Person of the Week: Kofi Annan

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Kofi Anan: The world's biggest optimist

Kofi Annan dominated the headlines this week, showing once again in his uniquely unassuming way why he may well be the world's best-loved and most widely respected political figure. First, the dulcet-voiced U.N. Secretary General ever-so-gently persuaded the governments of the world to commit to a global strategy to fight an AIDS pandemic that has killed 20 million people and has already selected its next 30 million victims.

And those governments responded at the first-ever U.N. General Assembly session devoted to a public health crisis, adopting the most wide-ranging global battle plan against the disease ever and beginning to breathe life into Annan's proposed global war chest to fight AIDS and other killers of the world's poorest and most vulnerable.

The diplomatic conscience

The conference was never going to solve the problem of AIDS (or even come up with a coherent and comprehensive strategy against it in the space of three days), and the Assembly session raised serious cultural and political differences. Some Muslim countries, for example, strenuously objected to any references to gays or prostitutes in the conference's declarations, and AIDS activists expressed concern that the focus of Annan's fund would be on prevention of the spread of the disease and neglect the issue of treatment for those already afflicted with HIV. Such discord did little to dampen Annan's optimism over the progress made at the event: "In the last two days some painful differences have been brought into the open," he said at its conclusion. "But that is the best place for them. Like AIDS itself, these differences need to be confronted head-on, not swept under the carpet."

It was no surprise that the U.N. Security Council in the same week unanimously, and with acclaim, reelected Annan to a second term as Secretary General. No surprise not only because nobody ran against him — indeed, if Annan has enemies, they don't reveal themselves in daylight — but also because of the warmth and respect he has engendered across all political boundaries. Praise for the unassuming Ghanaian diplomat came as effusively from U.S. diplomats and political leaders (even longtime U.N.-basher Senator Jesse Helms enjoys a cordiality with the Secretary General that would have been quite unthinkable when Boutros Boutros-Gali held the job) as from the Chinese and others often at odds with Washington.

And then, as if the week's international events had been to emphasize the importance of the U.N., Serbia on Thursday delivered its former strongman Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, where he will stand trial for war crimes in a court constituted under U.N. auspices.

The high road

The job of Secretary General is often described simply as that of the world's diplomat-in-chief, charged with making peace and preventing war in situations where simple government-to-government diplomacy has failed. Annan has proved singularly adept on that front — indeed, the ringing endorsements of his second term and complete absence of hostility from any quarter speaks to his almost implausible popularity across all geopolitical boundaries. Of course his immediate predecessors — Boutros-Gali, Javier Perez de Cuellar and Kurt Waldheim — all performed the diplomatic role with dour sobriety, Annan has reinvented the role in keeping with the founding principles of the United Nations.

He has brought a quiet but unmistakable moral leadership. But his is a moral leadership tempered with realism and exercised with a light touch, highlighting issues and engaging with governments and other stakeholders in search of plausible solutions. A Ghanaian diplomat whose career has been spent mostly in the United Nations system, Annan has never wielded real power. And that may be his strength. His ability to effect outcomes derives entirely from his powers of persuasion, his knack for showing the partisans to any particular conflict that there is a high road, and that they're capable of walking it. It's plainly not all that easy to say no to a man so persuasively given to seeing the half-full cup illuminated by the silver lining at the end of the tunnel.

Thus his proactive interventions on AIDS, debt relief to the developing world, and global warming. But even as he champions the developing world's most pressing causes, he manages to sustain a huge fan base among the politicians and moguls of the industrialized world. His AIDS initiative is typical: He plans to involve government, business, the treatment community and sufferers in a consultative fashion.

Annan rose through the ranks of the U.N. system, and he takes his cue from the founding objectives of the United Nations. The international body was founded in the wake of World War II to prevent future wars by creating a set of geopolitical rules, and the forums and mechanisms for enforcing them. Hence the Secretary General's diplomat-in-chief role. But the U.N. also had a higher purpose — to serve as a beacon of hope to a battered world. Hope that a better world can be built. Hope that no matter how deep our political and cultural differences, all of humanity could share noble goals. And that by reminding ourselves of those shared goals, we create the possibility of a global community.

Plenty has happened since the birth of the U.N. to mock that hope. But that has not deterred Kofi Annan from making it his life's work to revive and sustain it in the face of the pervasive cynicism that pervades his world. People have been beatified for less.