The Five Virtues of Kofi Annan

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Se eye ndzeye pa enum yi a, na eye barima (Gather the five virtues, then you are a man). --Fante tribal proverb

I. Enyimnyam (Dignity)
"Once my father did something that quite shocked me." Kofi Annan is talking. He is nestled in the back of a royal-blue Mercedes, part of a six-car motorcade flying along the streets of Accra, Ghana. Air conditioning purrs inside the car. Outside, motorcycle outriders scream past, inches from the doors, sirens singing as they race ahead. Annan shakes his head and gives the tiniest of sighs. "I asked them to skip the outriders. I asked for a nice, low-key day out." A grin. The streets are lined with men and women who become ecstatic as the cars breeze by. Their heads flop back, their eyes sparkle and their arms shoot up into the air. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is also in town this weekend. Local gossips say he has driven across the desert in a motorcade of 420 cars--a romantic, incredible tale in this poor country. Perhaps, Annan wonders, the crowds think this motorcade is Gaddafi's? "Father," they shout as the cars pass. "Father!" They recognize Annan. A nice, low-key day out.

"I was a kid," Annan continues in his quiet voice, decorated with a lively British accent. "I witnessed a scene in my father's office once which shocked me a bit. He was looking over a set of accounts. He had a question or something, so he called one of the junior managers, and of course the fellow came rushing right in. But the fellow was smoking. And he put the cigarette--still lit--into his pants pocket because my father didn't smoke and didn't approve of people who did. And he stood there as he talked to my father, with his pocket burning, obviously in some distress. And finally he finished the business and walked out. And I was really shocked. And I said to my father quite angrily, 'Why did you do that to him? You made him put his cigarette in his pocket.' And my father looked at me and really gave me a lecture. He said, 'I did not. There was an ashtray here; he could have used that. He could have excused himself and gone and thrown it out. He could have continued smoking. He put the cigarette in his pocket. He need not have done that.' My father looked at me and said, 'Today you saw something you should never do. Don't crawl.'"

In Ghana, Annan's father is still revered. His name was Henry Reginald Annan--the first and middle names were a legacy of British colonialism, when ambitious Africans named their children as if they were bound for Oxford. Annan happens to be a sturdy Scottish name, and from time to time business associates believed that H.R. Annan was a Highlander--until they met him. In fact, Henry Reginald Annan was a noble of the Fante tribe. He was possessed of a legendary personal reserve. His son recalls seeing him steam up only once or twice--including the day of the cigarette lecture. "He was a man who was very centered, very secure," Kofi says. "His intuitive dignity was almost innate."

Annan's predecessors as U.N. Secretary-General--Kurt Waldheim, Javier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali--were a gray parade of deliberately inoffensive floats. But Annan, in his three years on the job, has shown himself to be a brass band of hope, ideas and energy. His critics fault the slow pace of reform he has brought to the U.N. They argue that even armed with a management degree from M.I.T., he is badly overmatched by the U.N.'s thick bureaucracy. But mostly they chew away at his idealistic, moral world view. The U.N. continues to have its problems--the embarrassment of having peacekeepers taken hostage in Sierra Leone, the contempt of the U.S. Congress. But these haven't diminished the high polish he has brought to the job. Annan, 62, is a miracle of our internationalized world: born in Ghana, educated in the U.S. and Europe, a career U.N. diplomat who became Secretary-General in 1997. As Secretary-General he has begun to thrust the U.N. into new realms of global life. In internationalist circles, his vision of a moral world order is debated with ferocity.

What Annan proposes is nothing less than a world filled with dignified people. A world where Sierra Leonean rebels would have enough innate dignity to not chop off the arms of infant girls. A planet where India and Pakistan would be dignified enough not to blow up each other, where the indignities of chemical weapons would be a thing of the past, where the world's rich would be, yes, dignified enough to worry about the millions of Africans who will die of aids in the next two decades. This is the kind of world Annan imagines. It is the sort of world his very presence--serene, quiet, intent--suggests.

Next week, when 159 heads of state convene in New York City for the U.N. Millennium Summit--the largest such gathering ever (and doubtless a traffic nightmare that the city will not forget soon)--Annan will press this idea further. In the past few years, he has been refining a policy that calls on the states of the world to step in wherever and whenever human lives are being consumed in conflagrations of hate, disease or poverty. He has not always succeeded. On his watch, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, he has seen thousands die as they awaited help. He is haunted by their faces--and determined to perfect his organization so those mistakes never occur again.

