Ban Ki-moon: Towards A More Engaged Asia

Remarks by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City
November 6, 2007

President Vishakha Desai, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Barry Diller, Mr. Ajay Banga, Mr. Martin Sullivan, Mr. Neville Isdell, Mr. Yoshio Taniguchi, Shahram Nazeri, Ambassador Chris Hill, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you, Ambassador Hill, for your kind words. And thank you all for your very warm welcome. This room may be full of dignitaries, but it feels more like a homecoming.

Of course, the Waldorf was my home until recently. The Secretary-General's official residence has been undergoing a facelift, and this was the family dining room. I am glad we now have downsized.

Tonight, you are recognizing some remarkable individuals. May I salute Mr. Taniguchi on the beautiful new Museum of Modern Art. Shahram Nazeri is a musical icon. I am delighted that he will be performing with the Rumi Ensemble this evening. I am pleased, too, that you are honoring Neville Isdell of Coca Cola. I know him well from our work together on the UN Global Compact, promoting corporate responsibility worldwide. Congratulations to you all.

For my part, it's simply an honor to be here on this a special occasion. The Asia Society was founded, 51 years ago, to promote greater understanding in America. Today, your society is a truly global institution, gaining ever more prominence as Asia emerges on the world's stage. You have offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai, and other world cities. It's only fitting, now, that you are opening a center in Korea, and that my beloved Seoul takes its place among you.

Ladies and gentlemen:

When I decided to run for Secretary-General of the United Nations, I sought out the Asia Society to make my case. Now that I am back, a year later, I can see many friends who helped. I won't embarrass them all. But I would like to acknowledge Ambassador Holbrooke, who prepared me for the bruising that was to come.

We had barely finished shaking hands when, in his trademark fashion, he gave me a shot right between the eyes.

"Ban," he said. "What's Article 97?" Reluctantly, I admitted I had no clue. "Chief Administrative Officer," he informed me, pointing a finger. You're the guy who's supposed to make the trains run, who reports to the General Assembly. And there I was, thinking about the "General" in the title of Secretary-General.

Thank you, Richard, for the cold shower. That was the beginning of a hard and long campaign, answering many such difficult questions. You helped me find the proper path. I thank you again for that and look forward to our continuing work on HIV/AIDS.

My friends, the Asia Society enjoys unique standing in our new era. We may or may not be witnessing the dawn of the Asia-Pacific Century. But no one can deny the importance of Asia's rise, nor the growing importance of institutions such as the Asia Society.

From my earliest days as a young diplomat, I knew this to be a place for dialogue—for discourse rather than declaration, engagement rather than confrontation. It is a place where reason and understanding trump sound bites and easy political rhetoric.

As you know, this is my style as Secretary-General. I believe in the power of diplomacy and engagement. When I was foreign minister, the government of the Republic of Korea advocated détente with the North.

When some in the world called for sanctions and punitive action, South Korea pushed for dialogue. That requires listening as well as speaking. It means sticking to principles but also attempting to understand the other side, however irrational or intransigent it may sometimes appear.

I quote my friend Ambassador Hill and his first principle of diplomacy: "When something has happened, it has happened for a reason. You must do your best to understand that reason."

As Secretary-General, I may not always deliver the pleasing sound bite. But you can be sure that, behind the scenes, I am seeking to understand the situation from all sides—and pushing hard for concrete results.

We are doing that now in Myanmar. As we speak, my Special Adviser Ibrahim Gambari is back in Yangoon. I met him this weekend in Istanbul to go over his brief. That's to be the honest broker, the facilitator of a dialogue between government and opposition leaders, particularly Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. I have said publicly to the Security Council and I say again here. It is time for Myanmar's government to release all detained students and demonstrators, to engage with the opposition and move toward a more democratic society. Above all, it is time for Myanmar to rejoin the international community.

This brand of diplomacy is not easy. There is seldom applause, often no outward evidence of movement. It is a quiet, painstaking, behind-the-scenes slog. You have to work the phones, cajole world leaders to do this or that. It is a symphony—often not a very harmonious one—of small steps that you hope will lead to something greater.

You expect nothing. You can only keep trying, keep pushing. Maybe it works, maybe not. Then you try some more, in a different way, aiming all the while for some small progress that makes the next step possible.

We are at this point, now, in Darfur. No other issue has claimed more of my time or attention. I have spent hundreds of behind-the-scenes hours working with various parties to the conflict—the government of Sudan, rebel leaders, neighboring countries, partners of the African Union. Just this afternoon, I had a long and fruitful talk with Mr. Salva Kiir, the first Vice President of Sudan.

