It has been 100 days since South Korea's Ban Ki-moon took over as secretary-general of the United Nations. In the Korean tradition, 100 days is a significant milestone, and aides say Mr. Ban permitted himself a small celebration of the day. VOA's Peter Heinlein reviews the accomplishments, and the stumbles, of those first three-plus months.
In some ways, Ban Ki-moon has a tough act to follow. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, achieved "rock star" status during 10 years at the helm of the world body. Though his record of accomplishment may have been spotty, millions viewed Mr. Annan as a beacon of hope in an uncertain world.
In his first 100 days on the job, Mr. Ban has made a number of missteps in what many call "the world's most impossible job," managing an organization of 192 countries, many with sharply contrasting points of view.
He found himself in trouble on his first day in office, when he failed to criticize Iraq for carrying out the death penalty against Saddam Hussein. Human rights activists were outraged at his seeming contradiction of Mr. Annan's staunch opposition to capital punishment. Mr. Ban later issued a statement saying he "encourages the trend" toward abolishing the death penalty.
Several critics also expressed disappointment at his low-key style in tackling challenges on which Mr. Annan had been outspoken, such as the refusal by Sudan's President Omar (Hassan) al-Bashir to allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur. Moreover, he was viewed by some as being too close to powerful countries, especially the United States.
But veteran U.N. watcher and Columbia University professor Edward Luck dismisses those early missteps as a normal part of the learning process. Luck gives Mr. Ban high marks for his initial efforts in his new position as the world's diplomat-in-chief.
"He's hardly been simply a behind the scenes actor," said Edward Luck. "He's been quite straightforward, he goes down to Washington in his first trip and tells President Bush he's very concerned about climate change, and it has to be a top priority. That clearly was not the first message that the president wanted to hear. He meets with President al-Bashir when he goes to Addis early on, tells him that the genocide in Darfur is completely unacceptable. He tells the Iranian leadership that denial of the Holocaust is unacceptable; he is willing to go to the Middle East, and as far as he can, butt heads together and gets the Arab League and the Islamic Conference to get energized in trying to do something about Darfur. So I think people sometimes get fooled by the style and ignore the fact that the substance is usually quite assertive, and at points even bold."
To be sure, Mr. Ban is soft-spoken. In a recent conversation with VOA, he laughed when reminded of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, whose motto was "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
The secretary-general acknowledges the international community's frustration at the slow progress on issues such as deploying U.N. peacekeeping troops in Darfur. But he said he would insist that President Bashir allow blue-helmeted U.N. troops to participate in a so-called "hybrid force" that would be strong enough to restore calm to Darfur.
"It was regrettable that President al-Bashir has made several reservations to my proposals to deploy a heavy support package and the hybrid peacekeeping operations," said Ban Ki-moon. "This is something they must accommodate."
Mr. Ban has also been outspoken in criticizing Iran for its defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to uranium enrichment. Speaking to VOA, he said it is "regrettable" that Iran's leaders have not met the Council's deadlines.
"Even at this time, I would urge that the Iranian authorities engage in a serious negotiation to resolve this issue to the expectation of the international community," he said. "And on the part of Iran, as a responsible member of the United Nations and the international community, they must comply fully with all the resolutions of the Security Council."
Mr. Ban noted that, as secretary-general, he no longer plays an active role in the six-party talks on North Korea, as he did in his previous job as South Korea's foreign minister. But he expressed satisfaction at Pyongyang's apparent willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for fuel and diplomatic incentives. He told VOA he is continuing to play a backstage role in the negotiations.
"I will try my best effort to facilitate at this time this ongoing process, so that the Korean people and the international community will be able to see the realization of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," said Mr. Ban.
Columbia University's Professor Luck argues that despite Mr. Ban's low-key image, he has displayed more energy and willingness to tackle big issues than any other secretary-general at this point in their tenure.
"In terms of his ability to articulate a very clear strategy, people compare him in his early days with Kofi Annan after 10 years in the job, which is not fair," he said. "I think he's every bit as articulate as Kofi Annan was in his early days, and certainly is much more willing to speak out on issues than a number of his predecessors have before that time. People forget that Kofi Annan's fame for being a global spokesperson set him apart from many of his predecessors. He really was unusual in that regard, and Ban is in many ways moving in the same direction."
As for the criticism that Mr. Ban is too close to the United States, Professor Luck notes that Kofi Annan was also perceived as being pro-U.S. in his early days in office. In later years, Mr. Annan was sharply critical of U.S. policies, and openly clashed with the former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton.
While Mr. Ban observed his 100 days in office as a milestone, in keeping with South Korean tradition, most U.N. diplomats say it is still too early to tell what impact he will have on world affairs. As one member of Mr. Ban's team explained, "the secretary-general can't define the world. The world really defines the secretary-general."
The official said "Whatever personal characteristics a U.N. chief brings to the job, he or she is faced with trying to get things done in a very difficult, very divided world. Only over the course of many months will we begin to get a feel for how Mr. Ban sees his place in the world, and sees the organization's place."