Annan listens to George W. Bush at the UN General Assembly in 2006.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Kofi Annan’s career was inextricably entangled with power politics. The former United Nations secretary-general, who died on Saturday, spent decades grappling with tensions among the organization’s members over crises from the Balkans to Syria. At times, he managed the turbulence masterfully. At others, he had little or no control over events. Win or lose, Annan occupied a very rare place in the international political firmament as a mediator able to parlay with the biggest powers.

There have already been many tributes to Annan, emphasizing his commitment to a better world and his personal charisma. He will almost certainly rank as one of the best secretaries-general the UN has had. But he was always a politician rather than a saint, and acutely aware of geopolitical realities.

If Annan was politically canny, he could also be a risk-taker. He worked with the permanent members of the Security Council, above all the United States, when he could. But he was occasionally willing to pick a fight with the big powers when he had to, or to bet his credibility on long-shot political gambits to head off crises that the powers could not resolve themselves. This mix of calculation and gambling offers lessons for UN officials aiming to deal with today’s international tensions.

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.

This was a high-stakes strategy. Blue helmet forces came very close to collapse in Sierra Leone and the DRC, echoing earlier disasters. But the peacekeepers eventually made it through these crises, and in so doing restored the UN’s reputation as a more-or-less reliable conflict manager.

Annan’s final years in office were dogged by disputes with the U.S. over Iraq. But he continued to practice his blend of big-power diplomacy after 2006. Having burnished his reputation as a peacemaker by halting post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2008, Annan stepped up as the UN’s first mediator in the Syrian civil war in 2012. Following the principles of his tenure in New York, he tried to balance Russian and Western interests in forming a deal between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents. While this led some critics to claim he was soft on Moscow, Annan took a series of risks to fire up a peace process, pushing for peacekeepers to deploy to Syria and convening the big powers in Geneva to hammer out a deal.

These maneuvers failed—there are still arguments over who was to blame—but few mediators other than Annan could have made even these moves. Annan’s reputation as a high-level crisis manager meant that he was often asked to take on especially hard cases in the last years of his career. His final task was to try to develop a solution to the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, another crisis like Syria that has divided the big powers, with no clear end in sight.

The mere fact that Annan was still working on such knotty problems at the end of his life is to his credit. His career navigating big-power politics over the past three decades also offers three important pointers for those who wish to continue his legacy.

The first is the need to work with the realities of global power: Mediators and UN officials cannot cut themselves off from real politics. But secondly, Annan showed that this does not mean simply bowing down to power. A good international civil servant should aim to balance different powers’ interests and help them find political common ground that they might otherwise overlook.

Third and last, that means taking risks. Nobody respects a peacemaker or UN bureaucrat solely because they are good or wise. Actions matter. If a mediator is willing to table difficult peace proposals or to call for a military mission in a country in conflict, they may risk unpopularity or operational failure. Annan bore responsibility for a significant number of failures, and he admitted it. But he also showed that taking serious political risks in the name of peace can pay off.


This post appears courtesy of World Politics Review.

* This piece originally misstated the year Annan and Hussein met as 2000.

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