The Confessions of Kofi Annan

Michael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_43 Nov. 20 15.26How do we explain Kofi Annan’s enduring moral prestige? The puzzle is that it has survived failures, both his own and those of the institution he served for fifty years.1 Personal charisma is only part of the story. In addition to his charm, of which there is plenty, there is the authority that comes from experience. Few people have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords, and dictators. He has made himself the world’s emissary to the dark side.

To these often dire negotiations, he brought a soothing temperament that became second nature early in his Ghanaian childhood. His father, Henry Reginald Annan, lived across two worlds, as a senior executive with a British multinational corporation and a hereditary chieftain in a country poised on the eve of national independence. In the Ghanaian struggle, the Annan family occupied the cautious middle, supporting independence but keeping their distance from the revolutionary nationalism of Kwame Nkrumah.

From these experiences, Annan became adept at circumspection and skillful in dealing with all sides, while keeping his own cards concealed. It was a temperament perfect for the UN. When he found his career in Ghana blocked by a succession of military regimes, he enlisted in the UN and has spent all his life in its upper reaches in New York and Geneva. Like Barack Obama, he learned early to live across racial divides and to position himself as the rational and relaxed confidant of all, while belonging finally to no one but himself.

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