“Conversations with Ban Ki- moon: What the United Nations
Is Really Like: The View from the
Top” by Tom Plate; Marshall
Cavendish; 240 pp., $29.5
By Chung Ah-young

The United Nations is often criticized for its bloated bureaucracy and inefficiency. The position of U.N. secretary-general is no doubt daunting, responsible to maintain peace and order in the world.

The job becomes tougher in a second term, as is true for current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. There have been more sarcastic reviews by the media rather than compliments attached to his leadership and management after he succeeded Kofi Annan. Ban himself realizes that the organization is in crisis and knows

Author Tom Plate
he faces challenges ahead.

The eighth secretary-general and second Asian head was born and raised in Korea. He has kept a diary since he was foreign minister and is available 24 hours a day if somebody wants to talk to him. He sometimes gives 10 speeches a day and flies economy when there are no other seats.

His personal side and heart-felt concerns about his task are revealed in “Conversations with Ban Ki-moon: What the United Nations Is Really Like: The View from the Top” (Marshall Cavendish; 240 pp., $29.5) written by Tom Plate, author of the bestselling “Giants of Asia” series.

Since Ban became secretary-general in 2007, many books have been published but without interviews or consultations with him. But this book is solely based on exclusive conversations with Ban by Plate, who is also a journalist.

It is full of inspiring quotes that reflect Ban’s philosophical thoughts regarding his job.

In it, Ban is described as “certainly not a natural showboater.” Rather he maintains a low-key style, which sometimes draws misunderstanding of his leadership but when it comes to humanitarian issues, he does do more. “Parachute humanitarianism,” as the author calls it, sometimes draws criticism within the Secretariat as he has rushed to trouble spots instead of leaving it to lower-rung officials.

Despite criticism by the Western media during his first term, Ban was unanimously re-elected in 2011. Plate says, “It is not common at U.N. headquarters in New York that they concur on something major easily and unanimously.”

The early part of the book shows conversations more on his leadership that confronted endless challenges but overcame them in a unique style. Ban is a “workaholic” who puts public service first and his personal life second.

“This is a job that requires a sense of mission. Many people had cautioned me that this was going to be the most impossible job. I realize now, after having served, that this really is the most impossible job. And jokingly I told my member states and my friends that my mission would be to make this impossible job a mission possible … mission possible,” Ban says.

Concerning the unfavorable media coverage, the secretary-general reveals his pain by saying he wanted to be judged by his hard work and record of accomplishments. Looking back to his early days in office, the media knocked him hard by comparing him with his predecessor.

“I really wanted to bring some dynamism, some change of thinking, some discipline, some accountability and ethics to the United Nations system. That was resisted very strongly by the existing members of the system,” Ban confessed to difficulties in his early days.

He experienced hard times as people were not accustomed to Asian values and there were not many senior level Asian workers in the Secretariat. “I am still in the process of improving my style or my leadership capacity, but my leadership style comes from a philosophy of collective leadership. There is a general tendency for people in the international community that they want to have one person coming up with some strong political slogan or belief or leading in a dynamic way in what is termed so-called leadership,” Ban says.

In the later part of the book, Ban unveils the organization’s failures in functioning effectively. “Many situations need multinational forces. The U.N. being multilateral, we need to have a multilateral force with one command system. It’s an efficiency and effectiveness problem.”

Through the conversations, the secretary-general also emphasizes that the international community normally works on a consensus basis, whether it is a regional, small or big organization. But the true meaning of consensus is that one or two different countries should not block decisions. Consensus should not be confused with unanimity, he says. “But now just one country can block everything. Look at the case of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. It’s only one country (Pakistan) that has been blocking progress for the last 12 years.” Ban says.

“Don’t expect that I will be a superman. In fact, however super a man may be, without the support of member states, there is nothing I can do. This is a fact of reality of being secretary-general,” he says.

The book elaborates on Plate’s up close and personal observations and touches on important international issues that are raised in the organization. It allows readers to know his personal, human side through his words.

chungay@koreatimes.co.kr