Ban Ki-moon was a teenager from a village in what is now South Korea when he and a group of other young people from around the world joined a Red Cross tour of the United States and met President John F. Kennedy. It was what he would later describe as a life-changing moment.
There, in 1962 on the South Lawn of the White House, Kennedy turned to the international gathering of youths and pointed out that people could be friends even if their countries were not — that there were, in effect, “no national boundaries.”
Decades later, as the United Nations secretary general from 2007 to 2016, Mr. Ban put that credo into practice, striving to knock down barriers, foster friendship among nations, and campaign for peace and conflict resolution.
Six years on, he is still busy doing that — in a personal capacity, but also as deputy chairman of a group of global leaders known as the Elders, set up 15 years ago by the South African president Nelson Mandela, and now chaired by the former Irish president Mary Robinson.
In a recent interview, Mr. Ban expressed his frustration over the decision by Donald J. Trump when he was president to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and at Russia’s aggression against Ukraine under President Vladimir V. Putin. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Mr. Ban, since you left the U.N. in 2016, the world has been through major tremors. Waves of populism have swept across Europe and the United States, the pandemic has killed many millions of people, and we are now in the midst of a war in Ukraine. Is the world in worse shape?
There were many conflicts even during my time. But I’m afraid that we are living in a world where democracy is in crisis. I am very concerned about that, and particularly about the illegal Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Russia is one of the permanent members of the Security Council. Normally, the Security Council is the primary organization to maintain peace and security. But this time, the Security Council is paralyzed. This is really a source of great concern for me.
How do you view Western democracies, and in particular the United States?
Even though I never met him in person, I felt very fortunate not to have dealt with President Donald Trump when I was secretary general. I retired from the United Nations 20 days before he was inaugurated.
Why do you feel fortunate not to have dealt with President Trump?
Because multilateralism began to weaken, and President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
I was determined for the climate change agreement to be adopted in my time. So the first thing I did was to convince President George W. Bush. I’m grateful that he understood my logic, my intentions, and my passion, and that he helped. It took almost 10 years for the agreement to become effective: on Nov. 3, 2016 — roughly 50 days before my mandate was to finish.
When President Trump later decided to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Why? Because had President Trump been president a year earlier, there would have been no possibility for the Paris Agreement to be reached. Once it was adopted, the withdrawal by the United States just meant that the U.S. would not give any money.
I have been criticizing President Trump ever since. His vision of climate change was, scientifically, dead wrong. His political vision was very shortsighted and economically irresponsible. I warned that one day he would be remembered as being on the wrong side of history. And I was very grateful to President Joe Biden, whose first presidential act was to rejoin the Paris Agreement.
You recently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “moral outrage.” What is the way out of that war?
I visited Ukraine on Aug. 16 with former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is a Nobel Peace laureate. I was horrified to witness the horrendous massacre in Bucha and in Irpin. We spoke out, and demanded that the perpetrators be condemned and brought to justice — if not today, tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then certainly in the near future.
When the world’s second-biggest nuclear power, Russia, is committing these kinds of crimes against humanity, and the United Nations and multilateralism are weakened, if not completely broken, this is a very serious problem.
Unfortunately, we see many countries, including some very important countries in Asia, keeping silent about these atrocities. This is clearly a violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, in cases of injustice, keeping silent means joining the side of the oppressor. We should really show solidarity against this ruthless massacre of human beings by Russia.
The end of the Cold War marked the end of the nuclear arms race between the superpowers. But you warn that the nuclear threat is now back. How serious is it?
Weapons of mass destruction are one of the biggest and most urgent existential threats confronting the world right now. Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine and his threat of nuclear retaliation against any intervention to prevent his shelling of Ukrainian power plants has raised the specter of a nuclear winter.
W.M.D. terrorism could trigger an unexpected all-out war among rival powers through misunderstanding and misjudgment. As an isolated event or as the catalyst of a war between great powers, W.M.D. terrorism has the potential to inflict a massive economic, social, environmental and human cost. The world’s two most powerful states, the United States and China, must confront this reality and tackle this issue head-on before it’s too late.
One of your other big priorities as a leader has been gender equality. How did you get engaged about this issue?
I was raised in a very conservative country, Korea. I was born before the end of the Second World War, in 1944. And growing up, I saw how my mother and my sisters and all my female relatives were treated as human beings. Korea was an all-male society. Women didn’t have any role to play, however educated they happened to be.
As soon as I became U.N. secretary general, I decided to change this injustice. I checked the records, and was startled to discover that from the time of the United Nations’ foundation in 1945 all the way up to 1992 — meaning over the course of 47 years — there were only three women holding the position of assistant secretary general or under secretary general.
On a visit to the United Kingdom one year, I met the U.N.’s first female under secretary general, the British diplomat Margaret Joan Anstee. She came to see me and handed over a book titled: “Never Learn to Type: A Woman at the United Nations.”
That gave me an idea to do something. In 2010, I established U.N. Women, which was like a ministry for women’s rights. Then I began appointing women to senior positions. There was a selection board for assistant secretary general and under secretary general. Each time, the board would put three men’s names forward. I asked, “Weren’t there any women?” They said: “Yes, there were several women, but they were not up to the required standards.” So I said: “Let me see the woman who failed the test.” I interviewed her, and chose her.
I was told every time that I wasn’t observing rules and regulations, to which I replied: “This is my prerogative. You have never recommended any women. Make sure that, regardless of whether the woman is up to standards or not, you include at least one woman in the three candidates.” As a result, during my time in office, 150 positions were filled by women.
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