The UN's soft-spoken champion

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The quiet man who has made his mark in the UN's roaring cave of the winds today shares the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations. The honor is deserved. Both together have made a significant contribution, but it is soft-spoken Secretary General Kofi Annan who has shown the way.

There is no ostentation about Mr. Annan. Slender of build, white hair, and a closely trimmed beard, fastidious in subduedly elegant dress, he is friendly and approachable. With a gentle sense of humor comes a hearty laugh. His entire career has been in the United Nations system, which might have made him a perfect bureaucrat but instead showed him how not to be one. His qualities of leadership are probably rooted in his early years.

Annan was born in 1938 to a prominent family in Ashanti Province in the uplands of Ghana, the former Gold Coast. His father was hereditary chief of the Fante people but had his feet in modern politics as the elected governor of the province. In this privileged environment, Annan learned self-control and obligation. After studies at a local university, he entered Macalester College in Minnesota, continued at the Institute of Advanced International Studies in Geneva, and then at MIT won a master of science degree in management. His studies gave him a look at the world of ideas as well as fluency in English and French.

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Surely the secretary general's most important work has been to renew the UN system. In the 40 years of cold war, the UN was more a political battleground than an agency of peace. The Soviet veto paralyzed the Security Council, and Moscow succeeded in turning the growing number of emerging third-world countries in the General Assembly into an anti-American chorus against so-called neocolonialism.

When the cold war ended, international problems long suppressed burst into the open. Where Annan's predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had run his office tightly, like an oriental court, Annan opened his to match the challenge of the UN's wider engagement. It was a wholesale smashing of bottlenecks, accompanied by a sizable reduction of an overstuffed Secretariat.

The secretary general delegates authority and listens to people far outside his immediate staff. A teleconferencing facility from an unidentified donor allows senior UN officials around the world to join in weekly cabinet meetings. Talented associates like Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, key to the new hope in Afghanistan, who has also reconfigured the UN's whole peacekeeping function on a realistic basis, have the freedom to be creative.

Kofi Annan can take credit for adapting and lubricating the UN machinery, but there is no sign of a swollen head. At one of the high-powered economic summits in Davos, Switzerland, he was projected to the audience on a giant video screen. When he left the rostrum he remarked to an aide, "I hope I never get used to that."

His management style is easygoing but not loose. Associates say there is never a harsh word or raised voice, yet there is no doubt who is boss. He has a look when he is annoyed, they say, that can turn people to stone.

Annan does not make enemies easily. Perhaps the only one who publicly hates him is Osama bin Laden. Yet he does not seek popularity. An African who cares deeply about the sad state of the continent, Annan admonishes the Africans not to blame their troubles on their old colonizers or some "neocolonialism," but to come to grips with them directly. He launched the first common approach to Africa's HIV/AIDS catastrophe, has nudged floundering countries in West Africa to work together, and is trying to bring peace and sense to conflict-ridden Congo and Angola.

The Annan touch has been felt not only inside the large Secretariat but also, and more important, by the 189 UN member states that give him their often too general and even garbled instructions. The United States, long sharply critical of the UN, has turned around. Congress has coughed up much of its arrears in membership assessments. President Bush called the secretary general to congratulate him on the "magnificent honor" of the Nobel Prize.

Annan has made clear to everyone that the United Nations is not a world government, even as he says that sovereignty should not be misused to violate human rights with impunity. His view of the UN role in making peace fits the times. It has had success in such different recent examples as Afghanistan, East Timor, and Kosovo, where UN member states engaged their armed forces under a UN mandate.

"The world has recognized," he said, "that diplomacy, whether in the Balkans or in Baghdad, has to be backed by firmness and force."

Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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