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The Secretary General in His Labyrinth

When Ban Ki-moon was a child, the United Nations saved his village from a war. Can he save the U.N. from irrelevance?

Photograph by Spencer Heyfron

Between the lights of Long Island City and Ban Ki-moon stood a stretch of wooden desk, a well-kept ornamental tree, a window, and the East River. The 70-year-old secretary-general was proud of the window, part of the 38-story glass curtain that covers the face of the U.N. building. Its blue-green glass looks like the 1952 original, only stronger and more energy efficient. It’s the crown jewel of a seven-year, $2 billion renovation nearing completion, the sort of administrative housekeeping at which Ban excels. He glanced out, then went back to the papers on his desk. There was, as one of his favorite English expressions goes, no time to lose. In twelve hours, at 8 a.m., Tuesday, September 23, he was to take his seat in front of the General Assembly and open one of the most important conferences of his life—a world summit on climate change. More than 100 heads of state and government would be there, President Obama among the featured speakers. Leonardo DiCaprio would provide opening remarks.

Leo DiCaprio speaking at the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014. The night before, Ban Ki-moon had been told the U.S. would start bombing ISIS inside Syria without waiting for U.N. approval.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Ban did not know that an argument was raging down the hall which threatened to overshadow the whole thing. Earlier in the day, an American diplomat dropped a hint to a member of Ban’s staff: After more than a month of airstrikes in Iraq against Islamic State militants, the United States was expanding its bombing campaign into Syria. The strikes would begin immediately.

The question was, how should the United Nations respond? Ban’s staff split into two camps. On one side were the United Nation’s lawyers, led by his chief counsel, Miguel de Serpa Soares. Syria was still a sovereign country and U.N. member state, the legal team reminded their colleagues. Bombing its territory required authorization from the Syrian government or the U.N. Security Council. But as the last-minute backchannel notice made clear, the White House was not seeking either. Thus, the lawyers said, there needed to be a public statement that the United States was violating the U.N. Charter. They promised to stop short of what the last secretary-general, Kofi Annan, had done a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Annan’s words—“it was illegal”—had secured his legacy at the United Nations. It had also destroyed what was left of his relationship with the Bush administration.

The U.N. Department of Political Affairs, headed by Jeffrey D. Feltman, a former top U.S. State Department official on the Middle East, pushed back. Yes, the political advisers retorted, at an ideal United Nations, the Security Council would authorize legal action against ISIS. An ideal United Nations would have dealt forcefully with the Syrian war years ago, before ISIS gained a foothold. But nobody thinks this is the ideal United Nations—not even the people who run it. The year before, Russian President Vladimir Putin had written in The New York Times that he would block any U.N. action not approved by his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And while Assad would thrill at bombs falling on his enemies in ISIS, the political staff argued that seeking his permission would alienate the Arab allies assisting in the attack and legitimize a strongman suspected of war crimes in the more than three-year-old civil war. If Ban condemned the U.S. attack, he could undermine a crucial military effort and give political cover to Obama’s domestic opponents, Assad supporters, even the Islamic State militants themselves.

“All right, well, sure, it’s against international law,” a senior U.N. official who took the U.S. position that night recalled, exasperated. “[But ISIS] are literally selling every woman they catch of a different religion into slavery and rape. The fact is that they’re doing it in Iraq but being supplied and coming from Syria. Then the fact that [bombing them] is against the law? Screw that!”

Ban was not asked to take part in the discussion. That is how he likes to operate—above the fray, current and former staffers told me. “He likes to get a consolidated recommendation. He doesn’t want to navigate between people debating in front of him,” one said. Besides, that night Ban was also dealing with the Ebola outbreak; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Israel’s bombardment of Gaza; violence in Mali, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic; and the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The dignitaries were already landing in New York for the climate summit. Even more would arrive a day later for the general debate held each year at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

Befitting the world’s farthest-flung bureaucracy, most of the staffers’ argument took place over email. After a few hours, they reached a compromise that would back the United States and delivered their agreement to the secretary-general. But the final decision would be Ban’s alone. He had not gotten the job for his decisiveness or executive experience; as South Korea’s foreign minister, he’d earned the nickname Ban-chusa—roughly, “Ban the mid-level bureaucrat.” Yet this was the kind of decision he has faced consistently in eight years at the U.N. helm, and that U.N. leaders have faced for 70 years: how to balance competing desires for peace, human rights, and the rule of law, while placating the powers whose support the United Nations needs to survive.

