FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Charisma and Banality: Kofi Annan and the UN

Being the head of a creature essentially without spine, and, even more to the point, with vague form, must be something of a challenge.  Part of the failing of the United Nations probably lies in its disparate existence, a scattered composition of bureaucratic entities that, when they come together, supply a perfect picture of inertia.  (Perhaps for the best: a more active UN could well lead to a deeper muddying of waters.)  Such an arrangement invariably leads to one conclusion: The organisation tends to mimic the power order of the day, compliant to the great states, malleable to their capriciousness. What matters on the day is what is legitimised.

Kofi Annan’s time as Secretary General of the UN reflected the post-Cold War realignments of power.  But unlike his predecessor, the oft prickly Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who gave the hagiographers little to go on, he cut a fine figure for fandom.  He was soft-spoken, rarely got irate, proved so diplomatic as to reveal little.

Certain works on Annan’s legacy have been flattering to the point of crawling.  James Traub’s The Best Intentions (2007) gushes, telling readers of the “big smile and a roundhouse handshake”, “the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful, yellowing eyes”.  Traub’s description of Annan was much like that of an infatuated groupie with eyes popping, enthused by a man who had made the UN office of Secretary General his own.  “Kofi and [his wife] Nane, both enormously attractive and disarmingly modest, the one short and black the other tall and blonde, made for a dazzling couple: they projected a kind of moral glamour” (sic).

Even more reserved assessments, such as that of Michael Ignatieff, hover over the issue of personality and disposition. Dire negotiations with dark characters were met by “a soothing temperament that became second nature early in his Ghanaian childhood.”  He became “adept at circumspection and dealing with all sides, while keeping his own cards concealed.”

That he appealed in company and proved pleasing to the eye hardly armours him against criticism. Annan presided over the UN during a time when the US imperium had lost any viable, containing foe, with no rivals to ruffle feathers; and it was an imperium that took a shining to the Ghanaian diplomat in encouraging his rise to the post of Secretary General in 1997.

His amenability to US influence began early. The Ford Foundation noted him as an appropriate convert while still in Ghana, after which he found himself studying economics in Minnesota.  The Carnegie Foundation then took an interest, sending him to a graduate institute in Geneva.  The academic stripes were never earned, and Annan found himself on the bureaucratic track starting at the World Health Organisation.  On the way, he snacked on doctrines of managerialism at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

It is worth noting that his time in the UN was very much passed as that of a bureaucrat ever keen to avoid anything disruptive.  Stints in budgetary positions tend to have that effect.  The call of power had to be heeded, and he wasn’t the one doing the calling.  Those close to him soon realised how comfortable he felt with keeping the Washington line.

His stint as chief of UN peacekeeping operations was marked by a few noteworthy moments that do not fit the hagiographer’s script.  On receiving a desperate cable from Canada’s Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, in charge of UN forces in Rwanda in January 1994, Annan stonewalled with coolness. Daillaire’s request that he be given permission to raid Hutu arms caches as an effort to frustrate an unfolding genocide against the Tutsi population was fobbed off, an unnecessary deployment of UN resources. Diligently civil servant-like, Annan kept the Security Council in the dark as the corpses mounted.

As Perry Anderson noted with characteristic bite, Annan played this cold concealment and reluctance to his advantage, claiming with insensitive banality that he was working in an organisation that was, at the time, “media-shy” and unsure on how best to use publicity.  More should have been done, the media mobilised, attention drawn to the conflict.  “Translated: don’t blame me, I’m the one who became media friendly.”

Being masterful with media became a signature calling, and the unreflective social media adoration that has enveloped his memory suggests what the modern UN figurehead needs to do.  Court the cameras; charm the trendy circles and push the trends; feign effectualness in the face of impotence. “Few people,” wrote Ignatieff in 2012, “have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords and dictators.  He has made himself the world’s emissary on the dark side.”

Praise, in the absence of analysis, has been effusive. Forbes called him the father of modern corporate sustainability.  “A great son of Africa and a true global leader has passed away.”  Other tributes on his legacy have been trite, admitting to the limits of diplomacy while suggesting he did change the order of global politics.  He, explained an uncritical John J. Stremlau of the Carter Centre, “knew the UN system and its strengths and limitations better than anyone.”  Despite his sketchy record when involved in the peacekeeping side of things, he would tell African leaders in 1997 that “human rights are African rights” and that, while the continent deserved external assistance, ultimate responsibility fell to its leaders.

Stremlau’s account focuses on Annan the great chatterer, a regular at meetings of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Conflicts, a person who “used policy relevant scholarship by teams of academics on a range of conflict prevention topics.”  This is less the person of action than persistent, and continuous conversation – perhaps typical of UN practice and streaming babble – to identify and shape support within and without of the organisation “for more comprehensive efforts to prevent complex emergencies within states.”

Others also attempt to pad out an essentially skimpy outline of actual changes that took place under his watch. Ignatieff offers a range that reads like resume enhancement without due evaluation: the UN Global Compact, the Millennium Development Goals, the Global AIDS Fund, the International Criminal Court, and that most troubling of notions, the “responsibility to protect”, which has merely been shown to be another variant of the traditional “right” to meddle.  To that, Ignatieff might have added UN non-reform.

The totality of Annan’s leadership was the totality of conversation and chairmanship, the activity of the meeting room, which can be confused with effective governance and the making of policy. Founding the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or being the chairman of Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela, can surely no more or less prestigious than any post-employment shoe-in, the gravy train rendered respectable?  Such moves are designed less to change the world than profit from it. But that was his consummate skill: to seduce counterparts, woo detractors and court the public spectacle even as others made policy.  Truly an appropriate winner, along with the organisation he represented chocked with its failures and mild successes, of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” Given Their Record in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail