FEW THINGS GET conservatives more riled up than when foreigners talk smack about the U.S. of A. So they aren't exactly sending warm retirement wishes to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who leaves office at the end of the month after having the audacity to give a farewell speech last week in Independence, Mo. -- hometown of President Truman -- replete with veiled criticisms of this nation's human rights record and fondness for unilateralism.
Lost in the angry responses from U.N. haters -- who mostly questioned how Annan could dare criticize the U.S. when the U.N. has so many problems of its own -- was that much of what Annan said was true. Annan was simply fulfilling his role as secretary-general -- one that his successor, Ban Ki-moon, would do well to emulate.
Given the U.N.'s unpopularity in conservative circles generally and in the Bush administration in particular, it's worth remembering that the United Nations is essentially an American project, established under Truman's leadership and headquartered in New York. The rest of the world hasn't forgotten this -- which is why other nations often suspect that the U.N. and its secretary-general are controlled by the United States.
It's not, of course, at least not as much as such people think. Still, the perception helps explain why the U.N.'s leaders often play an adversarial role with the United States. If they don't maintain their independence, they lose legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The speech that so rankled conservatives urged the U.S. to respect the same rules at home that it expects others to observe, and to use its military might only to achieve aims that are broadly shared. Annan's speech was essentially a reminder that the United States has always served as a shining example for other countries to follow and that it must continue to be so.
It's one of the paradoxes of this whole debate that even as the U.N. seeks to distance itself from the U.S., the U.N.'s values -- for human rights, democracy and the rule of law -- are much the same as the United States'. This is the central fact of the U.N. that too many conservatives fail to grasp: For its own foreign policy to succeed, the U.S. needs the U.N. to be seen as legitimate. Especially when U.S. credibility abroad is at such a low ebb.
For all the rancor he generated by failing to go along with the U.S. position on things such as the invasion of Iraq or the makeup of the new Human Rights Council, Annan more often than not advocated for U.S. causes. He was a better diplomat than administrator, and his oversight of the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime -- which were undermined by corrupt officials, including Annan's son -- was disastrous.
Yet his commitment to human rights promises change at the U.N., change that if it happens will be seen as his most important legacy. Under Annan in 2005, the U.N. agreed to the principle that members have a responsibility to protect those endangered by their own governments.
It will take years to work out how to interpret that responsibility. But Annan has helped establish a principle that updates the U.N.'s role in a changing world. The old U.N. existed mainly to head off another world war; the new one, in principle at least, aims to prevent another Holocaust.