When asked about his qualifications for the post of UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon pointed to his role as South Korea's foreign minister charged with dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.
No disrespect to Ban, but this is hardly a strong recommendation. Despite numerous warnings, and several opportunities to cut a deal, the North Korean nuclear question has steadily gone from bad to worse in the past dozen years. This month it became a mega-problem when Pyongyang detonated its first nuclear device.
Blame for this serial failure of diplomacy does not lie solely with Ban's South Korea or with the UN, the organization he has been appointed to lead. North Korea has if anything been a collective failure of imagination and determination.
Ban now says that he will appoint a permanent UN special envoy to North Korea when he takes over from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the UN's New York headquarters on Jan. 1. He is also planning a trip to North Korea, where he will focus on human rights as well as weapons proliferation issues.
All the same, this month's North Korean developments have once again emphasized the severe limitations of the UN in its capacity as the foremost global institution when an international crisis erupts.
Prior to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's latest adventure, the shortfall was seen most recently in Lebanon over the summer, when a UN peacekeeping force was brushed aside by warring parties -- and the UN Security Council was too divided to take swift, effective action on a ceasefire. That led many Arab countries to complain that the UN's credibility had been shattered.
UN limitations are being witnessed again right now in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where UN intervention to halt alleged genocide has effectively been blocked.
And UN weakness may be on embarrassing display again soon if no agreement is reached on the scale and range of sanctions against Iran over its suspect nuclear activities.
The UN, as the primary guardian of international peace and security, has also largely become a bystander concerning the two seminal conflicts of the recent past -- the US-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Although its humanitarian and development agencies are now playing a full role in Afghanistan, the UN has little or no say over what happens in Iraq. It was bypassed by the US and Britain, which decided to go to war without its mandate. Soon after, its Baghdad headquarters were bombed and its senior envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed.
The UN's impotence was long excused by the conditions created by the Cold War, which effectively froze the international order into spheres of influence. After the Cold War ended, the new excuse was that a rapidly changing geostrategic balance meant the rules had changed. That confusion contributed to the failures in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Post-Sept. 11, 2001, the UN's weakness is blamed on the ill-suitedness of its institutions to deal with new multi-dimensional threats and challenges, be they international terrorism or climate change.
But in reality, the basic problem facing the UN has not altered since its inception in 1945. It is hardly a problem that can be solved overnight. And the arrival of the well-intentioned but uninspiring Ban is not likely to make much difference to it.