Kofi Annan

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 1 1998 3:30 AM

 Kofi Annan

Surprise! A decent U.N. secretary-general.

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The office of U.N. secretary-general is traditionally a refuge for knaves, lickspittles, and villains (in Kurt Waldheim's case, all three at once). So Americans are entitled to surprise at Kofi Annan's deft diplomacy in Iraq last week.

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U.S. warmongers had warned that Annan would give away the store to appease Saddam Hussein. But the soft-spoken secretary-general gave away nothing and got much. His persistent, polite diplomacy revived weapons inspections (which have eliminated far more Iraqi weapons than the war did); calmed nerves throughout the Arab world; and saved the Clinton administration from an ill-conceived, unpopular bombing plan--all without an apparently meaningful concession to Iraq.

More important, Annan accomplished all this in a way that brought glory to the United States: He announced--emphatically--that the negotiations would have been fruitless without the U.S. military threat. The United States gains credit for diplomatic restraint; the United Nations gains credit for keeping the peace; the will of the U.N. Security Council is enforced; and the destruction of Iraqi weapons continues. Even if Iraq reneges on the agreement--which is likely--the United States has lost nothing but time: There will be far more support for bombing if Hussein flouts Annan than there was when Hussein was simply flouting Clinton.

Kofi Annan is the perfect secretary-general for an age of U.S. triumphalism. It used to be that the Cold War stymied the United Nations. Today the United States does. It is dominant in politics, economics, culture. To the rest of the world, U.S. foreign policy is "We're Number One-ism"--an insufferable combination of gloating and bullying. The United States has its own ill feelings toward the United Nations. Conservatives see the organization as a mob of meddlesome, anti-American nags plotting for world government. (In some Americans' eyes, the United Nations' principal accomplishment is collecting loose change during UNICEF's trick-or-treat fund drives.) Bob Dole got his biggest round of applause during the 1996 presidential campaign when he mocked Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's name. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., threatened to stop all U.S. funding for the United Nations, and many of Helms' Republican colleagues in Congress have proposed U.S. withdrawal.

Since he took over as secretary-general 13 months ago, Annan has begun to do the improbable: restore America's faith in the United Nations and the United Nations' faith in America. Annan's United Nations has shelved Boutros-Ghali's grand ambitions. Annan is building an organization we can live with, one that is smaller, better run, and more deferential to the United States.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

On paper, Annan isn't a promising candidate to reunite the United States and the United Nations. He is too attached to his organization, the first secretary-general to rise from inside its bureaucracy. (This does not exactly recommend him to anyone outside that bureaucracy.) He has spent his life as an "international civil servant," a phrase that conjures an image of someone wasting millions of U.S. dollars pushing paper around the Third World (which is basically what he did).

Born to a powerful family in Ghana--his father was a hereditary chief--Annan attended Minnesota's Macalester College in the late 1950s on a Ford Foundation grant. As Ghana's promising democracy collapsed into a dictatorship, Annan, like many bright young West Africans, decided to remain overseas. He went to work for the United Nations, rising gradually through the ranks at the World Health Organization, the High Commission on Refugees, and the Secretariat. Eventually he supervised peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Bosnia. In the Byzantine, languorous U.N. bureaucracy, Annan earned a reputation as someone who actually Got Things Done. Thanks to his straightforward manner and overwhelming decency, he was the only U.N. official associated with Bosnia and Somalia to survive with his reputation unharmed. When the United States decided to dump Boutros-Ghali in late 1996, everyone touted Annan as the compromise candidate to replace him. (Everyone, that is, except the French. They wanted a secretary-general from Francophone Africa.)

Annan is a true internationalist: He speaks English, French, and several African languages fluently. He has lived in Geneva, Nairobi, Cairo, Accra, and New York, among other places. His wife is Swedish (the niece of Raoul Wallenberg, in fact). But Annan is an internationalist with an American inflection. He was educated here, he loves living here--and, according to an aide, he'll probably retire here.

A U.N. secretary-general is a CEO, someone who needs to be independent enough to take the initiative but tractable enough to heed his board members (that is, the member states). Annan is well suited to this dual role. For example: Americans have been demanding management reform for decades, and Annan is the technocrat who may do it--after all, he has a management degree from MIT. Annan's recent reform package cuts 1,000 jobs from the 10,000-person Secretariat, slashes administrative costs by one-third, and streamlines the United Nations' absurd bureaucracy. Annan is pushing merit-based promotion and management training, ancient ideas that are new to the United Nations. Americans say Annan hasn't cut enough; others say he has cut too much. In other words, he's doing it just right. Under Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations kept 80,000 peacekeepers in uniform. Now, post-Bosnia, post-Somalia, and post-Boutros-Ghali, there are barely 20,000.

Annan is the world's most gentlemanly politician. Where Boutros-Ghali was highhanded and arrogant, Annan is gentle, soft-spoken, calm. Boutros-Ghali spoke English poorly, rarely visited American leaders, and regularly berated U.S. misbehavior. He was vicious without being tough. Annan is tough without being vicious. The United States would never have let Boutros-Ghali negotiate with Hussein. He was too reckless, too erratic, too anti-American. But Annan has formed a strong friendship with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She and her colleagues could trust him to win peace without appeasement.

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