Two key figures are leaving the United Nations. Secretary General Kofi Annan has stepped down after two terms and has been succeeded by former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton’s tenure has come to an end as well. Their departures will change the world body, offering Tokyo new opportunities to press its international agenda and raise the country’s diplomatic profile.

Mr. Annan was a Ghanaian civil servant who replaced Mr. Boutros Boutros Ghali after Washington lost confidence in the latter. While the post is high profile, the U.N. secretary general has no authority of his own; he speaks and acts only as a representative of member states. That does not preclude him from being the scapegoat when the U.N. fails to act. Ironically, the loudest critics are most often those governments that have kept him on the tightest leash.

To his credit, Mr. Annan used the U.N. pulpit to focus attention on human rights and the need for development. He repeatedly called attention to abuses of power and endeavored to motivate U.N. members to act. Under his stewardship, the U.N. won the 2001 Nobel Peace Price. Unfortunately, during his term, the results of the investigation of the Iraq oil-for-food program were released and Mr. Annan shared the blame for the corruption and incompetence that was uncovered.

Mr. Annan will also be remembered for his failure to reform the U.N., even though that failure falls on the shoulders of developing nations, which saw the effort as an attempt to marginalize them, and the U.S., which demanded even greater change.

Mr. Bolton was a key player in the drive to reform the U.N. Mr. Bolton once famously remarked the institution would not suffer with the loss of its top 10 floors. In keeping with that rhetoric, he brought a combative style to an institution more accustomed to genteel diplomacy. If Mr. Bolton never pounded his shoe on the table, he never shied away from a fight either. That approach did not help him accomplish his key objective of transforming the world body. Some argue he was his own worst enemy; still others assert his failure proved the larger point that Mr. Bolton was happy to make — that the U.N. was indeed unable to reform itself. To his credit, however, he did win over some residents with his insistence that the U.N. operate like a business: Meetings should start on time and produce results.

Mr. Bolton faced opposition at the U.N. and from the U.S. Congress, too. A year ago, when he was unable to win Senate confirmation as U.N. ambassador, U.S. President George W. Bush resorted to a “recess appointment,” meaning that Mr. Bolton took up the post during Congress’ recess last year to serve on a temporary basis until the term of that Congress expired (this month). His confirmation was resubmitted last month, but the Democratic victory in the November elections meant that approval would not be forthcoming. Accepting reality, Mr. Bolton submitted his resignation.

It is not clear who will replace Mr. Bolton, but all the rumored names have more diplomatic “pedigrees.” Just as important, Mr. Bolton’s departure is another sign of the thinning of the ranks of neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Throughout his tenure in the Bush State Department, Mr. Bolton had taken a hard line against perceived “enemies” of the U.S., often seeing negotiation itself as an act of weakness. That was an odd — and ultimately self-defeating — position for a diplomat. Hopefully his replacement will not have the same antagonistic relationship with the U.N. or with his or her associates.

The relationship with Mr. Ban, the eighth U.N. secretary general, will be critical. Mr. Ban is another career diplomat, whose job as South Korean foreign minister provided ample opportunity to work with U.S. counterparts in a difficult and sometimes stormy relationship. That experience should stand him in good stead as he tries to tackle immediate crises in North Korea, Iran, Sudan, the wider Middle East, and long-term problems that defy resolution. Some worry that Mr. Ban may not have the steel needed for the job. He insists otherwise.

Japan should exploit the opportunities created by these changes. In recent months, Tokyo has been extremely energetic at the U.N., leading the diplomatic efforts to deal with the North Korean missile and nuclear tests. This addresses key national security concerns as well as supports Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. This necessitates close coordination with the U.S., a critical security and diplomatic partner, and represents genuine burden-sharing within the alliance.

A successful and productive relationship with Mr. Ban will demonstrate Japan’s readiness to work with South Korea, another vital partner, on problems involving the world body as well as Northeast Asia.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.