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'Invisible man' finds power in modesty

Ban Ki-moon has entered the second half of his tenure as the UN secretary-general when the world is still grappling with the financial crisis, climate change, A/H1N1 flu virus, the Korean nuclear issue, the Palestinian question and other important matters. But despite making every effort to resolve these issues, Ban has fallen foul of the Western media.

The Wall Street Journal has called him the "UN"s invisible man" and criticized him for lacking the charisma of his predecessors. The Economist has assailed him for his supposed lack of managing skills. And the Foreign Policy has said he has fallen short of providing global leadership, and even ridiculed his English pronunciation.

Instead of hitting back at his critics, Ban has said he will accept their criticisms with modesty. He, however, has urged the Western media to understand Asian values such as modesty and moderation, as well as the UN"s principles.

Ban, former top diplomat of the Republic of Korea, is the eighth UN secretary-general and the second from Asia. As the supreme executive official and the primary representative of the UN, the secretaries-general enjoy a very high status in the international community. But because they are always in the spotlight, they become the target of criticisms and bitter remarks.

Since the UN is a world body consisting of sovereign states, its secretary-general"s personal functions and powers are limited. The UN is not a global government, and the secretary-general is not the leader of the world. The UN Charter and the reality of international relations restrict his power, and the world body"s organizational structure and culture limit his resolutions. On the world stage, the UN secretary-general is a "dancer in chains" with limited role and function.

To assume that the UN could resolve all the international issues and its secretary-general can play the role of world leader is simply wishful thinking.

The secretary-general"s job is one of delicate diplomacy. He has to be a visionary, use his moral power to temper the conflicts over national interests and raise the level of awareness among people across the world. He also has to be skillful at coordinating relations among member states, especially big powers, seeking consent to the maximum extent, and be able to resolve issues with the support of the majority of the international community. Ban, fully aware of his limited role, has done a pretty good job on all these fronts.

In 2007, he completed the reform of the UN"s peacekeeping and arms-control departments. The UN peacekeeping force is now more than 100,000 strong and has become more effective. In December 2007, he presided over and coordinated the UN climate change conference that drew the Bali Road Map, a significant document after the Kyoto Protocol that ushered in a new stage in the UN"s fight against climate change and paved the way for the ongoing Copenhagen summit. In 2008, he flew more than 400,000 km to visit 35 countries and attend more than 700 meetings. From the quake zone in Sichuan, China, to the typhoon-battered areas in Myanmar, and from African villages and towns where the UN is involved in poverty relief work to the negotiation tables in the Middle East, he has fulfilled the duty of the secretary-general with great care and always maintained a low profile.

Compared with the coordination mechanisms of the big powers such as G8 and G20, the UN is more inclusive and comprehensive. Hence, it should be the center of global governance in the future. Ban"s active engagement in the fight against climate change indicates that he is a visionary. He has made immense efforts to resolve this global issue because he wants to raise the UN"s authority, introduce global governance functions to and pave the way for a stronger and abler world body. He believes that handling international relations today needs moderate mediators and not bullies, and has developed a new paradigm to resolve thorny international issues. Nurtured by Asian values such as modesty, moderation and harmony, he has made great efforts to balance all the forces, handle discords, coordinate with countries in matters of their national interests and taken appropriate action with the support of all the stakeholders.

The Asian diplomatic and organizational culture that he has introduced in the UN enshrines action rather than words, respects diligence and pragmatism, advocates unity between knowledge and practice, and deals with international conflicts with the "maximum extent of cooperation, compromise and flexibility". This is very important, because as a family of 192 countries the UN"s chief canon should be harmony in diversity. Ban may not appear charismatic to people who had gotten used to the personality of his predecessor Kofi Annan. But they should know that in the long run, Asian diplomatic culture would become a precious asset for the UN. A UN that accommodates and fuses Western and Eastern cultures will definitely be more vigorous and competent.

As ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu has said: "The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to". This morality associated with water, which is beneficial to others but seeks no reward or praise, is venerated by Eastern civilizations. It is also the state that the UN secretary-general from Asia is seeking to reach - to do things well, share the credit with others but accept the blame alone, not to haggle over personal benefit and reputation, and be an "invisible man". Doesn"t such a personality deserve respect and appreciation?

The authors are researchers at the School of International Studies of the Renmin University of China.

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