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Conversations With Ban Ki-Moon by Tom Plate

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Tom Plate stands out among Western journalists. Not only has this former editorial director of the Los Angeles Times, syndicated columnist and Loyola Marymount University professor relentlessly chronicled the most important story of our era -- the rise of Asia -- but he has done so through his rare personal access to the key leaders in the region.

His Giants of Asia series (published by Marshal Cavendish International) based on extensive personal interviews and encounters, has so far included the great eminence of East Asia's transformation, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, as well as the controversial Mohammed Mahathir of Malaysia and Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra.

Now, the latest in his series profiles United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the most famous South Korean apart from the K-pop "gangnam-style" rapper PSY.

PSY may have more hits on YouTube than Justin Beiber, but Ban's lasting impact on the world, not much covered by less far minded journalists, promises to be immense.

As Globalization 2.0 -- the new interdependence of plural identities that has resulted from the rise of the emerging economies, particularly China -- supplants American-led Globalization 1.0, Ban is pressing the UN to face its fate at a time when its role has never been more important.

Absent the hegemony of a leading power or bloc of powers, how will we be able to provide and manage common global public goods -- whether figuring out how to mitigate global warming, stem nuclear proliferation or regulate the vast financial flows washing over the planet -- without a modernized UN?

Working behind the scenes of world headlines, Secretary General Ban has, without fanfare but with sober and self-effacing pragmatism, whipped the creaking UN bureaucracy into a far more efficient and disciplined organization. He has done more than even Hurricane Sandy to place global warming -- "the consequences of which are approaching, fast approaching" says Ban -- at the top of the agenda of world leaders.

He has even broached the greatest taboo, and greatest source of dysfunction at the UN: the ability of individual states to block action absent "consensus" from all others.

Plate's engaging style, as in his other books, elicits candor from his subjects.

In one passage, Plate raises the core conundrum of a body built on national sovereignty in a globalized world. "The reality of the world," Plate observes to Ban, "is that its problems are ever mounting and becoming more international, and yet the Westphalian tradition of nation-state's sovereignty has remained the same. It has really, in a sense, been blocking action."

Ban responds: "That's right. That's right. The international community works normally on a consensus basis, whether it is a regional, small organization, or a big organization. But the true meaning of consensus is that one or two different countries should not be able to block decisions. Consensus should not be confused with unanimity. But now, one country can block everything. One country!"

Undiplomatically, Ban openly laments the lack of progress of the UN Conference on Disarmament. "It's only one country [Pakistan] that has been blocking progress for the last 12 years. Twelve years! Is that reasonable?" he bursts out passionately.

Ban confides to Plate that he told the conference this year that "If you behave this way, you may lose your own prerogative, ownership, jurisdiction... this may be taken to another forum, another venue."

This is true of the UN as a whole. If it can't get its act together under a Secretary General as objective and practical as Ban Ki-Moon, the global agenda will be decided elsewhere, such as in the G-20, or worse, nowhere at all.

With the world going through a great transition where new powers are rising and hegemons are fading, dangerous times are upon us. This historic moment could be 1914 again instead of 1950. In 1914, the absence of global institutions and rules meant that a small incident -- the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo -- tripped an unstable alliance system into world war. In the 1950s, in the wake of the Second World War, the UN system and other institutions were built up that have been able to maintain general peace and stability for 70 years.

Though less people seem to be paying attention to Ban than PSY, making the UN work may be all that stands between peace and some global calamity sparked by, say, an Israeli strike on Iran or the dispute between Japan and China over rocky outcrops in the sea between them.

This excellent and highly readable book by Tom Plate humanizes the head of the world's premier governmental organization while also reminding us what is at stake.