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He is also determined to plug the rest of the world into these horrors, to make leaders aware of their responsibility not just for their own citizens but also for the health of the global soul. Annan believes that nothing--particularly not state borders--should stand in the way of intervention. He believes that the old orthodoxy that states can do as they please behind their borders is nonsense in a world of borderless information and travel and communication. He has boiled down his thinking to a simple idea--call it the Kofi Doctrine--which has a chance of becoming as elemental to this century as the Truman Doctrine was to the last: Sovereignty is not a shield.

The idea terrifies the Chinese, who think of Tibet when they hear it. It unnerves the Russians. "When we say Kosovo," Annan says by way of picking an example of how the world should step into emergent disasters, "they hear Chechnya." And it bothers the U.S. because, in Annan's view, the doctrine works both ways. Seeing a crime and failing to prevent it are as bad as committing the crime. But who in the U.S. wants to send troops parachuting into every flaming country on earth?

Annan's critics find his outlook naive. His aides even joke about his world view, calling it "Star Trek Planet," after the show on which Russians and Scots worked merrily on dilithium-crystal drives as their ship shot through space at warp speed. That world is as remote as transporter beams. Annan's critics also lash him for his willingness to "do business" with anyone. When he returned from negotiations in Baghdad in 1998 and mildly said he had "a good human rapport" with Saddam Hussein, the White House shrieked. Others said he sounded like Neville Chamberlain praising Hitler. Annan's very decency, some believe, stands in the way of his preventing the indecent acts he so badly wants to stop.

Is Annan's dignity really a disadvantage? Observe, for a moment, Annan in Ghana. His motorcade arrives at a local market, and he discovers, much to his delight, that the Ghanaian national soccer team is practicing nearby. So he strolls over to where a crowd has gathered, hoping to catch a few minutes of the scrimmage. It is not possible. The mob erupts when they see him, shouting and dancing. Annan's security guards quickly press him back into his car. They try to drive away, but the thick, gleeful crowd has the cars glued in place. The Ghanaians risk trampling one another in their eagerness to get close to Annan. "Hey, father!" they shout. "Father!"

When it is clear the motorcade is stuck and the scene outside is growing dangerous, Annan cracks open his door, steps into the mosh pit around him and begins to speak. He is not a man with a loud voice. In the noise of the crowd it is impossible to hear what he says, even from 4 feet away. He stands outside the car for 10 seconds, moving his mouth like a character in a silent film. And having seen him speak--not having heard a word he said--the rabid crowd calms and parts.

Ii. Awerehyemu (Confidence)
Madeleine Albright was yelling. Aides could hear her from several yards away as she berated Annan over the telephone. It sounded like a jackhammer crossbred with an opera singer. It went roughly like this: "THERE IS NO WAY THAT YOU ARE GOING TO DO THIS. NO WAY." Albright is a savvy diplomat, and the screaming was more of a debate tactic than anything else. (She says she never yelled at Annan. Their aides have a different recollection.) But though she was doing her best to stop him, Annan was going to negotiate with Saddam Hussein.

One of the problems of Annan's job is that everyone has an idea of what he should do. Annan listens eagerly to all of them (perhaps less eagerly when they are screaming) and does what he feels he must. In 1998, as Albright raged at him, the White House had wanted to send Saddam a message: he could choose between arms inspectors or bombs. Annan thought the choice absurd. "I worry about our Iraq policy," he said recently, using the our to reflect the international community. "We don't have one." What Annan did know was that innocent Iraqis were suffering as ineffectual U.N. sanctions hurt all the wrong people. And having seen Saddam face to face, Annan had a sense that bombs weren't the answer. Albright blasted him and told him not to forget how he got his job--a blunt reference to the fact that the U.S. had eased Annan in after despairing of working with his predecessor, Boutros-Ghali. But Annan wasn't playing that game. He did what he felt he had to. Says Albright today: "He feels his responsibility is to make sure always that there's peace, that you can work things out. We want peace too, but we have our national interests."

