Why Kofi Annan Won the Peace Prize

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UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan's response to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize summed up why he may be the world's best-loved political power player: He said he felt humbled, encouraged, and challenged to do more and do better. The dulcet-voiced U.N. Secretary General shared the award with his organization Friday, in recognition of their efforts in pursuit of a "a better organized and more peaceful world." And he will be an overwhelmingly popular choice.

When President Bush was asked Thursday about how Afghanistan would be remade once the Taliban had been overthrown, he indicated that the U.N. would be asked to assume that responsibility. And that is eloquent testimony to Kofi Annan's success in restoring the fortunes of a body more typically pilloried in Washington for most of the past two decades. The 63-year-old Ghanaian, a career U.N. diplomat, has energetically begun reforming the organization's sometimes bloated bureaucracy, restoring the morale of its professional diplomats, peacemakers and aid workers and reviving its centrality in conflict resolution. And under his guidance the U.N. has taken the lead in engaging its member states in the search for proactive responses to such transnational concerns as AIDS, global warming, poverty, drugs and terrorism.

The diplomatic conscience

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. 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.

The power of powerlessness

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.