Ban decided to accept his staff’s recommendation. Confidants told me that he trusted the United States’ intentions in Syria. He would not publicly quibble the next day when Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued in a letter, addressed to Ban but meant for the Security Council, that the bombing constituted “collective self-defense” (of, nominally, Iraq) under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter—the same argument past U.S. administrations used to justify arming the Nicaraguan Contras and escalating the Vietnam War.

In the end, all Ban could do was what he always does: issue a statement. It had to be carefully worded, neither condemning the airstrikes nor asserting their legality. His aides knew this comment would likely be the most reported thing Ban said all day, yet the delicacy of the position required attracting as little attention as possible.

(“I think it is undeniable,” he would say, “that these extremist groups pose an immediate threat to international peace and security.”) With the next day’s schedule already set, he would read it at his morning press conference—the one that was supposed to have focused the world’s attention on global warming.

The not-so-secret truth about the United Nations is that it is almost entirely passive when it comes to the most pressing matters of global security. That weakness was built into its structure. Because it can’t coerce Russia, the United Nations has no formal role enforcing or monitoring the latest cease-fire in Ukraine. Its months-old strategy of “freezing” the Syrian conflict into a humanitarian safe zone around Aleppo has so far failed to freeze anything; its supervisory mission in Syria is so weak that aid groups ignore it in favor of their own shadow reports. In many places where the United Nations has stumbled, such as Haiti, even its credibility as a humanitarian agency is in doubt.

The United Nations is often most effective at what Heidi J. S. Tworek, head of Harvard’s U.N. History Project, calls a “communications clearinghouse”—a Greek chorus reminding us of the toll of the conflicts it can’t stop. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child set off a media storm with its February 4 update on Iraq, drawing attention to ISIS's enslavement of girls, “mass executions of boys ... beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive.” Yet it couldn’t get people to read the whole report: The next line, deploring “the very large number of children killed and severely injured, as a result of the current fighting, including by air strikes,” went ignored.

Despite it all, the United Nations is currently irreplaceable. One of the first steps a new country or government almost always takes is to seek a U.N. seat. (The few that don’t even try, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, might as well declare themselves pariahs.) That unique ability to confer legitimacy makes the United Nations a place governments can get “relatively cheap settlement of potential conflicts,” said Thomas Pogge, director of Yale University’s Global Justice program. It also makes it the only place where nations barely on speaking terms might work together against common threats, including climate change. The question is what the United Nations itself can do to make that happen. Much of that comes down to its leader.

It can be easy to forget what an achievement the United Nations’ creation was 70 years ago. The organization was forged during World War II, a time of firebombings, starvation, and genocide. Even the previous World War hadn’t been enough to create a durable international institution. The failure of that first attempt, the League of Nations, to prevent conflicts was blindingly apparent by the 1930s, by which point it was too late. “Unless people and their governments really put the maintenance of law and peace in the forefront of national interests, no ... confederation of nations can compel them to do so,” World Affairs lamented in December 1941.

Four horrific years later “we achieved this incredible civilizational leap,” Pogge told me. The U.N. Charter was signed by 50 countries in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. It pledged nothing less than to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

By signing onto the United Nations, the war’s soon-to-be victors yielded some individual power in the name of a greater good. They got something in return. While the United Nations was to be governed by a General Assembly of all its members, the sole authority to compel binding action was put in a tiny Security Council, on which the war’s five Allied Powers—the United States, U.K., France, China, and the Soviet Union—each got permanent seats. Each was also armed with a veto. (Italy, the first of the major Axis countries admitted to the United Nations, joined in 1955. Japan followed the next year. East and West Germany were not admitted until 1973.)

Framers hoped the “P5,” as the council’s permanent members are now known, would lead by consensus. But before the ground could be broken on U.N. headquarters, the council devolved into a stalemate between the Western nations and Nationalist China, on one hand, and the Soviets on the other. One of the deadliest consequences of the split was a spiraling conflict in Korea, where unchecked fighting between Communist and U.S.-backed forces would soon spark a new war.

