There has never been a time in the history of the United Nations when its leader could be more useful in taking an active role in curing the world’s ills. African terrorists, warlords, revolutions, authoritarianism and a million other plights threaten to destroy international peace and stability.

In all of this, where is the secretary-general?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remains quiet in a world falling apart at the seams. He was elected for a second term of office last year in June 2011. Did anyone notice?

Ban’s “quiet diplomacy” has been silenced even more by bombs and growing censorship in countries the UN once carefully monitored. Of course, Ban has spoken out against these terrible things and in favour of liberal democratic values. He has especially been helpful in fighting poverty with the Millennium Development Goals, climate change and enhancing women’s rights.

Ban originally pledged to “breathe new life and inject renewed confidence into the sometimes weary Secretariat”. It appears that he may be doing this in his own style and that he really believes his “quiet diplomacy” will achieve this result in the long run.

The largest failure is in not following his self-prescribed recommendations. He once remarked that: “[UN] member states need a dynamic and courageous Secretariat, not one that is passive and risk-averse.”

Ban sees himself as this very model of bravery and risk-taking. He sees himself as active, even if others see him as passive. By now he must be finally realizing the difficulty of pursuing an Asian-style of diplomacy in a largely non-Asian and non-Eastern world.

When Ban claims to promote dynamism in a “weary” Secretariat, the West thinks of the great statesmen who charge charismatically ahead with forceful gestures and a loud presentation, pounding the podium and engaging the audience with passion and determinism. To much global disappointment, he has not been that man.

In fact, when Ban speaks of not being “passive” or “risk averse”, the secretary-general is not saying he will be as aggressive or more active than his predecessors. For an Asian diplomat, Ban Ki-moon has indeed been all of the things he has said he would be.

There is a general misunderstanding between the Asian and Western diplomatic worlds at work in the background that few people have remarked upon. Soft in the West typically means weak. The opposite is true in traditional Asian societies.

To exacerbate the tension, Ban has gone on the defensive instead of compromising with his growing critics. His inability to respect the large global cultural divide and his persistence with a singular use of “quiet diplomacy” over traditional Western diplomacy have destroyed his capacity to attract the global public or push dictators into taking him seriously.



Ban prefers to promote human rights in general terms and speaks out based on genuine conviction. However, he does not speak out against most specific abuses. When he does condemn particular violations in human rights, he becomes risk-averse, and being too worried about addressing the issues “appropriately,” he can at times ignore them completely. If he chooses to address them, it appears as an insignificant few lines against violence. He is never strongly fighting individual atrocities.

One especially harsh criticism came from the Human Rights Watch World Report of 2011. Although it credited him with several positive roles in peace-making, there were two telling sub-categories where his name appears: “A Timid Response to Repression” and “Weak Leadership”.

The World Report even said that Ban “sometimes went out of his way to portray oppressive governments in a positive light”. This is far from saying that Ban sponsors those actors or any human rights abuses. Not at all. The secretary-general simply desires to build harmony among nations so strongly that he is worried about severing relationships. This causes him to try and nurse those governments, speaking of the good things, rather than condemn their more harmful actions.

But Ban’s attentions are on bigger issues than any particular violent outburst. In his estimate, he should be focusing on long-term relationships and networks behind closed doors. He seeks gradual change and is not willing to face each problem directly. His convictions are based more on a liberal institutional platform than on charismatically condemning any act, nation or people directly.

One unfortunate feature of Ban’s particular diplomatic style is that he is unwilling to bypass UN membership and target the people of troubled member states directly for their crimes or misdeeds. In particular, he has shown great reluctance to speak out against the biggest players, no matter how outrageous their behaviour. In order to repair and reform the UN and to achieve his goals, Ban believes that he must work more closely with member states and organizations than the global public at large.


Former secretary-general Kofi Annan was more of a general and less of a secretary when it came to public diplomacy and social engagement. Ban is more of a secretary and less of a general. They both pushed for the same values but have completely opposite styles. The most effective may not be easy to determine. The long-term effects of each man’s tenure will not be known until sometime in the future. In the meantime, we are witnessing the many shortcomings of Ban’s diplomatic methods.

Strong rhetoric or condemnation tends to have a short-term, immediate, impact on a crisis. It creates vocal opponents, draws firm boundaries, and generates hostility. This approach, which Kofi Annan favoured, is more clearly Western. The idea is to respond directly to specific actions that violate the UN Charter and the Declaration of Rights.

Annan was well known for his engagement with the public. When he angered a leader or government, he would turn to the global community for support. It has been said by some that Annan made the role of secretary-general into a sort of “secular pope.” He condemned everything that violated the UN general principles and his own convictions, and he asserted the moral authority of his office.

Annan’s perception of the UN was that it was a governing body and that all states should abide by the international norms, laws and treaties formed there. Ban takes a longer view, arguing that international law and treaties are of great importance, but the institution is more a place for cooperation and consensus made up of the various states. Thus, where Annan pushed the UN into a hierarchical organization, Ban seems bent on making it a horizontal one. Naturally, it followed that Ban would defer to the security council much of his “symbolic” authority and take a stricter administrative role.

Annan’s style was to speak in a soft voice with great emotion. His command of English was far superior to Ban’s. He used the tools of oration - tone, tempo, breaks, volume - much more effectively. His main goal in public statements and appearances often seemed to be to generate greater sympathy for a liberal cause over time and in appearance, less working with or for the states.

Annan’s distinguished accent also played in his favour. Ban’s accent is choppy and terse, and he struggles with English words. He lacks a fluent command of English, and he does not convey a position of strength throughout much of the world.

A big question remains: is the UN about humanitarian aid or about “uniting the nations” together for stability and peace? Both of the secretaries-general have had to wrestle with these different priorities of focus.

For the role of UN secretary-general, image and perception are more critical than Ban realizes. Moral legitimacy goes a long way in preventing and mitigating armed conflict - as does one’s ability to lead with strength. Without an army, Ban has little to bargain with behind closed doors. Annan’s style seems more adept, and his style was more in tune with the way the world perceives the job.

Unfortunately, strong leaders and states may continue to ignore Ban’s soft broken voice.

–Asia Times Online