When Kofi Annan became the U.N.'s seventh secretary-general in early 1997, he quickly found himself in the midst of a crisis.
The organization was on the brink of bankruptcy, in part because the United States and other key members were refusing to pay their back dues. The United States alone had withheld $1.6 billion in funds, largely in an effort to pressure the institution — which many Americans saw as wasteful and corrupt — to reform itself.
Annan responded by immediately traveling to Washington to lobby Congress, promising to trim staff and spending. Annan's reform plan, combined with his personal charm, won the support of even the U.N.'s toughest critics on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and prompted the United States to pay the bulk of its dues.
But those first few months were merely a warm-up for the challenges he was to face in the years ahead, from “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo to the bitter debate over the invasion of Iraq.
“You're always dealing with crisis, and some country or countries are always upset with you, and then you always have to placate the U.S. and other big powers,” says Stephen C. Schlesinger, director of the World Policy Institute at New School University in New York City and author of Acts of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. “No doubt: It's a tough job.”
“It's a Catch-22 kind of job,” says Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior program officer at the U.N. Foundation. “You're the most powerful man in the world with limited resources, which can be very frustrating.”
Despite the challenges, the 66-year-old Ghanaian generally gets high marks from U.N.-watchers.
“He's the best secretary-general since Dag Hammarskjold” of Sweden, Schlesinger says. “He's been able to restore the U.N.'s moral authority by bringing people together and stressing the original ideals of the U.N.”
“He's an extremely patient and calm man, which is needed in that job,” Mendelson-Forman says. “Also, he's a creature of the system, which means that he knows all about the U.N.'s internal problems and understands its great potential.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. (AFP Photo/Gerard Cerles)
Annan was a popular and respected senior U.N. officer when he was elected to the post in 1996 as a compromise candidate after a bitter battle between the United States and France over whether the controversial Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Gali, should serve a second term.
During his tenure, Annan has worked hard to heal the rift that developed in the last few decades between the U.N. and its most important member: the United States. Most recently, he went against the advice of his own staff and, in response to a request from President Bush, sent a high-level representative, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, to Iraq to assess the country's political future.
“He understands that he basically doesn't have any choice but to try to keep the United States happy, since the U.N. is so dependent on the U.S. for money and other things,” says Frederick D. Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for International and Strategic Studies' International Security Program.
On occasion, however, Annan has opposed the United States and other big powers. “In 1999, for instance, he said the need for humanitarian intervention in places like Bosnia and Rwanda overrode national sovereignty — something the United States was not comfortable with,” Schlesinger says.
More recently, in a speech to the General Assembly last November, Annan chided the United States for unilaterally attacking Iraq. At the same time, he criticized opponents of the war — and the U.N. itself — for not adequately taking America's legitimate security concerns into account. “He's good, very good, at balancing interests,” Barton says. “That's one of his great strengths.”
After Annan joined the U.N. in 1962 as a budget analyst for the World Health Organization, he quickly moved up the U.N. ladder — taking a break in 1972 to obtain a master's degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became under-secretary for peacekeeping in 1993.
His three-year tenure as head of peacekeeping coincided with one of the most active periods in U.N. peacekeeping history, with blue helmets deployed in Bosnia, Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda, among others. At one point in 1995, the under-secretary was overseeing 70,000 military and civilian personnel from 77 countries.
Annan's term ends in 2006, and he says he will not seek a third term. Still, Schlesinger says, “it's not impossible to imagine the big powers asking him to stay on one more term, since he's so well respected. Given the divisions at the U.N. right now, they may just be looking for someone they can all agree upon.”