The figure many hoped would break the deadlock was the secretary-general. The post was modeled on the former leader of the League of Nations, whose role the league’s founders, reluctant to hand over control to a would-be “chancellor of the world,” had limited to that of a modest chief administrative officer. To avoid the weaknesses of the league, the United Nations gave its leader a key additional power: to bring to the council’s attention “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

While the General Assembly got the final vote on the secretary-general, it was up to the Security Council to nominate the candidate. And when it came time to choose, the P5 made sure to pick a leader who wouldn’t challenge them. The first secretary-general, Trygve Lie of Norway, was largely content to sit back and hope the superpowers found consensus on their own. Even that did not prove passive enough. In 1952, Lie was forced to resign by the Soviets, furious over his support for U.S. intervention in Korea; and the U.S., where Republican senators led by Joseph McCarthy were convinced Lie was harboring communists at the United Nations.

The council went back to Scandinavia. It chose the assistant foreign minister of Sweden, a blond, small-chinned son of a former prime minister who its members believed would be an apolitical technocrat. They were wrong. Dag Hammarskjöld turned out to be a bold crusader for human rights who believed the United Nations should interpret the charter as broadly as possible to intervene around the world—even if he sometimes had to push the rules to do so.

In 1956, Israel, Britain, and France sparked the Suez Crisis when they invaded Egypt to seize control of the Suez Canal and topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Facing a regional war involving nuclear powers, Hammarskjöld looked to the charter. Nothing in it granted him authority to intervene in a war. But there was also nothing prohibiting him from doing so. He persuaded the General Assembly to create an international military force that could go to Egypt, insert itself between the belligerents, and give everyone a way to back down. After eight days of negotiations, the United Nations deployed 6,000 troops with units from Colombia, Denmark, and Norway, led by a Canadian general. The crisis ended. U.N. peacekeeping was born.

In 1960, U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld sent troops to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo to defuse U.S.-Soviet tensions, leading Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to call for his resignation.
Terrence Spencer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Four years later, Hammarskjöld oversaw the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country had recently won independence from Belgium, but the former European occupier was stoking sectarianism to keep control over Katanga, its richest province. The U.S. and Soviets also got involved, eyeing Congo’s resources and strategic position for themselves. At first many hailed the United Nations for preventing a wider war. “Anyone who thinks the United Nations is a mere talking machine and of not much practical use should take a good look at the situation in the Congo,” Walter Lippmann trumpeted in the New York Herald Tribune.

But when Hammarskjöld refused to use U.N. troops to crush the secessionists, Congo’s prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, tried to invade the breakaway province himself with Soviet help. The invasion failed. Soon after, Lumumba was overthrown in a coup with help from the CIA. Blaming Hammarskjöld’s interventionism for the debacle, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to New York to demand not only his resignation but the abolition of the position of secretary-general.

Hammarskjöld responded with the only legendary speech in his office’s history. “A weak or nonexistent executive would mean that the United Nations would no longer be able to serve as an effective instrument,” he told a packed General Assembly Hall. Then he turned to Khrushchev:

“It is very easy to bow to the wish of a big power. It is another matter to resist. As is well known to all members of this assembly, I have done so before on many occasions and in many directions. If it is the wish of those nations who see in the organization their best protection in the present world, I shall now do so again.”

Hammarskjöld stayed. But his careful line—opposing unilateral intervention while supporting decolonization—had angered not only the Soviets but European proponents of white rule in Africa and businesses profiting from the war. In 1961, in a move that would be unthinkable today, U.N. troops mounted a surprise offensive to dislodge the Katangan separatists and their Belgian advisers. The Kennedy administration grumbled that Hammarskjöld had gone rogue. That September, Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash en route to a British-brokered peace conference to end the fighting in Katanga. The cause of the crash was never determined. Many have speculated that one or more of Hammarskjöld’s enemies had him killed. In March 2014, Ban reopened the investigation into Hammarskjöld’s crash “to seek the whole truth of the circumstances leading to his tragic death.”

In his last annual report, Hammarksjöld reflected on the future of the United Nations. Some states wanted the United Nations to be nothing more than “a static conference machinery,” he acknowledged. But he was confident that it could become a “dynamic instrument of governments,” using “forms of executive action, undertaken on behalf of all members” to live up to its founding ideals. He said it was up to the member states to decide. His death left the question unanswered.

I interviewed Ban in his office in August. he’s there early most mornings, having risen around 5 a.m. at the U.N.-owned Sutton Place townhouse he shares with his wife, Yoo Soon-taek. (They have three grown children and four grandchildren.) He sat in a black leather armchair, next to photo of himself carrying the Olympic torch. The East River stretched beyond the window.

