As the clock ticked down on Kofi Annan’s eventful two terms as UN secretary-general, editorial pages were filled with the expected legacy pieces, carrying both invective and adulation for Annan. The Washington Times said Annan’s career was “marred by ethical lapses and serial incompetence,” while the Wall Street Journal editorial page lay at his feet the UN’s failure to be “a guarantor of collective security.” But the Los Angeles Times says Annan’s focus on human rights and reform has left the United Nations a stronger institution. And even a mixed review from the Economist pointed to UN successes in peacekeeping on his watch.
Perhaps more significant than the op-eds was Annan’s continued appearance in the news sections of most papers, signaling the UN secretary-general’s voice can still resonate from his secular pulpit. Even as his thirty-eighth-floor office was being prepared for successor Ban Ki-Moon, Annan was making news with a speech challenging the United States to be a better world citizen and his rejection of a military resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program as “unwise and disastrous” (AP). Meanwhile, the United Nations itself remained a sometimes maddening center of crisis management—both feeding and failing to protect Darfurians, pursuing Security Council negotiations over sanctioning Iran, and continuing to probe the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
For some on the American right, Annan’s departure comes none too soon. This is principally because of his handling of the troublesome Iraq file. It started with a 1998 meeting with Saddam Hussein, after which Annan said he could “do business” with him. He later called the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam illegal after Washington side-stepped the UN Security Council and asserted its right to disarm Iraq from suspected weapons of mass destruction. The subsequent revelation that persons in the UN Secretariat, as well as leading member states, abused the humanitarian oil-for-food program raised calls for his resignation from congressional Republicans. Congress pursued six different investigations into the program, but the definitive study, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, cited systemic UN flaws permitting abuse of the program. Annan commissioned that report, which was characteristic of others he instigated in his 10 years at the UN’s helm—on the peacekeeping debacles in Srebrenica and Rwanda, as well as UN security lapses before the 2003 bombing of its Baghdad office, and sexual abuses in UN peacekeeping. As UN documents, all were remarkable for their candor as well as, in some cases, a poor reflection on Annan’s management style, and the United Nations’ vulnerability to the whims of member states.
Still, Annan may yet be remembered for initiating the reforms mentioned in his 2005 report In Larger Freedom, a sort of grand bargain that addresses issues of central interest to wealthier states, such as security, while urging quicker action from such states to fight poverty and disease in the developing world. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Annan discussed the UN’s challenge in tackling global threats while reconciling its democratic and nondemocratic membership. The UN reform plan in a number of places echoes the findings of a U.S. congressional task force on reforms but U.S. officials have had a mixed record in engaging the United Nations. CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein says this checkered history is curious given that Annan's priorities in office have been "remarkably close" (NPR) to American ones. The outgoing chair of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), believes UN reform can only happen with the U.S. threat of withholding funding, while his successor, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), does not support such measures but has vowed to press for reforms. Few of the initiatives of In Larger Freedom have been undertaken, but some consider it significant that a South Korean more valued for his bureaucratic than diplomatic skills will now be charged with seeing them through.