On Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon was elected to be the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, by “acclamation” in the General Assembly. The U.S. seemed pleased — but diplomats are trained to smile under torture. In fact, the choice may well be bad news, and not just for the United States.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton lamented that there wasn’t a longer list of candidates. What this really means is that the United States didn’t like anybody on the final list and couldn’t generate international support for anybody else. The only openly pro-American candidates on the list, from Latvia and Singapore, got nowhere. In another era, they would have been major contenders.
In the end, there was no real alternative to Ban Ki-moon at all. Only three candidates got enough votes in the last “straw poll” to keep them in the running. India’s nominee was disqualified because the Secretary-General must come from a small country. Thailand’s was disqualified because, after the recent coup d’etat in Bangkok, most of his colleagues in the government were either under arrest, in hiding, or in exile. And Jordan’s was disqualified because putting an Arab prince in charge of an organization that already spends most of its time abusing Israel didn’t seem like a great idea even to Israel’s 180-or-so “soft” enemies in the General Assembly.
The choice of Ban Ki-moon should have been good news. South Korea and the United States are formal treaty allies. We have about 30,000 troops in South Korea, who train alongside the South’s army, and a headquarters meant to take operational control of all of them in the event of a crisis. South Korea is now the largest contributor of boots-on-the-ground to the Coalition in Iraq after Great Britain. The two capitals have gone to great lengths to convince everyone that they are still chummy, but all diplomats know that they are becoming increasingly estranged.
The elephant in this diplomatic room is of course China, who appears to have backed Ban’s candidacy with a global campaign of diplomatic pressure aimed at keeping other viable candidates “off” the list. If America’s diplomatic influence is at its nadir in the postwar era, China’s is waxing brilliant.
South Korea is passing inexorably from America’s orbit into that of its great neighbor to the west. No where is this more obvious than in the diplomacy of the North Korea nuclear crisis: America is motivated by geostrategic interests — chiefly the fear of nuclear proliferation — whereas China and South Korea are most keenly interested in avoiding crisis on the peninsula itself.
But don’t tell them that. In 2005, the American Enterprise Institute devoted an entire issue of its magazine to North Korea. In one article, “Time for an Amicable Divorce ,” editor Dan Kennelly argued that U.S. forces in South Korea had become more of a deterrent to the United States than to Pyongyang, because of Kim Jong-Il’s possible response to any U.S. air strikes on its nuclear facilities. South Korea’s foreign ministry — long a financial backer of AEI — immediately cut its funding (which over ten years had amounted to some $1.2 million) and Ban Ki-moon publicly told a committee of the National Assembly that it was because of the magazine articles. Prime Minister Roh Moo-hyun was even clearer: under no circumstances would South Korea permit the U.S. to attack the North.
Meanwhile, when the U.S. announced plans to dramatically reduce the size of its force in South Korea, and deploy the rest away from the Demilitarized Zone, the South Koreans resisted fiercely. Why? The least of their concerns was the possibility of a North Korean invasion: should war break out across the DMZ, South Korea’s army would cut North Korea’s to pieces in a matter of weeks even if left to its own devices. What Seoul was worried about was losing the ability to constrain Washington’s options towards the North. This led many in the U.S. national security establishment to wonder just what it is that America gets out of this alliance anyway. A few months later — abracadabra — South Korea deployed 3,000 troops to Iraq.
Despite this display of allied loyalty, nothing can hide South Korea’s increasing tendency to align with China — and protect the North. When Japan announced that it would beef up its strike capabilities in response to North Korean nuclear provocations, Seoul blamed Japan for increasing tensions. And this policy is a good reflection of popular sentiment: A recent poll has 40 percent of South Koreans blaming the United States for the nuclear standoff, whereas only 30 percent blame the North. Similarly, when North Korea announced plans to detonate an underground nuclear device, Beijing condemned the decision, but that was apparently the first time that China has singled North Korea out for any sort of criticism since the start of the talks.
This gives a sense of the direction that Bank Ki-moon is likely to take the United Nations next, and it may quickly make Washington nostalgic for the days of Kofi Annan. Whatever Annan’s faults, vagueness is not one of them, and he has not shied away from pointedly criticizing almost everybody at one time or another. Ban Ki-moon, on the other hand, is far more likely to sweeten every crisis with statements designed so delicately to avoid offending anybody that they may prove most effective as a cure for insomnia.
Another Kofi Anna tradition that his successor is unlikely to uphold is his readiness to discard the U.N. Charter’s cardinal principle of non-intervention “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” How Ban handles the Darfur situation will be a sign of things to come. In a misguided search for energy security, China has been militarily and financially supporting unsavory regimes in oil-rich countries like Sudan, where the political risk is prohibitive to private commercial investment. Accordingly, in its Security Council votes, China has proved among the strongest opponents of humanitarian intervention in situations like Darfur. Indeed, on the basis of “non-intervention,” China itself resists calls for human rights reform. It is hard to imagine that Ban will break with his long-standing support for China on these issues. The U.N.’s recent success in the field of humanitarian intervention — however limited — is likely to be an early casualty of the Ban secretariat.
If there is good news in this appointment, it is more long-term. As China grows more economically and militarily powerful, as it grows more comfortable in the role of a global power, its interest in free commerce and international stability will bring it into increasing alignment with the United States. Only ten years ago it was an open supporter of the regime in Pyongyang, and was always eager to rattle sabers over Taiwan. More recently, China has started to act like a much more mature and responsible global player. Tensions across the Taiwan Straits are cooler now than at any time in recent memory, and it is increasingly difficult to view China as an ally of North Korea. In this sense, South Korea’s move into strategic alignment with China is itself good news, and not just because it has come at the expense of Pyongyang. China is beginning to acquire satellites not because of its political influence, but because of its economic might, a sign that China has become a formidable force for free trade. And economic liberalism inevitably means political liberalism.
But over at the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon has his work cut out for him. In North Korea and Iran, the Security Council has been given one more chance to demonstrate why it should be accorded “unique legitimacy.” But if the Council once again fails to prove it can prevent and remove threats to the peace, the demise of the Organization as an important force in global security will only be a matter of time. From that point of view, the election of a secretary-general who has always been more interested in containing the U.S. than in preempting rogue-state nuclear breakouts may be bad news most of all for the United Nations itself.
– Mario Loyola, a former consultant to the Department of Defense, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.