UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: Quiet Diplomacy in a Troubled World

By Williams, Lea E. | Diversity Employers, October 1998 | Go to article overview

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: Quiet Diplomacy in a Troubled World


Williams, Lea E., Diversity Employers


What's it like to be in the hot seat, with a carefully built career hanging in the balance? At the pinnacle of success in your chosen career you suddenly face unbelievable triumph or tragic humiliation. Solving the world's problems is pretty nerve-wracking, especially when you've built a reputation for excellence in a field where the competition is keen and senior positions are few, and highly coveted. One person commanding a place at the top in a foreign-service career is Kofi Annan. He has earned the highest possible diplomatic post at the United Nations and regained the respect of the U.S. for the world's peacekeeping body.

Three Days in February

For three tension-filled days in February, the world watched as Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations negotiated with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in hopes of averting a U.S.-led war unless Iraq agreed to unlimited inspections of eight suspected weapons sites. Media attention was unrelenting; minicams and microphones were profuse; and journalists dogged his every step, capturing every move for the nightly news and front-page headlines. The world was poised on the edge of war; a lot was at stake. In the midst of this constant media barrage stood Kofi Annan, as quietly diplomatic and unflappable as ever. The world, especially the United States, waited to see who would blink first - Annan or Saddam.

Kofi Annan stepped into this maelstrom armed only with his mandate from the five permanent members of the Security Council and his moral authority as the voice of calm reason in a troubled world. Annan had arrived in Baghdad on Friday, the 20th of February, with the skeptical and grudging well wishes of the U.S. He denied both the cautionary words of warning from President Clinton and the scolding admonition from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In the white light of world attention and uncharitable speculation, the Secretary-General went about his business, ever the quiet diplomat.

Discussions began the next day. In tense hours of private late night and early dawn negotiations with Saddam Hussein, Annan persuaded the Iraqi leader to permit unlimited access to the eight weapons sites previously ruled off-limits. He returned to the U.S. with a Memorandum of Understanding with which the Iraqis did indeed comply. The agreement included an inspection team to be appointed by the Secretary-General, a possible point of contention because this might be seen as undermining Richard Butler, the chairman of Unscom, the UN Special Commission appointed to inspect weapons sites.

In the end, President Clinton and Secretary Albright acknowledged the coup Annan pulled off. Even conservative Senator Jesse Helm, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recognized that Annan had done a good job, "given what he had to work with" (James Traub, "Kofi Annan's Next Test," New York Times Magazine, March 29, 1998). Kofi Annan had triumphed over a very precarious situation, fraught with peril at every turn.

Annan's assent to the Secretary-Generalship, and command of the world stage, reminds us how exciting the world of diplomacy can be and offers a road map for you. In fact, in a recent interview, we asked Kofi Annan what advice he'd give students with an interest in international affairs. He responded by saying, "We need to prepare for an interdependent and a global world. We need to understand other cultures, to learn languages, to learn to see the world through the eyes of others, to appreciate what others have, and to not only accept, but celebrate diversity...We cannot fail to acknowledge the interconnected nature of our times. We must accept that unity is the way forward." Who is this diplomat par excellence and what lessons can we learn from him?

At the Helm

The grandson of Ghanaian tribal chieftains on both sides of his family, Kofi Annan has needed the blessings of his African ancestors, and the powers of persuasion honed over three decades of diplomatic service, to succeed in the highly visible, and ofttimes controversial, position of Secretary-General of the United Nations. …

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