The U.N. Kofi Annan Left Behind

His triumphs created the organization we know today, and his tragedies are warnings for what's in store.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan addresses a press conference at U.N. headquarters on February 13, 1997. (Jon Levy/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan addresses a press conference at U.N. headquarters on February 13, 1997. (Jon Levy/AFP/Getty Images)

Kofi Annan, who died last weekend, was arguably the most consequential United Nations secretary-general since the second, Dag Hammarskjold, who served in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the dashing Swedish diplomat, Annan was an organization man, the first to rise through the U.N.’s own ranks to its highest position. And yet he used his knowledge of the U.N. system, and his dignity, to good effect, becoming an eloquent advocate for a flawed organization and embodying the conscience of what some hopefully call “the international community.” His tragedy was to occupy his post during the greatest crisis in the troubled history of U.S.-U.N. relations—namely, the run-up to the Iraq War and its turbulent aftermath. Although his tenure ended in disappointment, he will be remembered for his defense of humanitarian intervention, his advocacy for U.N. peacekeeping, and his insight that security, development, and human rights are inseparable.

Annan was the first U.N. secretary-general from sub-Saharan Africa. He was plucked from relative obscurity by the Clinton administration, which was determined to deny a second term to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an acerbic and imperious Egyptian who had alienated Clinton administration officials, not least Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. But Annan’s selection was not without controversy. As a senior official in the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, he had been involved in the decision not to reinforce the beleaguered U.N. mission in Rwanda in 1994, with catastrophic results.

Annan would learn from that searing experience, as well as from genocides in the former Yugoslavia. Appointed to his first term in January 1997, Annan helped pioneer a principle that would become known as “the responsibility to protect,” or R2P.

That doctrine attempted to square a circle. Since its founding, the United Nations has embodied two rival conceptions of world order. On the one hand, there is the Westphalian notion that the sovereign state is the primary bearer of rights and responsibilities in international affairs. That view is embedded in the U.N. Charter, which includes legal prohibitions against aggression and intervention in the internal affairs of member states. On the other hand, U.N. member states have gradually conceded that individuals, not just sovereign states, possess fundamental rights, too. These are enumerated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embodied in an expanding array of international human rights conventions and international humanitarian law.

Annan’s approach, outlined in the Economist in September 1999, was to insist that state sovereignty cannot be absolute. It is inherently conditional, contingent on the state’s fulfillment of fundamental obligations to its citizens. His activism helped inspire the Canadian government to sponsor an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which formulated the doctrine of R2P.

The genius of R2P was to sidestep endless debates between defenders of state sovereignty and advocates of armed humanitarian intervention by framing sovereignty as responsibility. It was only when a governing regime failed to protect its people from atrocities—or committed them itself—that the obligation to protect human lives was kicked to the multilateral system. In a crowning achievement of Annan’s tenure, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously endorsed R2P at its 2005 World Summit.

It is one thing to enunciate a principle, of course, and quite another to live by it. As the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria and the troubled aftermath of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya attest, nascent norms risk becoming empty slogans when powerful U.N. member states fail to enforce them, invoke them selectively, or refuse to deal with the consequences of their application. Nevertheless, Annan merits praise for forging a fragile consensus on the basic obligations states owe to their citizens.

Annan’s second signal contribution was to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping. Within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, he had been a cautious functionary, temperamentally and bureaucratically ill-equipped to respond to urgent appeals from commanders in the field. As secretary-general, however, he showed determination to learn from the U.N.’s failures. In advance of the 2000 Millennium Summit, Annan asked veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi to conduct a thorough review of U.N. peace operations. Brahimi’s eponymous report offered a hard-hitting assessment of the shortcomings of the United Nations and its member states.

Brahimi identified recurrent pathologies in U.N. peace operations, not least muddled mission mandates and disconnects between vaulting ambitions and meager resources. Above all, the report stressed the need for mutual accountability between the U.N. Secretariat and the Security Council. Too often, the Secretariat downplayed costs and risks of involvement in violent crises. Security Council members, meanwhile, frequently authorized peace operations without providing the required mandate or material support, and with the escape hatch of blaming “the U.N.” for resulting failures. Henceforth, Brahimi insisted, “The Secretariat must tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” To his credit, Annan moved to implement the findings of the report.

This is not to say that peacekeeping has been fixed. The U.N. continues to struggle when it comes to mobilizing quality troops and providing them adequate logistical support and robust rules of engagement, protecting civilians caught in the crossfire, and—most egregiously—preventing sexual and other forms of abuse by peacekeepers themselves. António Guterres, the current secretary-general, has appropriately placed additional peacekeeping reform at the heart of his own U.N. reform plans.

