The U.N. rarely makes splashy headlines. But recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has single-handedly spawned some quiet heat. "U.N. Chief’s 'Quiet' Outrerach to Autocrats Causing Discord," read today’s Washington Post headline. "UN Leader Defends Leadership Style Amid Criticism," ran another yesterday. "Ban Plays Down Leaked Criticism of His Work," the New York Times reported last week. What criticism? What discord? For those who see the U.N. as an irrelevant, largely symbolic structure, it may come as a surprise that a Secretary-General could draw such fire.

The criticism that most recently ignited controversy came from the Norwegian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Mona Juul. Juul's confidential memo to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was published by the Norwegian daily Aftenposten two weeks ago, and promptly translated for an English audience by Foreign Policy magazine.

"Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's fruitless visit to Burma," the memo began, "in the beginning of July is indicative of a Secretary-General and an organization struggling to show leadership." Calling the Secretary-General generally "invisible," Juul blamed him for further sidelining the U.N. She also reproached Ban Ki-moon for failing to provide "moral voice and authority" in Sri Lanka, while being "almost absent on the issue of disarmament and proliferation." Briefly mentioning recent negative press in the Times and Foreign Policy, Juul outdid both publications in her scathing conclusion:

What all these examples have in common is that a spineless and charmless Secretary-General, has not compensated this by appointing high profile and visible coworkers. Ban has systematically appointed Special Representatives and top officals in the Secretariat who have not been visibly outstanding -- with the exception of Afghanistan. In addition he seems to prefer to be in the center without competition from his coworkers and has implied quite clearly that press statements are for him exclusively. The result is that the UN is a less visible and relevant actor in various areas where it would have been natural and necessary for the UN to be engaged.
But the leaked "Mona Juul Memo," as it is coming to be called, has not been the only expression of dissatisfaction with Ban Ki-moon's performance. Others, too, have spoken out against the Secretary-General in recent months:
  • What is He Doing?  In a Foreign Policy piece in June, Jacob Heilbrunn called Ban Ki-moon "a kind of accidental tourist, a dilettante on the international stage." The position's "low bar for success," Heilbrunn argued, was no excuse for "trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command."
  • Leadership Needed  The Times was ahead of the game, coming out with an editorial in March condemning Ban Ki-Moon's invisibility on the international stage. "Strong leadership," the editors wrote, in an argument many would echo in coming months, "has rarely been more needed. [...] Two years into his term, the man who ought to be the world's top diplomat is conspicuous only by his reticence."
  • Not So Reticent to Critics  James Reinl, U.N. Correspondent for UAE publication The National, backed up an overlooked part of the Juul memo: Ban Ki-moon's reported testiness in private. "I can testify," he wrote, "to the secretary general's impetuous streak having witnessed a top-level tantrum first hand."
  • "General Ban 'Mr. Excitement' Ki-moon"  In a Sunday column for New Europe, what Andy Dabilis may have lacked in fresh insight he made up for in vitriol, saying the Secretary-General "shuffle[d] around like the Dalai Lama on Prozac."
  • More Mockery  Satire news site The Spoof ran a roasting by Rev. D. Sausage, reporting a drastic change in the diplomat, who purportedly "communicated with Ahmadinejad without any of his trademark 'pleases', 'thank yous' or winking smileys."
Whether welcome or not, Mr. Ban Ki-moon's "invisible" period has ended.