of seeking to reshape the United Nations to accommodate U.S. interests and the desires of other wealthy member nations. They have stonewalled his early attempt to reorganize the U.N. bureaucracy.
The standoff has weakened Ban barely a month into the job, as he faces one of the top challenges confronting every U.N. leader: how to strike a balance between the organization's most powerful member and an influential bloc of developing countries that instinctively resist policies that appear to track with U.S. interests.
"There is always suspicion no matter what the U.S. does because it is such an overwhelmingly powerful player," said Munir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the influential Group of 77, a Third World bloc. "I think that's a natural function of being a big power, of being the biggest power."
Developing nations have already quashed a proposal to broaden the powers of the United Nations' chief diplomatic arm, the Department of Political Affairs. The proposal generated fierce opposition after it was reported that the department might be headed by an American, former ambassador to Indonesia B. Lynn Pascoe, for the first time in a generation. The United Nations on Friday announced Pascoe's appointment, along with those of other senior officials from China, Egypt and Japan.
Another powerful Third World bloc -- the Non-Aligned Movement, currently chaired by Cuba -- is taking aim at Ban's plans for disarmament and peacekeeping. The secretary general proposed reorganizing the expanding U.N. peacekeeping department to better handle the largest increase in peacekeeping missions in the organization's history while downgrading the disarmament department.
The latter office is particularly popular among poor countries concerned with the nuclear arsenals of powerful nations.
"There is a lack of clarity," Akram said of Ban's initiatives. He said it is unlikely that the General Assembly, in which every member nation has a vote, would move quickly to take action on Ban's initiatives.
"It's quite natural the secretary general wants to get his reform or restructuring proposals done as soon as he can," Akram said, "but I think the processes in the General Assembly are such that do not lend themselves to fast-track decisions."
Alejandro D. Wolff, acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said international fears that Ban is doing Washington's bidding are baseless and are hampering sincere efforts to carry out "concrete and practical and apolitical" reforms. But it has been difficult to counter the perception, he added.
"The conspiracy theorists out there are convinced this is an American agenda and that this is a secretary general who is essentially responding to American demands," Wolff said.
To assuage such concerns, Ban moved early to assign key administrative posts to officials from the developing world, including a Tanzanian deputy secretary general, an Indian chief of staff and a Mexican management chief.
He also backtracked from a pledge to carry out a broad inquiry into the financial practices of most of the U.N. development and relief agencies, a move that was popular in Washington but unpopular within the Group of 77.
But those gestures have done little to counter the perception that Ban's most important policymakers are recruited from the United States and Europe or that he is undercutting the influence of the United Nations' Third World blocs.
"He is, either accidentally or by design, taking on a lot of reform issues that pinch the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] rather than ones that pinch the United States," said Michael Doyle, a visiting professor at Yale University who served as an adviser to Kofi Annan, Ban's predecessor. "We don't know yet whether he's going to turn around and pursue with equal vigor the kinds of reforms that are not that popular in Washington."
In Washington, political leaders have welcomed Ban with open arms and heeded his calls to step up financial support for the organization. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced a bill that would lift a congressionally imposed spending limit on U.S. funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations, a move that could cost U.S. taxpayers more than $100 million a year. The State Department, meanwhile, committed more than $70 million annually over the next five years to fund the renovation of the United Nations' gleaming Manhattan headquarters.
"Everyone wants him to succeed," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who held a gala reception and a breakfast to introduce Ban to Washington.
One senior U.S. official cautioned that there is a danger that the United Nations could overestimate the change in mood; some congressional leaders suggest that the Bush administration has already sent mixed signals to Ban with a budget request that fails to meet U.S. financial commitments toward U.N. peacekeeping.
Others recalled that congressional enthusiasm for previous U.N. leaders, including Annan, proved fickle.
Lantos said that sustained U.S. support for Ban will "depend on whether he can become a voice of moral authority rather than the distilled voice of 192 countries, some good number of which are totalitarian police states."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Ban is "mouthing all the right words." But she said the secretary general's cool reaction to Bush's plea for more support in Iraq "is most unhelpful," adding: "To say it's too dangerous is unacceptable. We have a right to expect more."