Ban was cordial, but he is not a strong communicator. He has a tic of narrating his own comments, noting aloud when he thinks he’s said something candid. His spoken English is halting, marked by dropped words and clichés. His aides are eager to point to his sense of humor, which they say is exemplified by moments like his rap at a 2008 awards dinner honoring Jay Z along with corporate donors. (Sample lyric: “Global Classrooms are a cinch/ With the help of Merrill Lynch.”)

There are benefits to wearing a mask of impassivity. Back in Seoul, Korean journalists, frustrated by the uncanny ease with which he sidestepped their questions, gave him another nickname: gileum jangeo. “Slippery eel.” Ban’s mask dropped a bit during our interview when the conversation turned to his youth—and the first encounter with the organization he now leads. He was born in May 1944 in the farming village of Eumseong, just over a year before the U.N. Charter was signed. Korea was nearing the end of its brutal World War II occupation by Japan. Ban’s would-be elder siblings had died in infancy. His parents waited until little Ki-moon survived for a month before getting a birth certificate, which is why he doesn’t know his own birth date—and why his birthday is often incorrectly listed in June.

The family moved to Chungju, a town on the South Han River surrounded by green mountains and hot springs. His father bought a warehouse, and the family enjoyed a middle-class life. But for Korea, the war’s end meant trading one foreign occupier for two. The United States dominated the southern half of the peninsula, including Ban’s new hometown. The rest, across an imaginary line fewer than 90 miles north, was under Soviet control. For five years, tension grew as the superpowers deadlocked on the Security Council. Trade broke down. Ban’s father’s warehouse went bankrupt. Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung sent 75,000 troops across the line. Within two weeks, his forces had swept past Chungju. They probably would have taken over the entire peninsula, if not for one of the great unforced errors in diplomatic history.

On the day of the invasion, the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council over its refusal to give China’s seat to the new Communist government in Beijing rather than the Nationalists, now exiled to Taiwan. When the United Nations asked the council to authorize sending its military into Korea, the Russians were not there to veto. For the next three years, American troops would fight under both the U.S. and U.N. flags.

The U.N. forces drove back the North Koreans with a massive bombing campaign. Then the Chinese Communists entered the war. Armed with Soviet-supplied fighter jets and superior numbers, they pushed south and recaptured Seoul. In January 1951, two days after his mother gave birth to a baby sister, six-year-old Ban Ki-moon fled with his family into the mountains.

It was a brutally cold winter, and the family did not have warm clothes or shoes. They trudged for miles through the deep snow until the pain seemed to cut through to Ban’s bones. Finally, they reached his grandparents’ snowbound home.

The family remained on the mountain for months. “We were extremely hungry. We could not find any food remaining in the middle of the winter,” Ban said. Eventually the United Nations bombed enough supply lines and shot down enough Chinese aircraft to drive the invading army back to the 38th parallel. U.S. troops set up a stronghold in Chungju. The family left the mountain.

Back in his hometown, Ban saw the U.N. flag for the first time on the sleeves of American soldiers distributing food and clothes. A lifelong link formed in his mind between the United Nations and United States. “The U.S. played a very important role as a part of United Nations forces ... and I have seen and I have been feeling that the United Nations was a beacon of hope for all Korean people,” he said, leaning forward. It inspired him to seek his current job. “I just wanted to deliver myself as the secretary-general, to deliver and meet the expectation of those people—young people, poor people, who are just looking to the United Nations.”

Ban grew up in one of the first experiments in humanitarian aid and development. He attended school under a tree with textbooks provided by the U.N. Korean Reconstruction Agency and learned English phrases from workers building a U.S. Agency for International Development-financed chemical fertilizer plant.

His admiration for the United Nations included its charismatic leader. At age twelve, he wrote Hammarskjöld a letter asking him to support the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary. Six years later, he was offered a spot on an American Red Cross youth tour of the United States. The group met John F. Kennedy at the White House, a meeting Ban later called “the most inspiring moment of my life.” The group also toured U.N. headquarters, but there would not be a similarly inspiring encounter there. Hammarskjöld had died the year before.

