When two experts from a new United Nations crisis-prevention team were dispatched to help douse Kenya's postelection blaze – before they could even meet fellow team members in New York – it was pure Ban Ki Moon.
After 15 months as UN secretary-general, Mr. Ban has established a reputation as a diligent and dogged diplomat who insists that the UN come to embody two qualities not always associated with it: efficiency and responsiveness.
The two experts, who lent technical support to the high-profile (and ultimately successful) intervention by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, provide one example of how Ban is pushing to move the UN from a traditional stance of "why we can't" to one of "how we can."
The former South Korean foreign minister has also made some early missteps – showing perhaps too much disregard for the rules of the house, according to some, and ruffling the feathers of an ambassadorial corps accustomed to deference and patronage. Still, Ban is showing signs of making headway at the UN headquarters on New York's East River.
After reorganizing the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations – in part to cleanse it of the taint of abuse scandals over recent years – Ban is pressing ahead on reform and expansion of the UN's political-affairs activities. Such activities come under a relatively new arm of the UN that follows through on policy implementation and deals with issues like election monitoring and judicial reforms.
The world's top diplomat frequently notes that preventive action is less costly than peacekeeping after a conflict – meaning that innovations like the crisis-prevention team could be harbingers of things to come.
"When he takes on a problem like climate change, he doesn't give it up. He works it aggressively," says Lynn Pascoe, the UN's undersecretary for political affairs. "If an issue is important enough to engage him as secretary-general, then he's going to keep at it with a constant push for results," he adds. "It's not one speech and on to the next topic."
That determination to stay focused on key issues has not been lost on some outside observers who know the UN well and see Ban's style as something new.
"One thing that stands out is that he set his priorities pretty early on and has stuck with them," says Michael Doyle, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York and a former undersecretary-general at the UN. "He made Darfur, climate change, and UN reform his priorities, and he's stuck with them – something that doesn't always happen at the UN."
Ban deserves credit for advances on all three issues – despite the "painfully slow" movement on Darfur, Mr. Doyle says. He adds that while Ban may be able to make modest institutional improvements – like the reorganization and expansion of political affairs he's pursuing – any real progress on UN reform will take a "grand bargain" between developed and developing countries and won't be principally the work of the secretary-general.
People who have worked with Ban at the start of his five-year term (which can be renewed) say two motivations underlie his actions: his own experience as a diplomat and the trajectory in his lifetime of his native land.
Ban trusts that persistence – a quality that took him to the top of South Korea's diplomatic pyramid – will deliver dividends on tough global issues as well. As one who grew up within the security of a UN-backed armistice and rose in his profession as his country blossomed into a stable democracy and an economic power, Ban came to see South Korea's transformation as the ideal of the UN's purpose.
As a way of building up pressure for action at Bali, Ban held a summit just before the General Assembly in New York last September, drawing 80 heads of state – the largest number ever to attend a meeting on climate change. That set the stage for Ban's aggressive cajoling at the Bali conference in December, a role many experts say was pivotal in preventing a collapse of the international effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Now his sights are set on hammering out commitments to action at the conference in Copenhagen, Denmark set for next year.
"The climate-change issue has really brought out the nuts-and-bolts nature of this secretary-general," says Robert Orr, an assistant secretary-general for policy planning. "It's his signature the way he's been pushing at the strategic level with the leaders, but has also done very much in the boiler room here at the UN to ensure that the organization is up to the challenge of advancing and implementing these very complex negotiations."
This year, Ban has added water to his list of priority issues – an addition that aides say he made largely as a result of his immersion in the climate-change issue. He has talked, for example, of the role water – or rather the lack of it – has played in the Darfur conflict.
But as Mr. Orr says, the deeper explanation for Ban's emphasis on water is a broad interest in preventive action – the conviction that acting on issues like water distribution before they become open conflicts or calamities is much less costly to the world.
Still, some conflicts have already advanced beyond the preventive stage – such as Darfur, which has reached a level of violence that President Bush has termed "genocide."
Ban is "frustrated" and "impatient" with the slow political progress, aides say, but they add that he prefers to call on his trademark persistence rather than throw in the towel. He worked doggedly on agreements between the government of Sudan and the African Union that led to a UN Security Council resolution last summer authorizing a hybrid UN force made up largely of African Union soldiers.
He's now pressing other countries to provide necessary equipment and logistical support for the force, and he's pushing Sudan to accept soldiers on its territory from countries like Thailand and Nepal, which have offered to take part.
Last week he met with Bush's special envoy to Sudan, Richard Williamson, to discuss Ambassador Williamson's recent trip to Sudan. And on Tuesday, Ban was to brief the Security Council on advancing the deployment of the hybrid force to Darfur.
Progress is neither fast nor easy on any of this, but Ban persists – as those who know him say they'd expect.
"There are people who, when they are trying to do something and they run into a block or a brick wall, they try to divert attention to another subject, but that's not Ban Ki Moon," says Undersecretary Pascoe. "He just keeps going back and pushing it."