Annan’s third noteworthy achievement was to elevate development alongside security and human rights as a core U.N. mission. He focused less on increasing the volume of foreign aid—an arena in which bilateral aid agencies and international financial institutions dwarfed U.N. resources—than on setting concrete targets and specific indicators by which to measure progress. In 2000, U.N. member states endorsed what became known as the Millennium Development Goals: a set of eight objectives in areas including education, maternal and child health, disease, sanitation, and the like. Although many economists ridiculed the goals as impractical, they helped to focus aid and other development efforts, providing targets around which local officials and outside donors could coordinate their efforts.

The results were impressive. A few Millennium Development Goals were reached ahead of schedule, and the set of objectives played at least a modest role in the greatest reduction in global poverty in history, which occurred in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. On the heels of that success, U.N. member states in 2015 endorsed the even more ambitious 2030 Agenda, focused on 17 sustainable development goals. Among other things, these call for the elimination by 2030 of extreme poverty—everywhere in the world.

Amman’s downfall, of course was helming the U.N. Secretariat when U.S. President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq without an explicit U.N. Security Council mandate. This fateful choice nearly destroyed the organization by pitting it against its most powerful member. Beyond alienating many other U.N. members from the United States, it led many Americans to question the organization’s relevance to the pursuit of U.S. national interests.

Annan was not the first U.N. secretary-general to find himself in an impossible position. Any savvy leader understands that the organization’s most important relationship is with the United States—the biggest funder and host nation. But to be successful, secretary-generals must also be wary of aligning too closely with Washington, lest they appear to be America’s lackey. During the late 1990s, Annan played his part well, working with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke to resolve the long-running arrears crisis precipitated by Congressional Republicans, who repeatedly withheld U.S. contributions to the body in an effort to impose reform on it. Annan broke bread with Jesse Helms, the testy Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democratic Sen. Joe Biden to end this financial distraction.

These Clinton-era tribulations paled in comparison to what the George W. Bush administration brought. The new president arrived inclined to unilateralism and skeptical of the U.N.—instincts that deepened following 9/11. After a brief honeymoon period, including a flurry of supportive Security Council resolutions, the Bush administration made the fateful decision to turn counterterrorism efforts toward regime change in Iraq. That choice put the U.N. in the crosshairs. By insisting that only the U.N. Security Council could legitimize the use of force, Annan appeared to many in Washington to be thwarting the world’s only superpower.

As the writer James Traub recounts in The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power, Iraq and its aftermath were the darkest days of Annan’s tenure. Fairly or not, Annan shouldered much of the blame for the collapse of great power diplomacy.

And yet Annan persevered. He convinced a skeptical Bush administration and outraged member states alike that the U.N. must have a role in post-invasion Iraq, clinging to this position despite the August 2003 bombing of the organization’s compound in Baghdad that killed U.N. colleagues. For its own part, the U.S. administration returned repeatedly, if grudgingly, to the U.N. for help in sharing the military and financial burden of stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq—and to obtain a modicum of international legitimacy for these efforts.

Annan also worked to place U.S.-U.N. relations on a firmer, more reliable footing, in part by convincing Americans that the world body could respond to global threats. “It is not enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some states feel uniquely vulnerable,” he told the General Assembly in September 2003. “We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action.” With this end in mind, Annan organized a high-level panel to consider institutional change at the U.N., ultimately presenting an ambitious reform agenda to member states in a report.

Annan is gone, but the struggle to demonstrate the U.N.’s value to the United States continues. Guterres, the current secretary-general, has sought to convince U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican legislators that working through the U.N. is compatible with placing “America First.” If he fails, he may look back on the troubled Annan years with nostalgia.

For the first time since 1945, the United States has a sitting president whom one can imagine walking away from the United Nations entirely. Trump has already repudiated the Paris climate accord, left the U.N. Human Rights Council, and hinted at abandoning the World Trade Organization. His national security advisor, John Bolton, has in the past proposed that the United States should unilaterally declare its legally binding financial contributions to the U.N. to be purely voluntary. Finally, the president’s vocal, sovereignty-minded base has long wanted (as the slogan goes) the U.N. out of the United States and the United States out of the U.N.

Guterres’s mission—and that of American internationalists—is to dissuade the Trump administration from making such a fateful decision, which would be a more colossal blunder than rejecting the League of Nations a century ago. It is a pity that he will not have Annan by his side as he pleads his case.

Stewart M. Patrick is James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).