Meanwhile, we are pushing ahead with one of the most complex peacekeeping operations in our history. We are sponsoring very difficult peace negotiations in Libya. We are feeding and protecting hundreds of thousands of displaced people. And yet all this is only the beginning. Beyond peacemaking and peacekeeping, there is a third and underappreciated layer to the conflict: an immense crisis of resource management and economic development, starting with water.

My friends, a peace agreement in Darfur is possible. But it can last only if we address the all the causes of the conflict, developmental as well as political.

We can hope to return more than two million refugees to their homes. We can safeguard villages and help rebuild. But what to do about the essential dilemma—the fact that there's no longer enough water or good land to go around?

Today, these resource issues are at the core of the UN's political and development work. More and more, they have become central to our strategies of conflict resolution and conflict prevention.

That is why I am so pleased that Neville Isdell is being honored tonight, in part for making water management and conservation Coca Cola's number one issue. What Coca Cola has pledged to do with its plants and operations, the international community needs to pursue on a much grander scale in Darfur. We must replenish Darfur's disappearing water and land resources. Our success can translate a peace agreement on paper into lasting peace on the ground. But if we fail, we fool nobody but ourselves in proclaiming empty ceasefires and hollow treaties.

Ladies and gentlemen:

As an Asian Secretary-General, addressing the Asia Society, I would like to close by sharing my views on Asia's role in the world today.

We Asians inhabit the world's largest continent. We are the world's biggest population and its fastest growing economy. We have a rich history and an ancient culture. Yet in international affairs, our role is far less than it could be.

Asia's contribution to the United Nations, though significant, could be much greater. Its humanitarian assistance—I want to put this politely—is less than generous. We are the only continent where regional integration and common markets have not taken hold.

Latin Americans and North Americans dream of creating a free-trade zone—a United States of the Americas. Europeans speak of building a United States of Europe. The African Union aspires to become a United States of Africa. Why no United States of Asia? Then we'd have three new USAs!

Why is Asia different? There are many reasons. History. Cultural diversity. Unresolved territorial and political disputes. Lack of multilateral experience and the predominance of one or two centers of power. But the main reason is that we have not tried.

Asia does not do itself justice. As an Asian Secretary-General, I hope to see this change. I hope to see an Asia that is both better integrated and more internationally engaged.

I expect particularly great things of my fellow Koreans, a remarkable people who have come into their own—as the Asia Society recognizes with its new center. I hope to see Korea assume more responsibilities in the world, commensurate with its growing economic clout—especially in the area of development, one of the three pillars of the UN Charter. Korea should be more generous in its official development assistance. Koreans need to step-up, speak out, and do more.

The time is ripe. For this we owe much to Ambassador Christopher Hill, a diplomat par excellence. He has done more than any other to make the six-party talks with North Korea a success.

Chris, your persistence and skillful negotiation have brought us close, I believe, to resolving this last legacy of the Cold War. As a Korean, you can imagine my happiness at the prospect, expressed in the General Assembly's recent resolution on "Peace, Security, and Reunification on the Korean Peninsula." A peaceful, nuclear-free, united peninsula is no longer a pipe dream, thanks largely to your efforts.

We can only imagine how difficult a diplomatic challenge it was—coordinating all this within your own government, let alone with North Korea. The fact that we are dealing with the most sensitive security issues, involving four big powers as well as the two parties directly concerned, proves that multilateralism can work in Asia as elsewhere in the world.

It is encouraging that North Korea has now begun to dismantle its nuclear facilities, true to its word. If and when this process successfully concludes, we can foresee transforming the six-party mechanism into a more permanent security framework for North-East Asia.

This is a promising beginning, for Korea and for the cause of peace and regional integration. Let us build on it.

Ladies and gentlemen:

Here I am, urging my fellow Asians to speak out—when I have spoken so long.

I'm afraid I must leave for the airport. I have to catch a plane to Buenos Aires this evening—my first stop on an eco-fact-finding mission that will take me to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Antarctica. I want to see for myself the toll that climate change is taking on the Amazon rain forest and the polar ice cap. I want to see how these governments are responding. Among the many global challenges we face, I consider global warming to be the most critical.

Once again, thank you, Mrs. President and Chairman Holbrooke, ladies and gentlemen and friends.

Good night, and best wishes to you all.