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Annan was bred for such moments. His elder sister Essie recalls how their father, after dinner, would hold mock court sessions in which he would "try" his children for their misdeeds. Henry Reginald Annan was less interested in their excuses than in their comportment. Did they change their story? Were there holes in their logic? Did they pause and stutter and shuffle while they spoke? Kofi, his sister recalls, never hesitated. Often he would collapse the proceedings with a well-timed joke.

When Annan, age 21, went to America in 1959 to study economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., he was wrapped in the stuff. A picture from the period shows a couple of delighted girls fingering a kente cloth draped around Annan's shoulders. His history has always been for him like that kente cloth--protection against the elements, a cloak of awerehyemu. His presence at Macalester was a sign that the world was shrinking--an economic, technological and even, in his eyes, moral event. It would be decades before kente-cloth fashions appeared at the Gap, but Annan's arrival in the U.S. evoked a closer global community. He was instantly comfortable. "When he came back [from America]," his sister recalls, "he had a certain serenity. He looked very calm, very cool...He knew what he was about."

What Annan was about was a little bit subversive by Eisenhower-era standards. In a world buzzing with the polarizing chatter of mutually assured destruction, Annan was a committed globalist. Something about America--perhaps the striking disparity between the nation and the rest of the world--set Annan to noodling about the obligations of the powerful to the powerless. The problems of that disparity had been brewing inside his skull for some time--an obvious legacy of an African childhood of plenty in a land with little. America had a searing, sealing effect on Annan's thinking. In the long winter nights, he and his friends would cram into a beat-up old car and shoot out onto the Midwestern highways, driving through snow and ice to debating contests around the state. Annan's speech was almost always the same, a reasoned and moving pitch for global community. To the debate geeks who listened, the young man with the quiet voice was unforgettable.

Everyone on campus knew who Annan was. It was not simply that he was a handsome black man in the middle of the lily-white Midwest. It was that he carried himself with complete assurance. Today his appearance is as much an element of his ethos as his velvet voice or his poetic words. "Such elegance," a French journalist exclaimed after meeting him. "The ideas, the politics, the clothes!"

Annan is 5 ft. 9 in. tall and stands perfectly straight, but with an easy bearing, not a soldier's forced rigidity. He has an athlete's muscular build--left over from his college running days--and a trim weight that can drop as much as 10 lbs. when he is worried, or overworked, or sad--as when his twin sister died a rapid death from a still unknown disease in 1991. And he is always perfectly dressed. When journalist William Shawcross refers to him as a "secular pope," the observation is almost as much sartorial as moral. But Annan's assurance rests mostly in his eyes. Flip this magazine back to the cover, and look into them for a moment. It was often said of Gandhi that he had eyes that reflected the world's sorrows. Annan's seem to hold the world's hopes. He relies on them in negotiations and grumbles when his interlocutors look away from him to take notes or read talking points. He likes to go eye to eye. "He is captivating in the best sense of the word," says former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whom Annan has supported as a friend through difficult times. "When he approaches you," Kohl explains, "it is not possible to keep up any barriers."

Iii. Akokodur (Courage)
In dangerous situations--the kind that would have most of us tingling with a little bit of healthy fear--Annan becomes calmer, aides say. His jokes get funnier; his voice is quieter. People who worked with him in the field when he was running the U.N.'s peacekeeping division say no weather was ever too bad, no road too dangerous, no campsite too open to sniper fire for Annan. He regularly put himself in harm's way to negotiate access for medical supplies, food aid and humanitarian personnel in the world's hellholes. An aide recalls one night last year sitting with him on a Macedonian balcony overlooking Kosovo as U.S. air strikes reverberated nearby. Annan calmly chatted up world leaders by cell phone for two straight hours. He wears a thick U.N. flak jacket with as much dignity and ease as a kente cloth.

The end of the cold war brought murderous burdens that the U.N. has been unable to handle. U.N. troops are routinely asked to plunge into chaos--Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor. Annan isn't opposed to these missions. He has the courage to order the U.N. in wherever it is needed. But he has nightmares about trying to contain some of the world's most evil men with the resources of a local sheriff's department. He has tried that before: Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsi were slaughtered by rival Hutu tribesmen; Srebrenica, Bosnia, where 8,000 Muslims were killed by Serbs. It wasn't only the U.N. that walked away from these tragedies. In both cases the Security Council--led, at times, by the U.S.--cowered. But the U.N.'s peacekeeping division, under Annan's leadership during these conflicts, bungled its attempts to implement the doctrine he would later preach. Annan now wants to ensure that his legacy isn't only a doctrine but also an institution that is capable enough--and courageous enough--to enforce it.

