Kofi Annan and the Nobel Peace Prize

by Stanley Meisler

October 30, 2001

Kofi Annan, soft in speech, clear and plain in meaning, scrupulously honest with words, is the second United Nations Secretary-General to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee in Oslo awarded the prize posthumously to Dag Hammarskj÷ld in 1961 for his leadership in the bloody Congo crisis that took his life. There can hardly be two statesmen of molds so different. And the mood and power of the U.N. then and now contrast as much as the personalities of the two men.

Hammarskj÷ld, surely the most dynamic Secretary-General in the history of the U.N., was a Swedish diplomat, a member of the Swedish Academy, a translator of French poet Saint-John Perse and American avant-garde playwright Duana Barnes, and a mystic poet whose book Markings, a collection of his notebook jottings and poems, is still in print. Son of a former Swedish prime minister, Hammarskj÷ld was so widely respected that the press corps at the U.N. stood in awe of him. The respect and awe, however, generated no warmth. Most people looked on him as a cold and austere loner.

The 63-year-old Annan comes from a noble Ashanti family in Ghana in West Africa. It is hard to imagine a ruder entry into Western culture than his arrival at Macalester College in the cold of Minnesota in 1959. His career afterwards has none of the literary romanticism of Hammarskj÷ld's. Annan spent many years as an international bureaucrat, often in mundane management and personnel assignments. Calm, approachable and affable, he is the first Secretary-General to come up through U.N. ranks, and there is genuine affection for him throughout the organization.

A case can be made that the U.N. needed Hammarskj÷ld then and Annan now. The U.N. was regarded as a major player in international politics forty years ago, and it seemed fitting that a romantic, aggressive celebrity stood at the helm. During the Suez Canal crisis, President Dwight D. Eisenhower relied on Hammarskj÷ld and the U.N. to force withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops from Egypt and their replacement by the first contingent of U.N. peacekeepers ever assembled. With the full support of President John F. Kennedy, Hammarskj÷ld sent U.N. troops to the Congo in 1960 to restore order and put down the secession of Katanga. Without the United States as his enthusiastic partner, Hammarskj÷ld would never have made much of an impression as Secretary-General. He would have gone down in history as an enigmatic and ineffectual mystic.

Although the United States handpicked him for the job, Annan has never enjoyed enthusiastic American support for his policies or, in fact, for the United Nations as an institution. The U.S. has hung on Annan like a deadweight. It is a bizarre phenomenon. A strong case can be made that the United States needs the United Nations. Yet American politicians, both Democratic and Republican, have slapped it around mercilessly for picayune political gain.

After the end of the Cold War and the U.N.-approved rout of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, U.N. diplomats and officials felt euphoric about the power of the organization. They believed that the Security Council could now do anything it wanted so long as the United States and Russia agreed. The U.N., according to this view, would now act as the world's policeman just the way President Franklin D. Roosevelt once envisioned.

That illusion shattered in 1993 when 18 American soldiers were killed fighting warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed's henchmen in Somalia. Washington shamelessly blamed Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the debacle even though the soldiers had been under direct American command. President Bill Clinton soon withdrew American troops from Somalia and made clear his disdain for all U.N. peacekeeping operations. American negativism was so strong that it paralyzed the U.N. when Rwanda erupted into genocide.

Relations between the U.S. and the U.N. were exacerbated further by the bad feelings between Boutros-Ghali and American officials, especially U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright. She and other Americans found him secretive, hard to pin down and intellectually arrogant. Although he managed to put together widespread support on the Security Council for a second term, Albright vetoed his reelection in 1996 and successfully lobbied for the election instead of Annan, then undersecretary-general for peacekeeping.

The double promotion of Annan to Secretary-General and Albright to Secretary of State should logically have led to a new era of close relations between the United Nations and the United States. But the nightmare of Somalia proved too persistent, and the Clinton Administration continued to rein U.N. peacekeeping and demean the U.N. as an organization. Clinton saw no political dividends in defending the U.N. against attacks from the Republican right wing.

The ascent of George W. Bush to the presidency worsened relations. His supporters included a large group of conservatives who looked on the U.N. and all international treaties as potential threats to the sovereignty of the United States. John R. Bolton, one of the most vociferous sovereignty fanatics, was nominated by Bush as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In the first months of the administration, the world heard a lot of nay saying from both Bush and Bolton. The Bush Administration intended to thumb its nose at others and go it alone.

In July, for example, Bolton led the American delegation to the U.N. Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms and quickly rejected a proposed treaty to outlaw illicit international sales. Bolton described the treaty as an attempt to impose gun control on the United States and therefore an infringement on the American constitutional right to bear arms. Although no other delegation saw the treaty in those terms, Bolton told a news conference, "You start off with a half of a phrase in a resolution that nobody reads that then gets turned into a political declaration that suddenly becomes a binding international agreement...From little acorns, bad treaties grow." The Bush Administration suspicion of international maneuvering was thick and nasty.

The events of Sept 11, however, have suddenly made international agreements and coalitions fashionable again. We do not hear much anymore from Bolton and other Bush Administration appointees infamous for their suspicion of foreign entanglements. Yet the U.N. role has still been rather limited.

Unlike his father in the Persian Gulf War, the younger Bush did not try to muster solid Security Council support for his venture in Afghanistan. Before that war, the council authorized all members of the U.N. "to use all necessary means" to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. That was direct authority for the U.S. and its allies to wage their war against Saddam Hussein.

A few weeks after the September 11th terrorist massacres, the Security Council, with little fanfare, unanimously passed a resolution condemning terrorism, recognizing a country's inherent right of self-defense, and pledging the council's "determination to take all necessary steps" to implement the resolution. This was far less than the direct authority for bombing and invading Iraq that had come from the council before the Persian Gulf war. The recent resolution did not even name Osama bin Laden or the Taliban. But, in this case, the Bush Administration, perhaps because it feared failure or perhaps because it did not care, never asked for direct authority.

Annan, however, has put the best light on the resolution, at least for American eyes, and, when the military strikes against the Taliban began, issued a statement that hailed the action as consistent with the "context" of the resolution.

President Bush has taken some note lately of the U.N. and even talked about putting it in charge of the rehabilitation of Afghanistan. But his administration still seems hesitant about giving it more to do. This hesitancy may have cost the U.S. already in the propaganda wars. Though admittedly difficult to achieve, a direct condemnation of bin Laden by the Security Council with the support of its Islamic members might have helped counter his contention that Islam is at war with the United States. But embrace of the U.N. is still possible and still important, and, with Annan, the Nobel laureate at the helm, there is an easy and wise leader for us to deal with.

October 30, 2001
Washington D.C.

Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.

see also:

Obama and the United Nations (pdf)
January 18, 2008

Transparency at Ban Ki-Moonĺs United Nations
January 22, 2007

Kofi Annan at the UN: An American Waste
December 4, 2006

Defaming Kofi Annan
September 10, 2006

Bolton and History
March 24, 2005

United Nations in Crisis: The American Challenge
May 7, 2004

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

The Revenge of Boutros Boutros-Ghali
July 21, 1999

Getting Rid of Boutros-Ghali
October 18, 1996

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