Is the United Nations a promoter of world peace and global human dignity? Or, since its creation near the end of World War II, has it served mostly as an ineffective debating society – a multi-governmental bureaucracy that will never achieve true efficacy?
Perhaps no one is better qualified to grapple with these questions than Kofi Annan. He spent nearly his entire adult life employed at the UN, ultimately serving as secretary-general, the top job, from 1997 until 2006. On the other hand, perhaps his lifelong devotion to the institution makes it impossible for him to see it clearly. (When elected to the highest UN position, Annan became the first secretary-general, of seven total, to rise up the ranks from the inside.)
Interventions, Annan’s interesting memoir, reflects both the invaluable knowledge of a UN insider and the limited perspective of an employee who has never worked outside the UN mind-set. Put another way, Annan’s book contains plenty of cognitive dissonance. The accounts related by Annan, however, are worth every minute spent reading them. Nobody alive can quite match what he has heard and seen. As a bonus, he names names of national rulers and less well-known diplomats. For readers who want to identify heroes and villains, the book provides plenty of material.
There is also a large amount of personal information about Annan, although this is more a book about issues than it is a revealing memoir about Annan’s private life. After an opening chapter about Annan’s privileged “African beginning,” the chapters cover, in succession:
•The drive to give the UN credibility so that global governance can proceed according to the rule of law
•Efforts to bring a modicum of peace to the war-torn African continent
•The need to redefine human security as liberation from poverty
•The search for solutions in the Middle East
Each chapter offers anecdotes and initiatives that serve as rough drafts of history. Annan never pretends the UN peacekeeping efforts worked out well. He concedes that an estimated 800,000 died in Rwanda in just a month while the UN membership staged no meaningful intervention – an abject failure by any measure.
Annan comes across as self-aware as he describes his hopes as the “dreams of a realist.” Anyone filling the position of secretary-general successfully would need that sort of perspective. Born in Ghana in 1938, Annan joined the UN 50 years ago in Geneva, headquarters of its World Health Organization arm. When the scourge of HIV/AIDS began to appear, Annan was ready to fight it. When national governments suppressed the education of young females, Annan tried to shame the suppressors. Annan also dealt with the effects of natural disasters, heading up projects like post-tsunami relief efforts.
Against stiff opposition Annan has discouraged military intervention in favor of humanitarian intervention. He believes that “military action pursued for narrower purposes without global legitimacy or foresight about the consequences – as in the case of Iraq – can be as destructive as the evils it purports to confront.”
As he completed the manuscript in 2011, Annan paid attention to what he terms the “Arab Awakening” centered in Tunisia and Egypt. Annan characterizes it as “young people throughout the region step[ping] forward as one – desperate for dignity, and demanding the opportunity and the freedom to pursue their aspirations for a better life.” Annan believes such a force “cannot be resisted – at least not for long.”
When the resistance of the young spread to Syria, Annan received a call from his successor as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Would Annan consider serving as a mediator in Syria, seeking a reduction in the violence? Annan said yes. He calls the situation in Syria “a conflict as complex, and as virulent, as any that I had encountered in my 50 years of international diplomacy.”
Whether Annan can make a measurable difference in the years left to him remains to be seen. With his book as his legacy, perhaps he will inspire younger individuals to make inroads against incredible cruelty around the world and particularly in global hot spots like Rwanda, Somalia, and Bosnia.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books.