November 11, 2015

“The end of Western hegemony in the eye of non-westerners is long overdue,” said Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general.

Annan, who was the first secretary-general to emerge from the ranks of UN staff, led the organization from 1997 to 2006. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2001. He addressed an audience of students in SIPA’s UN Studies specialization, who had invited him for a conversation about world order in the current global state of uncertainty.

The November 4 event was presented in the context of 70th anniversaries. The UN turned 70 this year, while SIPA will reach the same mark next year.

Dean Merit Janow welcomed Annan, while Professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of the UN Studies specialization, moderated the conversation.

Annan spoke in particular about mobilizing political will and the role of leaders in galvanizing responses to the challenges humanity faces today.

“There is a tendency in human nature to look back on the past as some sort of halcyon age,” said Annan. “In reality, we live in an era in which there have been so few inter-state wars. By historical comparison, we have it very good.”

Annan cited the vast improvement in child-mortality rates and the growth in opportunities on a global level over the last 70 years.

“In today’s interconnected world, all nations will rise and fall together,” he said.

Annan also reflected upon the current world order and international organization system, and did not shy away from criticizing the current global system, including the UN itself.

“The world is changing, but the system has not adapted,” he said.

“The West dominates because it created the system,” said Annan, who observed that western nations will soon yield dominance in the global arena.

“The status quo cannot continue” as demographic trends turn western nations into a smaller and smaller minority of the world population, he added. “The system has to be adapted.”

This does not mean that the West no longer matters, Annan explained, but rather than room must be made for other leaders from around the world to join.

“Adapting the system rests on how much power the West is willing to give up,” said Annan. “We need collaboration and not competition.”

As UN secretary-general, Annan had sought reform within the institution itself, advocating for a greater voice and influence for emerging powers such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, that represent 42 percent of the world’s population. Annan’s Global Compact Initiative was the largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility worldwide.

Annan said the UN has to represent the changes in the world in order to function properly, and suggested the system cannot work when large and powerful nations with heavy influence in the global arena fail to ratify international agreements or wage wars against other countries without using internationally established processes.

“Leadership requires a sense of compromise,” he said.

Annan also discussed the current migrant crisis in Europe and the varied responses by governments across the continent, noting that in many nations, the public has demanded more comprehensive and accepting policies towards the refugees. Many across Europe have taken refugees into their homes or taken to the streets in protest again their governments.

“Migration cannot be stopped, but people in democracies have the power to influence the course of events and the decisions made by their governments,” he said. “When leaders fail to lead, the people will make them follow.”

Suggesting that many challenges facing the world today require international solutions to have global legitimacy, Annan challenged world leaders to collaborate and compromise, and encouraged them to work through the UN.

Through it all, his outlook on the future remains positive.

“I am a stubborn optimist,” said Annan. “The world is made up of optimists and pessimists. Let me assure you the optimists die happier.”

— Rebecca Krisel MIA ’16