Debating Annan’s Legacy

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 20 2012 @ 10:04am


Reviewing Kofi Annan's memoir, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, Rory Stewart is skeptical about the accomplishments of the former UN Secretary General:

The idea of Annan as a heroic world-changer continues to be very useful to many institutions…. But in fact, Annan and the other "global leaders" at his level are unlikely to deliver the kinds of change our institutions require.

Truly transformational change relies on exactly the reverse of Annan's worldview. It requires optimism about local capacity, and scepticism about the role of the international community. It is more likely to emerge from immersion in the history, the desires, the strengths, and the imagination of a particular culture. In short, change, like politics, is local. Gandhi or Mandela did not forge their reputation and legacy by moving between four continents, a dozen conflicts and fifty conferences, but by staying home.

As Michael Ignatieff sees it:

The essential paradox of Annan’s career is that through a period in which the UN’s prestige declined in the 1990s, crippled by moral promises it failed to keep, his prestige emerged unscathed.

However, Ignatieff sees judgment of Annan's record as more complicated than Stewart's view:

Annan’s story is a cautionary tale about the fragility of moral prestige in a world still stubbornly ruled by state interest. He can be seen as an entrepreneur of moral standards, promoting new ideas of collective behavior, sovereign responsibility, and international criminal accountability for a world that briefly believed that globalization might bring us together. He put his own prestige on the line to bring peace to war zones from Bosnia to East Timor. He will talk to tyrants if there is a chance for peace.

To achieve these goals, he was prepared—this was the essence of his job—to live with the narrow nationalism of the state interests he served and the cowardice of the UN bureaucracy that made him who he was. No one ever came closer to being the voice of "we the peoples" and no one paid a higher price for it. The world still needs such a voice, but the next person who tries to fill that role will want to reflect long and hard on the lessons of this candid, courageous, and unsparing memoir. 

(Photo: UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan looks on before a meeting at his office at the United Nations Offices in Geneva on July 20, 2012. Annan is 'disappointed' at the UN Security Council's failure to press for an end of the Syria conflict, his spokesman said after Russia and China vetoed a resolution proposing sanctions against the government. By Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)