The New Boss

E-mail Eric Shawn

Ban Ki-moon bears little resemblance to the legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley — but appearances can be deceiving. The new United Nations secretary-general has been in office barely three weeks and has already shown himself a worthy successor to the time honored political tradition of patronage, favors and ducking.

The horse-trading on the 38th floor of the Secretariat is evident in Ban’s new appointments, all heralded and praised by the U.N. chorus; upon closer examination they recall the best traits of a Chicago ward heeler, Tammany Boss, or political machine. Everybody got a piece of the action.

The No. 2 post, deputy secretary-general (that was held by a Brit), now goes to a former foreign minister of Tanzania, Asha-Rose Migiro — one plum to the developing countries, although the U.N. denied it. “She was not named because she was an African or because she’s a woman, but essentially because of her qualifications,” trumpeted the U.N.

But tell that to the folks back home, where the African media hailed the appointment as “a major score for East Africa.” India gets a top job, though not the much-wanted Security Council seat. The French get to run peacekeeping, while the British nabbed humanitarian affairs.

It appears that the top positions have been divvied out to make everybody happy, but the United States lost out on one of the most important posts, such as under secretary-general for Management. The position was most recently held by Christopher Burnham, a Connecticut Yankee investment banker from the Bush administration and one of the first Marines into liberated Kuwait City back in 1990. His hard-charging ways shook up a sleepwalking U.N. bureaucracy; he applied the standards of corporate America (that he learned as the chief management officer of the State Department, and State Treasurer of Connecticut) to the scandal ridden U.N. way of doing business. He got things done and pressed ahead for a variety of management reforms, including new audit procedures, instituting mandatory financial disclosure forms and scrapping the $10,000 limit on gifts. Now,a free trip to the French Rivera seems out of the question.

But for the first time since 1992, the job has not gone to an American, but instead to a veteran Mexican diplomat with no apparent real business experience, who for the last year was the chief of staff to Kofi Annan! Nothing against Alicia Barcena Ibarra, but even the U.N. loving New York Times said her appointment by the reform promising Ban was “a signal that he does not plan aggressive reforms in the much criticized bureaucracy,” or as The New York Sun suggested, “a gesture toward Mr. Annan’s old circle of friends."

The Americans are expected to get the under secretary-general for Political Affairs post, where U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Lynn Pascoe could serve. The position is a sensitive one, that helps mediate the globe’s trouble spots. However, the appointment will likely come under criticism from the league of American haters who will undoubtedly see it as another example of too much American influence in the U.N. executive suite. Only if that were so.

Ban’s new chief of staff is another veteran Annan holdover, Indian Vijay Nambiar, making the new team look very much like the old one — despite Ban’s promise to break from the past. Nevertheless, he of course, defends his choices and indirectly denies any political motivations.

I have made five major appointments,” he told the U.N. press corps at his first news conference as S.G. on January 11th. “Three of those five are women from developing countries, all of them are outstanding who should be judged on their merits.”

In other words, being women from the developing world had nothing to do with their selection, but more like, “Hey! Look what I did! Three women from developing countries! Three!”

As for the selection of Ms. Barcena, he said that he had known her for “a long time. I have been very impressed,” and asked the public to “judge the people by how they will perform their duties” instead of the speculation and gossip. As for the concerns that she may not strongly pursue U.N. reform, Ban said “I value her longstanding management experience” and have “full confidence” in her abilities.

I don’t claim to be a perfect person, to claim to know everything what’s happening in the U.N. system,” Ban admitted, but he left the impression that he at least is earnestly trying to do the right thing, despite the skeptics.

But perhaps his selection of Dr. Migiro as the second most powerful person proves fate can be decided by seat selection. While Ban said he has worked with her closely in the past, he noted that he spent ten hours “coincidently … flying together with her on an airplane … we were sitting together, spending six hours talking together.” That plane flight apparently led him to assign her seat right next to him in the U.N. cockpit as the world body’s co-pilot.

When asked point blank about his apparent practice of political patronage, Ban called such views “unsubstantiated misperceptions” saying the prime criteria remained merit, though he did admit that gender balance and geographical considerations came into play.

Can Ban succeed in actually reforming the Untied Nations, with many of the same people who have been on the bridge under Captain Annan? He promises to change the “working culture” of the U.N., but to do that he will have to achieve a lot more than merely switching the official start of the day to a slightly more rigorous 9am from 9:30am for U.N. employees, though that was a start. (For the record, the official clock-in time for the FOX News U.N. bureau team is 8am)

I will seek the highest ethical standard,” Ban promised when he took the job, “The good name of the United Nations is one of its most valuable assets … I will lead you by example.”

A major step in that direction is his willingness to make his financial records public, unlike Annan or any other secretary-general, and he has vowed to lead U.N. reform. But it appears that effort may be in danger of fading, as a 19th century New York politician predicted reform movements always fail. George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, in his series of philosophical speeches about politics said this about reformers: “They were mornin’ glories — looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourshin’ forever, like fine old oaks. The fact is that a reformer can’t last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket.”

Let’s hope Ban Ki-moon’s commitment to reform doesn’t crash and burn either. He seems to honestly want to tackle the U.N.’s problems in a determined yet graceful manner. As former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton told me, Ban has a short time to make progress

That time is now.

Eric Shawn, a New York based senior correspondent for FOX News Channel, and the author of The U.N. Exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World. You can read his complete bio here.

Follow Eric Shawn on Twitter: @EricShawnTV