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A New Era Begins at the United Nations

Ban Ki-moon of South Korea last month became the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations. Mr. Ban commands an organization that has suffered through several scandals over the past few years, but one that is widely seen as indispensable in an increasingly interdependent world.

Ban Ki-moon came to the United Nations promising change; in a word, reform. Under his predecessor Kofi Annan, critics charged the world body was ineffective, inefficient and, in some cases, corrupt.

In his inaugural address, Mr. Ban pledged to reverse that image. "I will seek to set the highest ethical standard. The good name of the United Nations is one of its most valuable assets, but also one of its most vulnerable," said Mr. Ban.

Peacekeeping and Disaster Relief

If the organization's image suffered during the Annan era, its influence and reach expanded significantly. By the end of Mr. Annan's 10-year term, the world body had claimed the lead role in peacekeeping, as well as disaster relief.

Moreover, the likable and energetic Mr. Annan raised the profile of the office. He was seen as a kind of a world diplomat-in-chief, mediating international disputes and building global norms.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Ban signaled a different approach. In what some diplomats saw as a jab at Mr. Annan, the new U.N. chief pledged to promise less and deliver more. "We should be more modest in our words, but not in our performance. The true measure of success for the U.N. is not how much we promise, but how much we deliver for those who need us most," said Mr. Ban.

Columbia University professor and U.N. expert Edward Luck helped Mr. Ban write that speech. Luck says Mr. Ban is determined to keep a lower profile than his predecessor. "We have gone through a major period of building of norms, of putting the U.N. into new areas, a lot of conceptual advances in terms of the U.N. doctrine under Kofi Annan. But now the organization in many ways has to prove itself and I think that falls to Ban Ki-moon," says Luck.

Lee Feinstein is a veteran U.N. watcher at New York's privately funded Council on Foreign Relations. He says Mr. Ban style is to be less of a norm-builder and mediator and more of a manager.

"He has got certain skills that are probably very good for a secretary-general. And in some ways he's more in the mold of a traditional secretary-general, in the sense that he's unlikely to make public statements that will give offense to one party or another and much more of a conciliator, although not to be confused with somebody who's not strong," says Feinstein.

Cleaning House

Though he may be a conciliator, Mr. Ban has not shied away from controversy. His first target was the antiquated U.N. bureaucracy. Moving quickly, he called on all top managers to submit their resignations. Then, he submitted to the General Assembly a plan to restructure the U.N.'s largest department -- Peacekeeping. He said he would hold off reappointing senior bureaucrats until his restructuring plan was approved.

That places him square in the middle of a simmering feud that pits wealthy countries that pay most of the U.N.'s bills against poorer countries that make up a majority of the Assembly. Wealthy countries see Mr. Ban's ability to carry out bureaucratic reforms as a test of his effectiveness.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Alejandro Wolff made that point clear. "It is his responsibility to deliver a secretariat that's responsive. Does its work well, that is efficient, that is transparent. We hold him accountable for that. Therefore, we ought to give him the authority to do the necessary changes, implement the necessary restructuring that he believes is essential for him to do that. And we will judge him by results," says Wolff.

But the restructuring plan angered many ambassadors from developing countries, who see reforms as an attempt to take away what little power they have to shape U.N. policies. They threatened to delay the plan indefinitely, using a strategy known as "death by a thousand meetings."

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman called the developing world's reaction a "reality check" for the new secretary-general. "To make any change at the U.N. is something which involves a lot of negotiation, a lot of compromise, and whatever proposal you bring will look totally different after everybody has had a go at it, and had their input into it," says Gillerman. "But I'm saying it just shows you Ban Ki-moon, for whom I have a lot of respect and who obviously prepared this with diligence, is probably learning right now that changing anything here is very difficult."

Columbia University's Edward Luck says even if Mr. Ban achieves some success in pushing through reforms, the vast U.N. bureaucracy is likely to look and act much the same as it always has. "The U.N. is like that proverbial supertanker. You only change course by degrees. It takes quite a while to really turn the place around. I wouldn't expect two, three years from now this U.N. is going to look too different from the one we're looking at now," says Luck.

An Era of Caution

Luck and other observers agree that "caution" is likely to be the watchword of the Ban Ki-moon era at the U.N. Given the entrenched opposition to reform in many quarters and the complexity of global trouble spots such as Darfur and North Korea, change, if and when it comes, is likely to be slow and gradual.

Mr. Ban's initial push against the world body's political reality elicited little more than a shove back. The U.N. may be indispensable, but it is also proving itself to be impervious to the tugs of modernization and reform.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.