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Last week the U.N. issued a report that reflects the heart of Annan's new vision for peacekeeping. The idea is that the U.N. would call on ready battalions from armies around the world to step into emerging hot spots. These "surge" troops would be trained to work together and deploy quickly. Tactical units from Sweden, say, would be trained to work side by side with Pakistani logistics officers. Lego blocks for international order--but Legos with teeth. While the U.N. would hold to the rules that permit peacekeepers to fire only in self-defense, the definition of self-defense would be stretched. If troops on the ground saw a left hook coming in, they would be free to do much more than duck.

Annan's goal is to formalize peacekeeping, to banish the deadly ad hocery that so often cripples good intentions. He envisions a time when countries will be eager to have their troops serve. His sales pitch is simple: U.N. operations are the best preview of the kinds of battles countries are likely to face in the future, conflicts that are less state vs. state and more state vs. maniac. "During the cold war, conflicts were neater," he explains. "You had client states [that] could be controlled. Here you are dealing with warlords who don't understand the outside world and don't care. Unless we are prepared to counter force with force, there is very little we can do. The problem is that you have countries like the U.S. that will not accept a single casualty. And that philosophy is spreading."

But how do you persuade Americans to grind up their children in a world that seems filled with endless hate? Annan believes it is all about leadership, about explaining how seeing a crime obligates us to prevent others if we can. He won't bash Clinton directly, but he suggests much of the killing that has gone on in the past decade could have been prevented by stronger U.S. leadership. "Bush had no problem in the Gulf--a vital national interest was at stake there--but he had no problem in Somalia either," Annan says. Courage, he believes, will always trump cowardice.

Iv. Ehumbobor (Compassion)
During a visit to East Timor last year, a man rushed up to Annan, burst into tears and began recounting everything that was happening. Annan--already overbooked and running late--stayed with him for more than an hour. In Kosovo he sat with a 100-year-old woman who could only say over and over again, "How could this happen to me at my age?" Annan is not a physically expansive man, but he held the woman's hand and listened without moving.

Nane Annan--a slim, strikingly beautiful Swede--had been in love with Annan for a few months when the following happened: "We were walking along on Roosevelt Island [in New York City] one night, and Kofi saw a figure hunched over in a telephone booth. It was off to the side, maybe the kind of thing other people wouldn't notice. There was a young man sobbing in the booth. So Kofi went and talked to him and listened to his problem, something about his father. And for some time after that, we had this young man coming to visit us once, twice a week, to come by and talk to Kofi."

Nane calls his compassion "part of his core. In Swedish we have a word--'cast whole.' That is him." The two met in Geneva. It was, she says, a thunderbolt when she saw him at a friend's party. Their marriage--16 years now--was a second marriage for both. He has two children, a son and a daughter, from his first. It is impossible if you are standing nearby to miss their deep affection. Stories of their romance charm New York's social world. Annan's friend Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., recalls a gala where, long after most guests had gone home, Kofi and Nane stayed out on the dance floor, dancing by themselves.

Nane is the niece of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews during World War II and then disappeared after being captured by the Soviet army in 1945. "When you think of what he did, you ask yourself, 'But how come there were so few Raoul Wallenbergs?'" Annan says. "When you talk to his sister--my mother-in-law--she says he was not a daredevil but a very calm, gentle man. Yet he had a kind of inner strength that let him do what he needed to do to save people. But you ask yourself, 'There were all these other, more powerful people--where were they?' "

It is easy--even popular in some circles--to attack Annan's compassion. The argument is that his warm heart, while praiseworthy on an individual level, would be a disastrous global paradigm. As Shawcross argues in Deliver Us from Evil, his study of U.N. peacekeeping, pure implementation of the Kofi Doctrine would lead to a world with never-ending humanitarian wars. It is an awful paradox that compassion should come at so steep a price. This is why Annan doesn't insist on universal application of his doctrine. What he believes is that the world needs to create a climate in which brutality is the exception rather than the rule. It means using other weapons--sanctions, for instance--to slow killing. And it means giving nations trapped in cycles of violence the tools they need to join the world community. It means, in short, being compassionate.

