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Mr. Moon: A Master of Missteps at the Head of the UN

By Marc Hujer

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is under fire from all sides. Even the Norweigan Ambassador to the UN complained he lacked in charisma. Now all eyes are on the climate change summit in Copenhagen, a crucial test for the international leader who calls himself "a slippery eel."

Ban Ki-moon had been planning his trip to Norway for a long time, which made it all the more galling that just before the United Nations secretary-general arrived, newspapers published a leaked document in which none other than the Norwegian ambassador to the UN deemed Ban as weak, ineffective and lacking in charisma.

A diplomatic visit to Norway is usually one of the more pleasant outings for the UN leader. The country is one of the international organization's founding members and a big supporter as well, revering the secretary-general almost like a king.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: All Pleasantries And No Action?

This time, however, there were 40 journalists waiting for Ban at the Norwegian foreign ministry, hoping to find out how the UN secretary general would react to such an unambiguous insult.

The Norwegian foreign minister introduced his guest, then opened the floor for questions. They came fast and furious: "You've been accused of being spineless and lacking charisma. What do you say to that, Mr. Secretary General?"

Ban is notorious for his mask of Confucian politeness, but perhaps this time he would finally show a little passion, express a real emotion. Would he answer? Would he defend himself?

Enigmatic World President

Ban paused. Of course the criticism affected him -- who wouldn't be affected by such words? But the secretary-general smiled and changed the subject, calling Norway an essential member of the United Nations, one he can always rely on. Those present in the room exchanged despairing glances. Once again they were left with nothing to hold onto -- no quotations, no ideas, only pleasantries.

Ban, a South Korean diplomat, has been UN secretary general for nearly three years. He is the first Asian since 1971 to hold the post -- a kind of world president, if you will -- yet he remains an enigma.

Supporters are quick to point to Ban's background, the quieter Asian culture so different from brash Western individualism, yet media in the Far East consider him a bland character too. Ban himself likes to relate that back home he's long been known as a "slippery eel," because it's impossible to hold onto anything he says. "I'm known as the invisible man," Ban declares, as if that fact might yet offer up some kind of advantage one day.

The international community held out the same hope for a long time. Had the world underestimated Ban, some wondered? Had he actually advanced the UN further than was apparent at first glance? But the longer the man stays in office, the longer the list of his missteps and miscalculations grows.

Copenhagen is Key

First he spoke out positively on the death penalty, something his own organization formally stands against. Then he praised former US President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. He traveled to Burma and Sudan, courting those countries' dubious leaders, but returned home without any tangible success. Ban has failed at the regional conflicts where his predecessor succeeded. Which leaves him meta-topics such as climate change. But at this point, hardly anyone has patience left for Ban.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a commentator for the respected American journal Foreign Policy, called Ban "the world's most dangerous Korean." The moniker is a terrible insult, since by rights it belongs to Kim Jong Il, North Korea's erratic dictator. But it's also a gauge of the disappointment currently reigning in the United States. Heilbrunn fears the UN is rapidly becoming irrelevant under Ban's stewardship. Ban's sole achievement is having attained his post, Heilbrunn claims, calling the secretary-general a "nowhere man."

More than 70 heads of state, including US President Barack Obama, announced plans to attend the global climate change conference in Copenhagen, which continues through next week in 12 straight days of negotiations. It's a conference of superlatives that simply can't be allowed to end without producing results. That would certainly spell disaster for Ban -- if the Copenhagen conference were to fail, it would be the conclusive piece of evidence for claims that the current secretary-general is unable to get the international community to solve its shared problems.

Back in his student days at Harvard University, Ban's standard joke was that he was "JFK" -- "just from Korea." Now he likes to quip, "My name is Ban, not James Ban." But it will take more than jokes to reverse the sentiment against him.

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