Annan’s top-level career tracked the rise and decline of American power. He rose through the ranks of the UN during the Cold War, when East-West divisions constantly constrained the institution. He ran the organization from 1997 to 2006, the heyday of American hegemony. But after leaving office, he found himself involved in efforts to ease crises such as the civil war in Syria and the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which the U.S. was either unable or unwilling to halt.
Unlike his tetchy predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan had no doubts about the need to work with the reality of U.S. power after the Cold War. As Abiodun Williams, a former member of Annan’s front office, notes, he “seemed to be one of the few members of the [UN] secretariat who was able to accept and accommodate American hegemony.” He offered carefully calibrated support to the U.S.-led intervention over Kosovo, even though it did not have Security Council backing.
Yet Annan’s openness to the U.S. was neither unthinking nor unconditional. He hoped to temper American power, not merely channel it, by persuading Washington to work with other powers.
The secretary-general was especially sensitive to Russia’s post–Cold War predicament as a power in a slump. He worked to involve Moscow in solving issues, including not only Kosovo but also the long-suffering peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps acknowledging this past generosity, Russian President Vladimir Putin proffered a fulsome tribute to Annan’s “wisdom and courage” this weekend.
Annan’s defense of collective security during the period of U.S. dominance looks prescient now that that dominance has started to slip. But the tensions inherent in his pro-American strategy became acute when it came to the 2003 Iraq War. Annan opposed the war but felt that the UN also needed to be active in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction. Again, this was a dual-purpose strategy: Annan hoped to rebuild ties with Washington while also placating other powers, including France and Russia, that believed the U.S. should not be allowed to rebuild Iraq entirely on its own.
In this drive to keep all sides happy, the UN deployed personnel to Iraq quickly, only to recoil after more than 20 of them died in a suicide bombing in August 2003, including the UN special representative in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello.
While this was a huge blow for Annan, his advocacy of an early UN role in Iraq was indicative of an important trait of his leadership. Annan was willing to take significant risks—and to push the UN system as a whole to do likewise—even if the chances of success were uncertain. His single greatest personal gamble was a dramatic visit to Baghdad to negotiate with Saddam Hussein over weapons inspections in person in 1998.* Annan also encouraged the Security Council to deploy a series of high-profile UN peacekeeping operations, from East Timor to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the organization’s 1990s failures in the Balkans and Rwanda.