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Kofi Annan Shook Up UN

June 29, 2001

Kofi Annan: An Idealist Who Took the Heat, Shook Up the U.N.


UNITED NATIONS, June 28 -- Kofi Annan became the seventh United Nations secretary general at the worst of times. The organization was bankrupt, at war with the United States Congress and ridiculed for peacekeeping fiascoes on several continents. The Clinton administration had just driven Mr. Annan's predecessor from office in an unusual display of pressure that still rankles through the Secretariat and the diplomatic corps.

On Friday, still six months' shy of the end of his first five-year term, Mr. Annan, the quiet Ghanaian who took charge with a decisiveness few had predicted and changed the organization from the inside out, will be given a second term by acclamation in the 189-member General Assembly. No nation thought twice about other candidates; he was considered unbeatable. The race was over before it began.

In the last few years, the United Nations has not grown rich, but it has achieved a better budget balance. Relations with Washington have improved dramatically, and searing reports on peacekeeping operations gone wrong -- commissioned by Mr. Annan in full knowledge that he would be criticized as the former head of the peacekeeping department -- have cleared the air and allowed for new thinking on how to tighten up existing missions or create more realistic new ones.

Mr. Annan has also weathered a rising tide of anger against international organizations and protests over globalization, while at the same time opening the doors of the United Nations to cooperation with some of the same corporations reviled on the streets -- and to some of the demonstrators themselves.

"He's been very creative at dealing with these new issues," said James B. Cunningham, the acting American ambassador, "and very adept at getting around ideological barriers and finding creative ways to try to build practical bridges." Mr. Annan has argued that corporations control more money than many countries, and they have to be brought into the mix -- whether in confronting the issue of AIDS, the information technology gap between rich and poor or the problems of the environment.

Mr. Cunningham said today that the Security Council hastened the selection process, which would normally take place near the end of the year, because everyone agreed that Mr. Annan should have as much time as possible to get started on his next term.

Robert E. Rubin, the former United States Treasury secretary, remembers sizing up Mr. Annan for the first time at a private dinner at the secretary general's residence a few years ago. "I thought he had a very thoughtful and sensible view of the dynamics of the global economy and what needed to happen," Mr. Rubin said today. "He's idealistic, but it wasn't unrealistic." Mr. Annan subsequently asked Mr. Rubin, then out of government, to join a panel to propose ways of dealing with the failed economies of the world's poorest countries.

Mr. Annan, the son of a Ghanaian businessman from a family of chiefs, has worked hard to persuade African leaders to take charge of solving the continent's problems wherever they can, while pressing for more outside aid in helping them battle diseases and economic imbalances. This has not always made him popular in Africa, where the American-educated Mr. Annan is often seen as almost a foreigner, some African diplomats say. The secretary general has degrees from Macalester College in St. Paul and from M.I.T. His wife, Nane, is a Swedish lawyer and artist.

More generally in the developing world, Mr. Annan has been criticized for his strong advocacy of the need for outside intervention when the human rights of people are being abused by their governments. One of his most difficult choices over the next year will be to find a successor to the outspoken Mary Robinson as the organization's high commissioner for human rights. Some governments would prefer to see the position abolished.

Mr. Annan's efforts to reorganize and streamline the management of the organization met with skepticism in the General Assembly, which has also been reluctant to allow Mr. Annan to bolster the peacekeeping department with more independent experts and a greater intelligence- gathering capacity. Some developing nations have also worried that Mr. Annan would sacrifice aid programs in order to make institutional changes demanded mostly by industrial nations. But his introduction of a cabinet-style management team has been widely welcomed, even within the international civil service, which can be resistant to change.

To the surprise of many here and in Washington, the General Accounting Office concluded last year that he had met virtually all Congressional demands for reform that were within his power.

In Washington today, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who is now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Mr. Annan's re-election "great news."

"I've known Kofi for many years now, long before he was the secretary general," said Mr. Biden, a frequent visitor to United Nations headquarters. He said Mr. Annan had impressed him with his ability to bridge gaps between the third world and the industrial countries. "My grandpop used to say, ĀEvery once in a while, history delivers somebody uniquely suited to do a job.' I think that's Kofi."

With a demeanor of practiced self- control and unfailing courtesy, Mr. Annan rarely raises his soft voice or allows flashes of anger to escape -- though aides say they know when not to question him. At the same time, he has greatly enlarged his circle of advisers, sometimes informally or socially, turning to a range of outsiders who have brought new ideas into an organization that often ran on autopilot under other secretaries general.

William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the United States, the leading citizen- support group for the organization, said that Mr. Annan's ability to "keep cool" had made a difference as he tried to rebuild good relations with Washington, a campaign he undertook against the advice of some of his advisers and a number of governments.

"I think he managed that very difficult number of years without getting upset or hostile," Mr. Luers said today. "He was able to stay above it." Mr. Luers is optimistic about future United Nations-United States relations because Mr. Annan and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have known each other for years and talk frequently. Mr. Annan has made at least one trip to the Middle East recently at Mr. Powell's request.

"The Powell-Annan relationship is a very hopeful relationship," Mr. Luers said. "Many secretaries of state start off with good relationships with secretary generals and then things come to pass that divide them. I think these two are determined to make it work."

Mr. Luers said the message Mr. Annan had often taken to Capitol Hill or relayed to members of Congress was: "This isn't a world government. This is an organization trying to coordinate the work of everybody who has to work together."

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