Charisma and Banality: Kofi Annan and the UN

Being the head of a creature essentially without spine, and, even more to the point, with vague form, must be something of a challenge.  Part of the failing of the United Nations probably lies in its disparate existence, a scattered composition of bureaucratic entities that, when they come together, supply a perfect picture of inertia.  (Perhaps for the best: a more active UN could well lead to a deeper muddying of waters.)  Such an arrangement invariably leads to one conclusion: The organisation tends to mimic the power order of the day, compliant to the great states, malleable to their capriciousness. What matters on the day is what is legitimised.

Kofi Annan’s time as Secretary General of the UN reflected the post-Cold War realignments of power.  But unlike his predecessor, the oft prickly Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who gave the hagiographers little to go on, he cut a fine figure for fandom.  He was soft-spoken, rarely got irate, proved so diplomatic as to reveal little.

Certain works on Annan’s legacy have been flattering to the point of crawling.  James Traub’s The Best Intentions (2007) gushes, telling readers of the “big smile and a roundhouse handshake”, “the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful, yellowing eyes”.  Traub’s description of Annan was much like that of an infatuated groupie with eyes popping, enthused by a man who had made the UN office of Secretary General his own.  “Kofi and [his wife] Nane, both…

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