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S. Korean FM Ban Best Choice to Head UN
By Tom Plate
Syndicated Columnist
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon

LOS ANGELES — Asia, in the expected United Nations ritual of rotation by continent, is expected to provide the next U.N. secretary general. And so there's a mad scramble going on among ambitious Asian diplomats as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is stepping down later this year. One uses the word "mad" advisedly as it would seem to me one would almost have to be out of one's mind to want this terribly difficult job.

The U.N. Secretariat is what it is — a tower of geopolitical babble — and the smart bet would be that it will never substantially reform from within. So what does it say about the core sanity of any candidate who would bid boldly to become the top dog in an asylum?

It probably says at least two things. One is that the announced candidates — and there are now four of them, all hailing from Asia — are deeply and personally ambitious. But that's not automatically bad. It also says that these candidates do not publicly endorse the pessimistic, resigned, negative view about the future of the U.N. Secretariat. And that may not be so bad, either.

Optimism and ambition certainly characterize the candidacy of Ban Ki-moon, the current front-runner in the race to follow Annan. Ban, the foreign minister of South Korea, recently came out on top in the first informal straw poll conducted by the delegates to the U.N. Security Council. The other three hail from Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

These are only the announced candidates; lurking all across Asia is diplomatic talent galore, particularly, perhaps, in Singapore. What's more, based on the track record of past succession struggles, it is the unannounced, dark-horse candidates that tend to win in the end.

This could be the scenario yet again. But on this occasion, that might be a shame. There are good reasons why the South Korean foreign minister topped the Security Council informal vote on the first go-round, why his candidacy has triggered little if any serious opposition (so far at least), and why it may make sense to have this Korean in the spot.

The reason is simple: Ban would probably be no bust. The career diplomat, whom I interviewed in Los Angeles recently, does his homework, really knows his stuff, works harder than anyone in the South Korean foreign ministry, is a straight-shooter, speaks several languages excellently, including English, is well liked by his diplomatic colleagues from Singapore to Tokyo to much of Africa and Latin America, gets along swimmingly with the top diplomats of both the United States as well as China — and he is a nice guy as well.

So is Ban too good to be true? Well, let's not hype this guy too much. For starters, he certainly lacks the showboat charisma of a Brahmin like Kofi Annan, and the fact that the Korean peninsula could be viewed as a volcano ready to erupt at any moment does nothing to soothe the nerves. What's more, South Korea itself remains one of the least open markets of all the industrialized states and can be a nightmare to do business in.

But it is easy to see why Ban is liked by everyone from Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former U.N. ambassador, to Condoleezza Rice herself. The U.S. secretary of state has pointedly made it known that she likes, respects and is comfortable with Ban and this is not true of her attitude toward every diplomat from Asia, especially Thailand.

Ban rightly terms the holder of the job our "chief global diplomat," but he undiplomatically states that the U.N. Secretariat needs a very thorough housecleaning. Asked whether the number-two position at the U.N., over which the secretary general makes the call, might come from some top Western business school — whether Harvard or London or whatever — he nodded that this might be a "very good idea." Thus, for Annan's successor, the job will require not just getting along with the member-states of the organization (not to mention the always carping U.S. Congress) but openly not getting along with those inside the corridors of power at the U.N. until badly needed management and efficiency reforms are cemented in place.

It's a dirty job but, as we would say in the U.S., somebody's got to do it. But is nice-guy Ban the one? No one is certain, and thus another American saying comes to mind: Nice guys finish last. But maybe not this time.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran U.S. journalist.

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