100 days to a better United Nations

RUTH WEDGWOOD is professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies.

SOUTH KOREA’S FAVORITE son, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, will soon take up residence on the 38th floor at Turtle Bay as the new secretary-general of the United Nations.

It is a timely change. Energy and innovation can renew an institution that suffers from administrative sclerosis and political fracture.

What should top Ban’s agenda for his first 100 days?

First and foremost, he must send an unequivocal message that business as usual is not the plan. By tradition, the 60 assistant and undersecretaries who run the house are required to submit resignation letters on a new secretary-general’s first day in office. Yet ordinarily they expect to stay comfortably in place, like insiders from the BBC series “Yes, Minister.” Ban needs to seize the opportunity to choose his own team in a clean sweep and set a new, performance-based measure of U.N. work. He must sidestep insiders who would reduce him to a political dauphin and derail his stewardship.


Ban should transplant privatesector expectations about productivity and responsiveness into an entrenched bureaucratic culture. The U.N. system takes in most people by the age of 32 and keeps them until they retire at 62. Real-time ways of doing things, including outsourcing and competition, are not endemic. Recruiting mid-career professionals from other sectors would invigorate the U.N. ranks.

Ban also will need advisors who can more accurately take the temperature of member states and other important constituencies. The U.N. has not quite adapted to a more democratic world, in which congresses and parliaments asked to fund this crucial institution also suppose they have a stake in the oversight of its performance.

Photo-ops are no substitute for reform. The U.N. should rethink its star-struck cult of celebrity. The 38th floor has recruited actors, rock stars and billionaires as envoys and advisors, but there is a difference between sizzle and steak.

Ban should also insist that his new staff abandon the guerrilla theater and political self-indulgence that has spiked U.N. credibility in Washington over the last several years. It does not help U.S.-U.N. relations to have senior U.N. aides lamenting the Rottweilers in Congress or scoffing at the oil-for-food scandal as a mere affectation of conservative critics. It does not help to have wandering global envoys offering their personal opinions about the war in Lebanon while declining to comment on the role of Hezbollah as an Iranian surrogate.

On the legislative side, Ban should profit from his 100-day honeymoon to summon the General Assembly to pass crucial administrative reforms. The U.N. needs an independent inspector general and toothy external auditors. Whistle-blowers need a powerful champion. At a time when the organization is asked to manage a record number of peacekeepers around the world, the secretarygeneral must be able to move personnel where he needs them and end featherbedding. There should be no further occasion for mordant comments, such as the one made by a Jamaican radio host who interrupted a recent program on the appointment of Ban to recall his own stint as a U.N. employee. Why, he wondered aloud, had the lady across the hall done no visible work?

The 192 delegates who control the General Assembly need to deliver more value for countries of the south, spending money on programs instead of personnel, in AIDS prevention, microfinance, innovative entrepreneurship in poor economies and the status of women. First World countries are being asked to pledge 0.7% of their GDPs as official overseas assistance as part of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. (The United States, while the world’s largest aid donor, still gives less than 0.2% of GDP, not counting private giving.) This requires showing that the money can be spent without worsening corruption in developing countries. The U.N. cannot lead an anticorruption campaign if there is money leaking out of its aging hull and cronyism in every purchase.

Ban’s political agenda should focus on renewal of the Middle East peace process. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and sectarian regimes continue their Olympics of international violence. Yet conservative Arab regimes are frightened by Al Qaeda and Iran. Ban may be able to help them find common cause with the United States (and surprisingly enough, with Israel) in countering the spoilers. He can sharpen the teeth of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. And Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus may be shaken awake later this year, when the U.N.'s prosecutor reports on who authorized the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict provides fodder for the spoilers and roils the Muslim street around the globe. Ban should work with Washington and the Arab League to quietly support talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

There will be no shortage of other challenges: Darfur, eastern Congo, Kosovo, North Korea. These problems will test the energies of the East and West and cannot be solved by the U.N. alone. The test for a secretary-general is whether he can facilitate solutions. This is a skill not advanced by trips to Lincoln Center or charity balls but by earnest conversation with world leaders. Ban’s interest in quiet diplomacy will be measured by results, as all U.N. work should be.