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Vol. LXII, No. 8
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
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Times Reporter Hoge Discusses U.N. at Woodrow Wilson School Lecture

Ellen Gilbert

“I don’t attack the U.N., I don’t defend it, I simply cover it,” said Warren Hoge, United Nations foreign affairs correspondent for The New York Times during a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs last week.

Mr. Hoge, who has filled a number of positions at the Times over the last 30 years, acknowledged that the U.N. has “never been as discredited as it is today, nor as consequential. Flawed as it is, it has to exist.” The extent of the U.N.’s peace-keeping role, he noted, was “not imagined when its charter was written.” There are over 100,000 U.N. soldiers currently stationed in hot spots around the world.

A new secretary-general and a new U.S. Ambassador have brought an air of considerable change to the U.N. which was, Mr. Hoge said, a “desolate place” suffering from “mass institutional depression” when he arrived there in November, 2003. At that time, he said, President Bush’s displeasure with the U.N., which had not sanctioned the Iraq War, and his disdain for treaties and organizations like the U.N. as obstacles to achieving U.S. goals, had created a “toxic brew.” Nor did then-Ambassador John Bolton’s view that countries with greater resources (i.e., western nations) should have more power sit well with poorer nations.

The importance of the U.N. to Third World countries was evidenced in Mr. Hoge’s description of African countries voting against Venezuela’s admission to the Security Council after its President, Hugo Chavez, joked about standing in the same spot as Satan (Mr. Bush) had the previous day. Although delegates “loved” Mr. Chavez’s “little show” at the time, the African delegates, for whom the U.N. is “almost a church,” were not amused, and Panama won the coveted place in the Security Council.

Mr. Hoge was respectful, though not without reservations in his discussion of Ban Ki-moon, the U.N.’s new secretary-general. He noted that Mr. Ban had a tough act to follow in his elegant predecessor, Kofi A. Annan, who commands a room, speaks with a charming lilt, and has “beautiful hands.” Mr. Ban’s Korean-accented English does not go over as well as Mr. Annan’s melodious Ghanan-inflected speech, and he clearly does not have the same kind of presence. In his defense, Mr. Hoge noted that public figures in Asian culture are not used to making grand entrances, and that new secretary-general is catching on fast: he was recently observed skillfully “glad-handing” a room full of Israeli politicians.

When Mr. Hoge described Mr. Ban’s style as “boring,” he seemed to mean it in the positive sense of being insistent and penetrating, rather than dull. He noted the secretary-general’s habit of dismissing note-takers at meetings, so he can go one-on-one with important world leaders. A particularly striking instance of this tactic, he observed, was when Mr. Ban met with Moammar Kadafi in the Libyan leader’s palace tent. After about 45 minutes he “expelled” all the aides present, and pulled his chair up to go “nose to nose” with the “very dramatic-looking” Mr. Kadafi, who, in the end, agreed to hold peace talks in Libya.

“The jury is still out,” on the “halting” Korean whose intense work ethic exhausts his aides and the press who cover him, but Mr. Hoge is hopeful that the new secretary-general will slow down on the “amazing number of trips” he has made in his first year, to pay attention to, and earn the loyalty of, his colleagues inside the U.N. itself. One good sign, he suggested, is Mr. Ban’s sense of humor, which was on display after Mr. Hoge wrote an article describing his “wooden” manner. During his comments at a black-tie event about four weeks later, Mr. Ban cited Mr. Hoge’s description of him, and broke into an Elvis Presley song from G.I. Blues: “Treat me nice, treat me good/Treat me like you really should/’Cause I’m not made of wood/And I don’t have a wooden heart.”

Besides being able to quote Elvis, Mr. Ban has made the situation in Darfur and concerns about climate change two of his top priorities and, said Mr. Hoge, those were “bold moves.” Another hopeful development is the existence of the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”) statement, which gives the U.N. the power to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity if their own government is unwilling to cooperate.

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