Ban Ki-moon was sworn into office as the new United Nations Secretary General on December 14. Soon he will be sworn at, when once again the UN fails to obey US orders. Any secretary general’s honeymoon in Washington is likely to be short. Who now remembers that outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan was a US nomination back in 1996, or that he managed to persuade Jurassic Jesse Helms to cut a deal on paying off Washington’s debt to the UN?
As Annan leaves, it gives him some wry satisfaction that John Bolton, the US ambassador who thought he was a viceroy, has been sent off the field by the new Democratic Congress. After spending his first term perceived almost as a secular saint, Annan spent much of his second being reviled by Bolton’s soulmates as a global kleptocrat.
It was mostly in the United States that the sustained neocon Swift-boating, through the alleged “Oil for Food Scandal,” muddied Annan’s reputation. Fortunately, the rest of the world took little notice of those furious and hyperbolic exaggerations. Annan’s historical position is now clearer, and it is not just customary valediction to say that he has been one of the most effective secretary generals in UN history. Successes in Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, Lebanon and Congo’s first free elections in four decades are no mean vindication of Annan’s principled pragmatism.
Bill Clinton pushed Annan’s appointment because of a misapprehension that he would be a reverse of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali: more secretary than general. Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, did not want someone with big ideas and a big mouth engaging in public debates with their Administration. They thought they could count on the reserved UN bureaucrat to deliver.
They were right about the big mouth, wrong on the big ideas. Annan is not a great orator. Audiences have to strain to hear his softly spoken phrases, whose content has usually been carefully polished to remove any language that would be too confrontational. Yet the big ideas kept coming.
As a cog in the UN juggernaut hijacked by the great powers, Annan was implicated in the bloody failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, and on taking office he tried to make “Never Again” more than an empty slogan, beginning with an unprecedentedly open report on the UN’s role in those events. Human rights, development and global responsibility were his constant refrain over the years, and he reclaimed a role for the UN as a standard setter, making development a global issue.
Annan’s quiet authority and palpable decency made him a perfect standard-bearer both for the organization and for these values. It was precisely those strengths that the xenophobic wing of the US media tried to undermine in his second term, when he stated the obvious truths about Washington’s disregard for international law and human rights, most notably in Iraq.
However, there is a built-in contradiction in combining the roles of peacemaker and tribune of the world’s peoples. The secretary general cannot bad-mouth perpetrators too strongly, since he may have to negotiate with them. Even some close aides wish that Annan had been more stentorian in his statements. Annan admits that sometimes he may have been too low-key, but he argues that “particularly when it comes to human dignity and individual rights, some of the positions I have taken…are also intended to empower others, particularly the civil society. In some countries people can quote the secretary general…and not go to jail. If they say it themselves they will be in trouble.”