The Confessions of Kofi Annan

Evan Schneider/UN Photo
Kofi Annan in Darfur, listening to two women who had suffered at the hands of the Janjaweed militia, May 2005

How do we explain Kofi Annan’s enduring moral prestige? The puzzle is that it has survived failures, both his own and those of the institution he served for fifty years.1 Personal charisma is only part of the story. In addition to his charm, of which there is plenty, there is the authority that comes from experience. Few people have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords, and dictators. He has made himself the world’s emissary to the dark side.

To these often dire negotiations, he brought a soothing temperament that became second nature early in his Ghanaian childhood. His father, Henry Reginald Annan, lived across two worlds, as a senior executive with a British multinational corporation and a hereditary chieftain in a country poised on the eve of national independence. In the Ghanaian struggle, the Annan family occupied the cautious middle, supporting independence but keeping their distance from the revolutionary nationalism of Kwame Nkrumah.

From these experiences, Annan became adept at circumspection and skillful in dealing with all sides, while keeping his own cards concealed. It was a temperament perfect for the UN. When he found his career in Ghana blocked by a succession of military regimes, he enlisted in the UN and has spent all his life in its upper reaches in New York and Geneva. Like Barack Obama, he learned early to live across racial divides and to position himself as the rational and relaxed confidant of all, while belonging finally to no one but himself.

Being at once agreeable and remote isn’t the whole story. It doesn’t explain how he managed to keep his reputation intact while rising up through nether regions of the UN bureaucracy—human resources and budgeting—where nepotism and mismanagement were notorious. This ascent demanded a polite but ruthless care of his own reputation, together with an ability to distance himself from trouble. Along the way he deeply internalized the moral rhetoric of the institution and never let its dreary reality drain away his idealism. Once elevated, through American support, to the UN’s highest office in 1996, he displayed unsuspected flair and managed to articulate in every nuanced but committed utterance the still unspent hopes that survived inside the institution itself. When he accepted the Nobel Prize awarded jointly to him and the UN in 2001, he seemed to many the most complete incarnation of its ideals of any secretary-general who ever lived.

If prestige is to last, it must be burnished with accomplishment, and much happened on his watch—the UN Global Compact, the Millennium Development Goals, the Global AIDS Fund, the International Criminal Court, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine—for which we praise him because he gave them benevolent encouragement and maximum publicity. Like no…

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