When he got back, Ban enrolled at Seoul National University to study international relations. But politics were getting trickier at home. South Korea’s U.S.-backed dictator, Park Chung-hee, was using the police to crush dissent. Ban hedged his bets by marching in student protests while taking the foreign service exam. In 1971, he married Yoo, whom he met in high school, and she moved with him to his first posting in New Delhi. They stayed abroad as the country fell into turmoil. Park was assassinated by Kim Jae-kyu, the director of his intelligence services, in 1979. A coup d’état followed, then a string of military rulers, until democratic elections were held in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Meanwhile Ban was busy securing a posting at South Korea’s U.N. mission, followed by postings in Washington and Vienna, and earning his master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Steady promotions amid constant upheaval testified to his diligence and unassuming nature. “He stays until he achieves the desired outcome, but he doesn’t speak much about what he did himself, and he tends to give that credit to others,” said Kim Won-soo, Ban’s former foreign ministry colleague, and now one of his top U.N. advisers. “How can it make him not likable?”

Ban’s career almost ended in 2001. He was a vice foreign minister when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung went to the White House for an ill-advised meeting with George W. Bush. Kim, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, wanted Bush to engage with North Korea. Bush not only refused, but blasted Kim for having recently co-signed a statement with Putin praising the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the White House wanted to scrap. Kim was forced to apologize at the press conference, humiliating him at home. Ban was fired. “I was the vice minister regarded as the American hand and expert in the U.S.-Korean relationship,” he said in an interview published in 2012. “I ... became just a private citizen.”

Once again, the United Nations saved Ban. When South Korea took over the General Assembly’s rotating presidency later in 2001, new foreign minister Han Seung-soo hired Ban as U.N. chief of staff. In 2004, Ban became foreign minister himself.

Two years later, the United Nations was looking for a new secretary-general. Under an informal agreement, it was Asia’s turn. But the top job had lost much of its appeal. The careers of recent secretaries-general who tried to assert independence from the P5 had met inglorious ends. The sixth, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali, scolded the Clinton administration over Congress’ refusal to pay $1.5 billion in U.N. dues. The United States vetoed his reelection. His replacement was Kofi Annan, the lifelong U.N. staffer from Ghana who opposed the Iraq War. Bush allies attacked him over revelations that a prewar U.N. program to provide food aid to Iraq in exchange for oil had been exploited by Saddam Hussein and thousands of foreign companies, even though the corruption involved U.S. firms, and Annan was cleared of wrongdoing.

In the fallout from the Oil for Food scandal, the P5 resolved that the next secretary-general had to be an immaculate bureaucrat—and, the Bush administration stressed, needed to stay away from policy. “The secretary-general is the chief administrative officer for the organization and we want somebody who will follow that job description,” U.N. envoy John Bolton told reporters in September 2006. He repeated for emphasis: “Chief. Administrative. Officer. Washington saw Ban as an incorruptible ally. “He has an innate understanding of the power for good that the United States has,” a former U.S. diplomat who worked under Bush at the United Nations told me. “It’s not that somehow he was more favorably disposed to listening to the American representative than the Russian representative. Just that the position that the American representative took, in most instances, coincided with his own sense of what was the right thing to do.”

On January 1, 2007, Ban took office as the eighth U.N. secretary-general. Proponents of a strong United Nations were skeptical. “Is that all there is? Can we afford to do without a global figure, a global leader?” Samantha Power told the New Statesman in 2008. She would have to walk back those words five years later, when she became the U.S. representative to the United Nations.

At 8 a.m. on September 23, Ban arrived on time to open the climate summit. He climbed the green marble dais and took his seat under the monumental gold-and-silver map of the Earth at the front of the General Assembly Hall. His wife (he is said to address her as “Madam Ban,” even in private) sat off to the side. A woman’s voice echoed through the chamber and welcomed “His Excellency, Ban Ki-moon.” Ban smiled and briefly rose to warm applause, taking a half-bow while buttoning his suit jacket. “I grew up poor in war-torn Korea. I dreamed of peace. I dreamed of prosperity. I dreamed of opportunities. Standing—sitting here today is, in so many ways, a dream come true. But today the dreams of people throughout the world hang in the balance,” he told the assembly. Then he uttered the line he would repeat throughout the day: “Climate change is the defining issue of our age.”

Climate change is a perfect U.N. issue—by definition global, but one which individual countries cannot deal with alone. Nor is there any question, given the weight of scientific evidence, that climate change threatens “the maintenance of international peace and security.” And Ban has made the issue his own. Two days before the summit, he marched with Al Gore, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Jane Goodall, and nearly 400,000 protesters down Sixth Avenue to demand controls on carbon pollution. The secretary-general glowed with enthusiasm, wearing a sky-blue U.N. cap and oversized T-shirt that read, “I’m for Climate Action.”

