Former UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize recipient’s memoirs, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace,” give us a first-hand account of how the UN can respond to the most important issues facing the global community.


To make international life more just and humane, Annan proposes to focus more on the rights of the individual. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexey Nikolsky

In July 2013, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kofi Annan, perhaps the most prominent UN Secretary General in the organization’s entire history, presented a book of memoirs, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace” in Moscow. Although written in the first person, the work is hard to describe as a memoir, because its outlook is focused less on the past and more on the future.

Kofi Annan led the UN at a pivotal moment in the history of the world, when new approaches to the resolution of regional conflicts and civil wars were being sought. He became a central figure of the period, and his book continues the debate on the boundaries of national sovereignty and the types of issues that the international community cannot ignore, regardless of borders.

An independent observer may not agree with all the assessments of the former UN Secretary General. But Annan’s book is certainly required reading for all students of international relations and those seeking to understand the processes that unfolded after the Cold War.

Annan’s two central ideas

The end of the Cold War did not bring peace to the entire world. Despite the UN Secretary General’s endeavors, a new code of conduct in international affairs between countries failed to materialize.

At the center of the book lie two ideas which Annan strove to implement as Secretary General, and which he still promotes in the international community today.

The first is that the UN should be restructured. According to Annan, the Security Council in its current form is not sufficiently representative, since it excludes the world’s newest powers. For this reason, he proposes that it be expanded from 15 to 24 members.

The second idea relates to the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, already a staple of textbooks on international relations. Annan’s vision was to build a new UN that placed humanitarian values and human rights above all else.

As such, the UN would be able to act swiftly to enforce them. His failure to achieve this goal and the main reasons for the rejection of his ideas seem to have been not simply inertia on the part of this huge, unwieldy international organization and the conservatism of the world's political elite, but the fact that they came into conflict with a fundamental principle of international law: the principle of state sovereignty.

Understanding Kofi Annan’s personality and worldview

Kofi Annan is a native of Ghana, a small African country in the south Sahara that gained independence after the Second World War — a land with no traditions of state nationalism or concept of international relations as an arena for conflict.

Citizens of Ghana, among them the young Annan, grew up as natural liberals. In this grassroots liberalism and cosmopolitanism lie the seeds of Annan’s attitude to the conflict between the interests of the state and those of the individual in world politics. For Annan, the individual, not the state, should have a greater right.

The second point is crucial for an understanding of Annan’s position, namely his personal experience and education. In Ghana, the career-motivated Annan was the leader of a student movement, and later studied in the U.S. and Switzerland.

On taking up an entry-level position at the World Health Organization, he made rapid progress. Over the years, he held senior positions in the UN’s financial and personnel divisions and served as head of peacekeeping operations, from which post he was elected Secretary General. It is worth noting that two of the most spectacular failures of UN peacekeeping — Somalia (1993) and Rwanda (1994) — happened on Annan’s watch.

It might have ended anyone else’s career, but Annan managed to convince world leaders that the cause of failure lay in the outdated concept of UN peacekeeping and the urgent need to revamp it. He writes plainly about how Madeleine Albright lobbied on behalf of the U.S. for his nomination as Secretary General, shifting the blame for the failures onto the outgoing Boutros-Ghali.

Annan’s recollections of his collaboration with world leaders disclose another aspect of his views. It seems that at times he sincerely believed in the oneness of humanity — with the UN as its executive body, entitled to act transnationally. But realpolitik always proved the opposite. And world leaders, often to the detriment of the Secretary General’s self-esteem, were in no hurry to make a priority of his judgments.

Annan’s approach to current global challenges

In the preface to the book, Annan lists the challenges facing the UN in the global transition from the era of bloc alliances and confrontation to a new configuration of international relations. The establishment of a new world order was initially a spillover from the attempt to consolidate American hegemony, which was followed by the arrival of multipolarity, in which no nation takes overarching responsibility for anything.

In the new climate, writes Annan, civil wars have increased in number, while the old formula of peacemaking, which took as granted both sides’ consent to the deployment of peacekeepers, is defunct. In these altered circumstances, he continues, it is necessary to act offensively and aggressively by forcing one side (or both) to accept peace.

But who should make the decisions and based on what criteria? The decisions should be taken by the UN, which needs to be modernized on the principles of international law. At the heart of the reform of international law should be a new interpretation of sovereignty as being not only the rights of states, but also their duties to respect human rights and to create conditions for development and decent living standards.

And who will determine the extent to which human rights and conditions for development are guaranteed in any given country? According to Annan, the decision-maker will again be the new, restructured UN, in which the present system of granting a veto to such countries as Russia, China, and the U.S. (which tend to use it not for humanitarian purposes, but rather, in their own interests) is revised.

Furthermore, the decision-making process should be closer to the individual (and, it would seem, further removed from the state), for which purpose respectful non-governmental organizations and business must be involved in the UN’s activity.

Annan also insisted on a review of the general concept of security. From his viewpoint, now commonly accepted, protection from violence and protection from poverty and disease are interrelated. International security cannot conceivably be attained without the elimination of poverty, disease, and government mishandling that indirectly spurs extremism and violence. In this regard, Annan initiated the adoption of the “Millennium Development Goals” — the first ever document to set specific development targets for humanity as a whole.

The book contains interesting chapters on the war on terrorism, military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and Annan’s interaction with the politicians of the day. It is impossible to agree with everything the author writes, yet the chapters are worth reading to understand how the world (and the UN under Annan) saw, for example, the events in the former Yugoslavia.

His account is unlikely to change anyone's view of what happened, because at the center of the dispute there remains the confrontation between two fundamental principles: the rights of states and the rights of peoples. To make international life more just and humane, Annan proposes to add a third principle to the formula — the rights of the individual.

Today, politicians, international organizations, and NGOs continue to seek an answer to the question of how to make our world safer, friendlier, fairer, and richer. They are joined in that respect by Kofi Annan. He uses his book to issue yet another reminder to participants in the debate that the search for universal solutions must not neglect the individual.

The original text is available in Russian at Russian International Affairs Council's website.