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V. Gyedzi
Many mornings, Annan wakes early. The light is just beginning to creep into the bedroom of his town house overlooking the East River. And as he lies in bed, he begins to pray. "Sometimes," he says, "I ask questions in my prayers. The world is so cruel. How can people be so cruel? What can one do?" Annan pauses for a moment and closes his eyes. "I'm still struggling with evil. I still don't understand how there can be so much evil, and I'm not sure that I will ever understand. Perhaps we all tend to project, and if we are not made that way, we cannot understand. But the degradation of the soul that we see with the evil in the world...You look at the impacts, you see young people who have no hope. They are destroyed.

"I think I have always been quite strong and determined," he continues. "People miss that because I am quite soft spoken. But this job placed me on another level. But it is interesting, if someone knew me when I was young, they say, 'We should have known that you were a leader.' But perhaps once you are really challenged, you find something in yourself. Man doesn't know what he is capable of until he is asked.

"But you see Karadzic and Mladic and Milosevic," he says, rattling off the names of three indicted Balkan war criminals. Then an aside: "Once when I went to see Milosevic, I was stuck in the elevator for 15 minutes! After that I would always take the stairs." He laughs and continues, "But when you see these guys, it is hard to understand. Milosevic will talk about his days when he was a banker here in New York City. He speaks English, sounds like a rational, reasonable person, and yet he is capable of all sorts of acts. How do they do it? How does someone behave like such a normal human being and suddenly turn so evil?

"So I ask questions when I pray. What can one do? Recently I saw Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. The Organization of African Unity had just brought out a report on [the genocide in] Rwanda that went after Albright, that demanded compensation from the Americans. And I said to Kagame, 'Don't let them tie you up on this. It's nice to hear that you think people should pay compensation, but you need to move beyond it. You have other problems.' The Rwandans said to me before, 'But without compensation, what will happen next time?' And I was just stunned. What do you mean, 'next time'?" Annan raises his voice slightly, the first time I have ever heard him do this. "How can you even think of a next time? You have to ask, What is it in our society that makes it possible? It's absolutely frightening." He pauses. "And it may happen again. And if it does, I cannot ensure that the world will stop it."

What you discover in Annan's job fairly quickly is that a moral compass is not enough for you to find your way. You are moving too fast, in what he has called "the race to stop the killing." The job requires more than a sense of right and wrong; it also demands a special kind of diplomatic telemetry. It requires faith. You are sitting across from Milosevic. He is prattling on in his wonderful English and recalling his days as a banker in New York, asking whether certain restaurants are still open. He has just finished meeting with his generals. Surely they have discussed the killing that is under way. What should you do now? Suddenly the moral instinct alone does not answer. You are on your own, trying to find a direction in a world in which there are no marked paths. You are sitting across from pure evil. What do you do now?

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Begging for Help
In the past decade, the U.N. has often been called on to stop tragedy. Some attempts have worked better than others

The general who commanded U.N. forces in Rwanda says that with 5,000 well-armed soldiers, he could have saved thousands of lives. But THE U.N. FAILED TO COMMUNICATE THE DANGER. The U.S. erred too, blocking troops. "On Rwanda, we've all said we wished that it had been different," says Albright. "I didn't like my instructions. I called Washington and was told to do what I did. I screamed about it. One time I sat in a phone booth outside the Security Council chamber and screamed" in a call to D.C.

Annan was frustrated that the U.N. was relegated to a backseat during the Kosovo war, which was led by NATO. Some at the U.N. saw it as payback for his intransigence on Iraq. But it is the U.N. that has been charged with keeping postwar order in the province. This has forced the organization into a new role, that of interim government. So far, THE EFFORT HAS BEEN A SUCCESS. Kosovo is normalizing, though ethnic hate still smolders.

East Timor was on fire when Annan began negotiating with the government in Jakarta to accept assistance from foreign troops. When President Habibie agreed to let the U.N. in, the force that arrived was led not by the U.S. but by Australia. It began restoring order almost immediately--a U.N. success, though THE ISLAND IS STILL DEVASTATED, filled with refugees and facing many problems and an uncertain economic future.

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