Ban Ki-moon joined primatologist Jane Goodall, Al Gore, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in a climate march in New York last September. “Climate change is the defining issue of our age,” says Ban.
AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

“Having a secretary-general who is not a party to the negotiations ... who can play with a 30-year time horizon, not a three-month time horizon” is key, said Assistant Secretary-General Robert C. Orr. But tellingly, what the subject also has in common with Ban’s other marquee issues—violence against women, LGBT rights, natural disaster risk reduction—is that the U.S., Russia, China, and the European Union don’t see them as core security issues that they want to handle themselves.

The secretary-general’s staff bristles at the suggestion that he is a bit player in global politics. But Ban’s personal style cultivates the perception. At his post-speech press conference during the climate summit, after slipping in his missable comments on the U.S. airstrikes in Syria, another speaker thanked him for pressuring nations and companies to reduce greenhouse emissions. “I am not pressing,” he replied, rejecting the praise. “You are leading. I am asking you to lead.”

For a man reluctant to admit having any influence, Ban was in high demand all day. Every minute of his schedule was filled with meetings, speeches, and photo-ops, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. At lunch ( 1:30 p.m.) and dinner ( 8 p.m.), he gave official toasts. He spent a lot of time apologizing for leaving the room. (“Because of inevitable other engagements, I may have to hand over my chairmanship,” was a typical refrain.) The bulk of his time was spent in one-on-one meetings with dignitaries—20 that day, at most 15 minutes each. A stressed but efficient protocol team, led by his longtime South Korean aide Yeocheol Yoon, made sure the correct flags were hung and Ban’s conference-table setting kept neat: two sharpened green pencils, a notepad, a small digital clock, and a floral-patterned mug of water that Ban insists remain covered with a lid at all times.

The meetings were ritualized: handshake, photos. Ban’s standard opening is to note the number of times he and his guest have met, then compliment something he saw in their country. “The mountains were very beautiful,” he told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk got a compliment about a lake. “Pleasantries at the beginning,” a senior U.N. official explained. “Talking points right off the card some staffer has written that he’s read and understood. Pleasantries at the end.”

He had reason to stay deferential. The United Nations depends on member states for money and logistics; the secretary-general doesn’t even have his own plane. But the leaders want something from him as well: endorsement of their causes, the support of U.N. agencies, or—as in the case of the airstrikes against ISIS—to at least not stand in their way. In U.N.-speak, this quality is known as “good offices.” “He has a strong mandate that comes from the charter that gives him good offices to act on behalf of the United Nations, through the moral authority of the U.N.,” said Ban’s chief of staff, Susana Malcorra.

Sometimes it seems as if Ban is physically wrestling with that authority. This is, of course, done quietly. The day after the climate summit, Ban sat beside Obama in the Security Council chamber. The subject, awkwardly, was ISIS. It had been two days since the United States’ end run around the council sent Ban’s staff into its debate about international law. Yet here was the American president acting as the guardian of council procedure.

The U.S. resolution, pledging to stop the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS and al-Qaeda, was uncontroversial, and passed immediately. So the leaders around the horseshoe table took turns speaking about their pet issues. Ban, dwarfed by Per Krohg’s towering oil canvas of a phoenix rising from the ashes of war, drew back in his seat. He pulled note cards out of his jacket pocket, shuffled them, and put them back. He stifled a yawn. Finally an aide tapped him on the shoulder. He excused himself and left.

I thought back to our conversation in his office a few weeks before. “I feel sometimes, very much, I see a lot of restrictions, a lot of limitations in my power, in my ability,” Ban had admitted to me. “That’s very candid, you know, a frank situation which I feel.”

If moral authority is the United Nations’ greatest power, then the United Nations has long been its own biggest threat. Peacekeeping has fallen into a cynical trap. Powerful countries supply the money and orders, the United States funding a quarter of the peacekeeping budget. Poorer countries, mainly in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, provide the troops. The soldiers, often poorly trained, have been responsible for abuses around the world. Sexual violations have been rampant. In 2005, Human Rights Watch accused the U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of Congo of “a pattern of sexual exploitation of Congolese women and girls ... some as young as 13.” In 2011, the United Nations’ internal news department tried to cheer things up with one of the least-inspiring headlines of all time: “Sexual Abuse Allegations Decline Against U.N. Peacekeepers in DR Congo and Liberia.”

