During the first, in February 1998, he headed off an impending U.S. bombing attack on Iraq by persuading Saddam Hussein to permit U.N. weapons inspectors to return to the country. The Daniel-in-the-lions'-den imagery of that meeting cemented his budding reputation as a moral hero. Last month, the 68-year-old Ghanaian returned from a lightning tour of Middle Eastern states with an agreement to lift Israel's suffocating embargo of Lebanon and reassurances about the brittle cease-fire established by a Security Council resolution.
This is the stuff of diplomatic melodrama — save that the props often turn out to be made of papier-mache. The Baghdad entente of 1998 began to fall apart soon after Annan returned to New York, and by December, British and American warplanes were striking targets in Iraq during four nights of heavy bombardment. As for the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, it could give way at any moment because the United Nations lacks the mandate and the capability to disarm the Shiite militia.
In both cases, Annan did everything humanly possible, but a secretary-general, for all that we romanticize him, can do very little to alter the fundamental calculations of states. As the United Nations begins in earnest to choose a replacement for Annan, we must bear in mind that a secretary-general is, in the end, a creature of the geopolitical moment.
A U.N. truism holds that secretaries-general have good first terms and bad second ones. The arc of Annan's career certainly conforms to type. But that's not because he ran out of gas or because he exhausted his store of political capital. Rather, Annan had good luck followed by very, very bad luck.
From 1997 through 2000, the world was largely at peace, none of the horrific civil wars in the Third World rose to genocidal proportions, and the White House was occupied by an internationalist Democrat. Then, in rapid succession, a unilaterally-minded Republican took office, 9/11 shattered the interval of peace, the U.S. invaded Iraq in the teeth of international opposition and one of Sudan's interminable ethnic conflicts erupted into a scorched-earth war. The man who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 suddenly looked hapless, even pitiful.
Annan's detractors see it differently. They believe that he is very much the author of his own misfortunes. In late 2004, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) called for the secretary-general to resign, accusing him of tolerating an atmosphere of corruption inside the U.N. as the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal unfolded. Others critics in the West have insisted that Annan is hostile to Israel and to Washington's legitimate security interests.
In the developing world, on the other hand, Annan is regularly denounced as Washington's puppet, a charge often flung in his face during his recent swing through the Middle East. Others with no ideological ax to grind, including U.N. insiders, feel that Annan is far too much a creature of the U.N. (where he spent about 30 years before becoming secretary-general) to change its entrenched culture of patronage and idle paper-pushing.
But secretaries-general should be judged according to what they can do, and not what they can't. Even the great Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who served as the second U.N. chief, could do nothing to blunt the hostilities of the Cold War, including the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Hammarskjold's greatness lay elsewhere: in the immense prestige he lent to his office through the sheer force of his rhetoric and majestic impartiality, and in the development of a wholly new form of intervention known as peacekeeping. Hammarskjold made the U.N. matter as it had not before. Under him, it grew; under his successors — at least until Annan took over — it generally shrank. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the gifted but sharp-tongued and imperious Egyptian who preceded Annan, so irked policymakers in Washington, including U.N. supporters, that he practically put the institution out of business.
Annan did not get the Nobel Peace Prize for temporarily averting war in Iraq. In fact, he did something harder: He restored the relevance of the U.N. The new U.N. head brought Washington back into the fold through a combination of unflagging solicitude and gentle prodding. Annan's promulgation of a new spirit of self-criticism brought the U.N. to anatomize the mistakes that led to the peacekeeping fiascos in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. This, in turn, encouraged the U.S. and other states to fund new ventures in Sierra Leone, East Timor, the Congo and elsewhere. Finally, Annan restored the status of moral arbiter — of "secular pope" — with which Hammarskjold had first imbued the office.
Here one comes to the aspect of the job easiest to underestimate, or even to ridicule: The power of words. Does it really matter that in 1997, during his first trip to Africa as secretary-general, Annan preached to the continent's gathered heads of state about respect for human rights, admonishing them that to "treat it as an imposition, if not a plot, by the industrialized West" is "demeaning of the yearning for human dignity that resides in every African heart"?
Nine years later, that yearning for dignity is still routinely trampled. Yet Annan's insistence on the universality of human rights has produced a kind of atmospheric change: Third World potentates no longer dismiss human rights as a Western preoccupation. And Annan's willingness to upbraid African leaders on behalf of Western principles — something Boutros-Ghali would never do — gave him the freedom to make demands of the West on issues of development.
The U.N. Annan inherited was a protector of states and their prerogatives; the one he wishes, somewhat forlornly, to leave behind would be a protector of individuals — even against the state. Perhaps the most resonant words he has spoken during his decade in office came during his 1999 address to the General Assembly, when he defined the "core challenge" of the institution as ensuring that "massive and systematic violations of human rights — wherever they may take place — should not be allowed to stand."
Annan's support for the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" was widely praised in the West and almost as widely condemned in the developing world, where it was seen as a license to violate sovereignty. The issue became unavoidable, and in its 60th anniversary meeting last year, the General Assembly formally accepted the principle that states had a responsibility to protect their own citizens and a duty to intervene to stop extreme cases of abuse in other countries.
To which, of course, one might say: Words are cheap. Indeed, Darfur's endless agonies seem to have been scheduled in order to expose the gross hypocrisy of "the international community." No country, including the U.S., which has been in the forefront of efforts to respond to the atrocities, has suggested sending troops against the will of the Sudanese government — the ultimate "responsibility" entailed in the responsibility to protect. But Annan, who as head of U.N. peacekeeping in 1994 was famously silent about the growing threat in Rwanda, has been a voice in the wilderness when it comes to Darfur.
In the end, the U.N. may be institutionally incapable of meeting this core challenge, in which case Annan's perverse achievement has been to demonstrate the limits of the institution to which he has devoted his life. But the moral imperative remains, as a club with which to beat the recalcitrant and a goad with which to prod the reluctant.
No matter what one thinks of Annan, there can be no doubt about the success of his campaign to revalidate the U.N. (for which many others also deserve to share credit). The U.N. fields more than 80,000 peacekeepers, and by deploying a muscular force in Lebanon, it is playing an indispensable role in the Mideast for the first time in decades. On matters such as development, in which in the past it had only a peripheral role, the U.N. has helped shape the debate by promulgating the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.
Annan wants the U.N. to be so much more than it is, but it sometimes feels like he's the only one who does. His highly ambitious campaign to reform the institution's doctrines and machinery barely avoided catastrophic failure; the achievements, on humanitarian intervention and human rights enforcement and "peace-building," were almost eclipsed by the divisiveness of the debate itself. And despite Annan's very cordial relations with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the next secretary-general may face an even tougher job of incorporating the U.S. into the U.N. than Annan did.
One comes back, always, to the geopolitical facts of life. The U.N., at least that part dealing with issues of peace and security, cannot be any more effective than its most powerful members want or permit it to be. If China and Russia defend the sovereign rights of abusive regimes tooth and nail, if the U.S. treats the Security Council as either a nuisance or a rubber stamp, if leading Third World nations view reform as a conspiracy designed to rob them of power, then it won't make much difference who succeeds Annan.
The common ground to which Annan is forever beckoning his refractory members seems to exist mostly in his mind. For all Annan's emollient efforts, the atmosphere at U.N. headquarters right now is suffused with acrimony. You do have to wonder sometimes why anybody would want the job at all.