By Nane Annan
Kofi Annan ’ s lessons in global leadership
It ’ s easy to admire his virtues in retrospect , but difficult for leaders to replicate them in the present
The world is facing a set of acute crises without recent parallel : a war in Europe that could escalate into a nuclear conflict , skyrocketing food prices that are hitting the poor the hardest , the COVID-19 pandemic , and the climate emergency . We need principled statesmen and women to forge bold , morally consistent responses to these and other global problems . Sadly , such leaders are in short supply . Many politicians prefer to advocate polarising policies , avoid hard choices , and deny the scale of the threats at hand . Others have tried to address these issues honestly . But those who favour cooperation and solidarity in dealing with global threats are on the defensive , as last year ’ s underwhelming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and grossly unequal global access to COVID-19 vaccines clearly illustrate . In times like these , we should recognise and honor those leaders who do try to tackle global challenges responsibly and constructively . Twenty-five years ago , one such figure , Kofi Annan , became UN secretary-general at another moment of global disorder , amid the political uncertainty and regional conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War . Although he could not have known it then , the UN system would soon face the traumas of 9 / 11 and the Iraq War . Kofi led the UN with humanity and strategic vision . He revolutionised international development programming by launching the Millennium Development Goals ( MDGs ), the precursor of today ’ s Sustainable Development Goals . He built innovative partnerships such as the Global Fund – which brings together civil society , the private sector , and international agencies – to combat HIV / AIDS . He oversaw the dispatch of UN peacekeepers to stabilise and rebuild weak states , like Liberia , and help build new ones , like Timor- Leste . And he ushered in the idea of an international “ responsibility to protect ” the vulnerable from mass atrocities . As the UN ’ s administrator , Kofi cared deeply about the institution where he had spent most of his working life , seeking to make it more open , inclusive , and transparent . He was also the first
secretary-general to develop a link between the UN and the private sector , and strongly supported civil society . Moreover , he urged the major powers to reform the Security Council to reflect post-Cold War realities . He would not have been surprised by the Council ’ s current inaction over Ukraine , although it would not have deterred him from doing all he could to halt the conflict . As a public figure , Kofi enjoyed a level of global recognition and respect that most national leaders he worked with could only envy . This was partly because he had a decency and instinctive respect for others that struck all those who met him . He brought out the best in his colleagues and could laugh with them – and at himself – even in moments of high pressure . He connected easily with young people , inspiring them and giving them hope . While UN officials respectfully referred to “ Mr . Annan ,” to many , including us , he was simply “ Kofi .” In addition to his personal qualities , Kofi grounded his leadership in certain basic principles . One of these was a deep respect for the rules and institutions of the post-war international order , reflected in the UN Charter , which he saw as undergirding peace and security . This does not mean that he was always cautious . Although he could be pragmatic when necessary , he also took risks . In 1998 , he traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in an effort to avert war in the Middle East , and he supported the establishment of the International Criminal Court , despite fierce opposition from successive U . S . administrations . To be sure , Kofi knew that not all of his diplomatic gambles would pay off . He was dogged in his pursuit of peace , even where – as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the chances of success were slim . After stepping down as secretarygeneral at the end of 2006 , he continued to work as a peacemaker in countries ranging from Kenya and Syria to Myanmar . He was sometimes frustrated , but he continued the demanding work of building relationships with mistrustful political actors until his death , in 2018 . Kofi was driven by a fundamental concern for the dignity and welfare of all people , especially the most vulnerable . This informed his advocacy for not only the MDGs but also fair elections and democratic institutions . He cast himself as a global advocate for the common good , arguing that countries shared a “ common destiny ” and that “ we can master it only if we face it together .” It is easy to admire Kofi ’ s virtues in retrospect , but it is more difficult than ever for leaders to replicate them in the present . In an era of populism and division , those who champion solidarity and unity – within or between countries – are often drowned out in public discourse . It is therefore vital to speak up more loudly on their behalf . For this reason , our organisations – the Kofi Annan Foundation , the International Crisis Group , the International Peace Institute , and the Open Society Foundations – have joined forces to launch a new initiative to celebrate leaders who reflect Kofi ’ s qualities . Later this year , and in each succeeding year , we will invite a national leader or inspiring international figure to give a lecture in New York on the values of international cooperation . We will select the speakers based on their commitment to human rights , international solidarity , and the defense of the international system that characterised Kofi ’ s life and work . “ I have always believed that on important issues , the leaders must lead ,” Kofi said in 2014 . “ Where the leaders fail to lead , and people are really concerned about it , the people will take the lead and make the leaders follow .” Now more than ever , we must safeguard , celebrate , and promote the virtues he embodied .
Nane Annan is a nutrition advocate , artist , and former lawyer . She is the wife of the late Kofi Annan . She co-authored this article with Mark Malloch-Brown ; President of the Open Society Foundations , Comfort Ero ; President and CEO of the International Crisis Group , and Susana Malcorra ; former foreign minister of Argentina , and Zeid Ra ’ ad Al Hussein , a former UN high commissioner for human rights , and President of the International Peace Institute .
Copyright : Project Syndicate , 2022 .
32 May . 20 -26 2022