Annan's African Roots Pay Off
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's successful negotiation of a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi crisis has lifted the minds and hearts of peace-loving people around the world.Skip to next paragraph
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It would be a mistake to attribute the diplomatic skills behind his achievement to any one culture or region. But as an African who has closely observed conflict-resolution methods in many contexts, I cannot help but see underlying Mr. Annan's approach the indigenous African values of consensus-building and face-saving.
Surprising as it may seem at first glance, both Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton needed face-saving devices. The case of Saddam was more obvious. The US had used massive force in Desert Storm and was in a state of demonstrated preparedness. There was little doubt that it would strike again. But both Saddam's personality and the pride of his country would have made it difficult for him to bow down in total submission. He needed a way of backing down with some dignity and national pride.
The case of President Clinton, though less obvious, was equally compelling. During Desert Storm, no room was given to Saddam to save face because George Bush was determined to strike, and both his country and the international community were united behind him. The objective was clear - get Iraq out of Kuwait - and it could be accomplished in a relatively neat way.
This time around, if the Ohio town hall meeting was any indication, not to mention publicly stated positions from around the world, there was no similar unity of purpose. What is more, the objective itself was not as clear-cut as in Desert Storm. Clinton must have realized that war could be a source of serious divisions at home and abroad. But he had gone too far to back down. In that sense, he, too, needed face-saving.
The genius of Annan's move is that he must have recognized that the timing was right for saving face and building consensus around a peaceful resolution and that the prospects for success were good. Otherwise, he would not have undertaken the mission. I, for one, felt quite optimistic that once he decided to go to Baghdad, and the Security Council granted him permission, war probably would be averted.
On the other hand, nobody could take that for granted. Saving face and building consensus are delicate operations requiring the utmost personal skill. Annan obviously possessed it and applied it successfully.
The world is a safer place because of the agreement he has negotiated. But his effort is equally significant as a timely and instructive example of how a cross-cultural outlook can bridge very different world views at a time of crisis.
Africa cannot claim credit for the peacemaking talents of one gifted man. But I must confess to feeling proud as an African to see the strengths of Annan's cultural background integrated into such a vital diplomatic engagement. This is not a case of Black Diplomacy, but of cross-culturally enriching diplomatic practice.
Perhaps what I regard as the African values behind his diplomatic skills are, after all, universal, which would be even more reassuring. Whatever our cultural or national backgrounds, whatever our political persuasions, let us hope that Annan's efforts in the interest of global peace and security continue to be blessed with success.
* Francis Mading Deng, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is the UN secretary-general's special representative on internally displaced persons, and the former minister of state for foreign affairs of the Sudan.