Ki-Moon as Key Player: The Secretary-General's Role in Peace and Security

By Jonah, James O. C. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Ki-Moon as Key Player: The Secretary-General's Role in Peace and Security


Jonah, James O. C., Harvard International Review


To evaluate the performance of Ban Ki-moon in his current five-year term as Secretary-General of the United Nations, it is necessary to take a historical perspective in the context of two significant considerations. Firstly, the reluctance of sovereign states to initiate drastic changes in international institutional structures merits consideration. When states do allow creative innovations, it is usually in response to dramatic upheavals in the international system. Secondly, the high propensity of sovereign states, particularly those perceived as major powers, to avoid appointing or electing strong and creative individuals as the Secretary-General of the United Nations must be noted.

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Although the election of Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden and Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt as UN Secretaries-General can be considered unanticipated exceptions, over the years the permanent members of the Security Council have used their right of the veto to manage the emergence of Secretaries-General who would not spring surprises on them. They tolerate an activist Secretary-General only when his or her actions parallel their national goals. In this regard the veto is an obstacle for the election of a highly qualified Secretary-General.

Setting the Stage

The evolution of international arrangements to assist other states to resolve their disputes by peaceful means is often the result of violent and painful breakdowns in the world. The Congress of Vienna of 1815, which convened to tackle the repercussions of the Napoleonic Wars, was the initial serious step to create a credible arrangement to serve this purpose. Based on the notion of the "Concert of Powers" or "Conference System," the arrangement agreed that in the event of acute crises, conferences or congresses would convene to resolve the disputes. However, as narrated in Henry Kissinger's A World Restored, the conclusions of the conference were tentative and the procedures were non-binding.

Elmer Bendiner, in his book A Time for An gels, recorded that with the onset of the Second World War, serious efforts were made to advance from the "Concert of Powers" to more stable mechanisms for the maintenance of international peace and security. The new model under the Treaty of Versailles was the establishment of an international institution that would provide specific legal obligations for nation states to resolve their disputes peacefully. Although the concept of self-help, which allowed states to wage war to protect their vital interests, was still permissible, the international community assumed the responsibility to encourage states to resolve their disputes peacefully.

The Emergence of the League of Nations

As a new departure, the Versailles arrangements created a permanent institution--the League of Nations--to facilitate the tackling of disputes and crises. A permanent Secretariat was created with a secretary-general. The first Secretary-General, Sir Eric Drummond, fashioned the concept of an independent international civil service. Bendiner points out that during the drafting stages for the League Secretariat at the Versailles Conference, the major powers hesitated from the outset about giving political power to the secretary-general. He also observed that some of the major powers even thought that the Secretary-General should function as the chancellor of the world. This latter notion was quietly abandoned and, instead, the role of the Secretary-General as an "administrative officer" was embraced. Accordingly, the League Secretary-General's role was limited but, as reflected in James Barros' Betrayal from Within, Sir Eric, an able British civil servant and diplomat, was successful in playing behind-the-scene political and diplomatic roles. He turned out to be an extremely useful interlocutor among the Great Powers.

However, the appointment of Joseph Avenol of France to succeed Sir Eric was devastating for the concept of a politically neutral Secretariat. …

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