The New Face of the United Nations

On January 1, 2007, Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s former foreign minister, will become United Nations Secretary-General, following Kofi Annan’s ten-year tenure. Annan inspired the world with his diplomacy and leadership on poverty reduction and human rights, but the war in Iraq divided the world and drew attention and financial resources away from crisis regions and critical long-term problems like climate change, disease control, sustainable energy, and access to water. With the recent elections in the United States and the rise of Asia’s global influence, there is an opportunity to turn the world’s attention to the most critical challenges facing our planet.

In addition to the long-term challenges of poverty, the environment, nuclear proliferation, and UN reform, the new Secretary-General will inherit a long list of hotspots: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, Myanmar, Sudan, North Korea, and others. Recent attempts to influence developments in these countries through threats and sanctions, and sometimes war, have failed. Most are less stable today than they were five years ago. Clearly, a new approach is needed.

The leading Asian countries, including Ban’s South Korea, have long favored a balance of diplomatic approaches and economic incentives as the way to solve complex challenges. Rather than relying on sanctions and threats of force, the idea is to underpin long-term prosperity in today’s unstable regions. This balanced approach is important because most of the world’s hotspots are in trouble not only, or even mainly, because of politics, but because of the underlying challenges of hunger, disease, and environmental crisis.

Consider Darfur, a crisis that has been debated in the UN Security Council as a confrontation between the Sudanese Government and the people of Darfur. But the deeper truth is that Darfur is unstable because it is home to an impoverished and fast-growing population without adequate supplies of water, food, health clinics, schools, and other basic services. Rather than focusing on sanctions, the major powers would do much better to work with Sudan’s government to propose and help to finance long-term development strategies.