One of the most serious threats to the United Nations’ credibility took place in Haiti in 2010. Nine months after an earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, U.N. peacekeepers negligently introduced cholera, a disease never before recorded in Haiti. Overwhelming evidence has shown that U.N. soldiers from Nepal brought the disease from their home country, introducing it into Haiti’s longest river after being posted to a base where U.N. engineers had built horribly inadequate sanitation. At least 8,774 Haitians have died of cholera since. Seven percent of the population has been infected.

Ban stalled for months before calling for an investigation. The soldiers at the base in Haiti destroyed pipes and cleaned out waste pits before epidemiologists could examine them. (I personally watched this happen as the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti at the time.) Cholera victims’ families who petitioned the United Nations for relief were turned away cold, their claims marked “not receivable.” Ban has since been named a defendant in at least two U.S. federal lawsuits. In 2014, a process server tried to shove a subpoena into his hand while he was walking to an Upper East Side event. His bodyguard slapped the papers away. In January, U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken threw out the most prominent of the suits at the Obama administration’s request, citing the United Nations’ “absolute immunity.” The victims’ lawyers plan to appeal.

Ban knows the damage these incidents have caused to the United Nations’ reputation. But he will not accept responsibility. Every time I asked about the cholera crisis, he casually changed the topic. Finally, he admitted he would not answer. “As you know, this is in the courts,” he told me. “I am personally very much saddened. Whatever has been said about responsibility or nonresponsibility, I take it very seriously.”

There are signs that, here too, the powers are tying Ban’s hands. One senior official, knowledgeable about the case, said there had been internal deliberations about apologizing to Haitians, but that “some of the biggest donors to the U.N. were absolutely clear on the point: It could be not only the end of the peacekeeping but it could be the end of the U.N. altogether.” Indeed, a settlement would not only likely total billions of dollars, which would ultimately be passed on to member states, but could set a precedent opening up the United Nations and non-U.N. peacekeepers to suits elsewhere. “Accountability is obviously great,” the official said, “but not if it means there’s never, ever a peacekeeping operation again.”

But then, secretaries-general have always had to deal with pressure. “A mature man is his own judge. In the end, his only firm support is being faithful to his own convictions,” Hammarskjöld once said.

There are less than two years left in what will almost certainly be Ban’s final, five-year term. The end of his tenure will complete a stunning journey, from a child saved from war to the pinnacle of the organization that saved him. It is clear that he worries about how he will be remembered. He hasn’t stopped looking for places where the United Nations can be an effective resource for good. In 2014, the Ebola epidemic became another opportunity—a trans-national humanitarian emergency in an ex-colonial gap where U.N. agencies and peacekeepers were already present. Ban established the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), a first-of-its-kind unified command reporting directly to the secretary-general. Even his former critic, Samantha Power, offered praise. “Confronted with the most urgent international public health crisis of the modern era, he is cutting through generations of red tape to try to build from scratch an unprecedented U.N. emergency health mission,” she told me by email. The number of new cases has fallen sharply, though as UNMEER Chief Ismail Ahmed cautioned in January, “The fight is far from won.”

In December, the United Nations will convene a climate conference in Paris where organizers will try to hammer out an unprecedented, binding global agreement—“the last best chance,” journalist Jeff Goodell wrote, “before the Years of Living Dangerously begin.” Each day, Ban reads the reports on the carnage in Syria, now at more than 200,000 dead, and warily eyes the destabilizing war in Eastern Europe less than 1,000 miles away. He has to wonder—if the United Nations cannot lead decisively, if it cannot shore up its credibility around the world, will it be able to lead when we need it most? Will he?

At the end of our interview, I asked Ban if he ever thought about children in today’s Chungjus—the places in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere wracked by war, but where, unlike in his case, the United Nations has been unable to reach. Does he think they still think of the United Nations the way young Ban Ki-moon once did?

He paused. “They still believe the United Nations can save them,” he told me. “It’s only the leaders who are blocking—who are hampering their hopes.”

Then his eyes opened wide, his voice rose, and for a moment he came as close to being angry as I’d seen him. Those leaders “should look and work for their own people, not for their own self-interest—clinging to power, disregarding, you know, whatever the people’s pride may be. This—this really angers me. I don’t know how many times I have been really confronting these people directly. That’s what I have been doing! But I cannot do it alone.”