October 25, 2012

The SIPA community was abuzz on October 17, when former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan visited the School to speak about his book, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.

Few individuals command as much respect in the international arena as Annan, and the audience’s reverence was apparent when he entered the Kellogg Center. After a brief introduction, Annan shared an anecdote about the trappings of his fame: while on a holiday with his wife, he said, he was approached in public by a young man. Annan thought his privacy was shattered until the young man put his hand out and said: “Morgan Freeman, may I have an autograph?” Annan happily signed an autograph in Freeman’s name, and continued his vacation in peace.

View Kofi Annan's remarks in their entirety.

In his lecture, Annan offered a tantalizing sample ofInterventions, highlighting a series of episodes that illustrate the beliefs that have informed Annan’s life. In describing his experience of Ghana’s transition to independence, for example, Annan said that he learned at an early age that great change was possible. But he noted that Malaysia also achieved independence in 1957 and had since far outpaced Ghana economically. This different trajectory fascinated him, he said, since it raises the question what drives development.

Annan also told a story about his time studying at Macalester College in the bitterly cold city of Saint Paul, Minnesota:

There was one item that I was determined not to use: the earmuffs. I found them inelegant. But one Sunday I went to get something to eat and I almost lost my ears. The next day I bought the biggest pair I could find, elegant or not. I had learned a lesson: Never walk into an environment and behave as if you know better than the natives.

Annan described the seminal moments he witnessed during the course of his career at the United Nations. He discussed the shift in the international community during and after the end of the Cold War. As head of peacekeeping operations in the mid-1990s, Annan saw an increase in missions, but often without a corresponding increase in resources. In somber tones, he described the build-up to the Rwandan Genocide. Following the unsuccessful and unpopular mission in Somalia, the international community lacked the will to intervene on a large scale. Annan admitted that he was among the many leaders at the time who underestimated the potential scale of the violence.

The audience warmly applauded the lecture, and then launched into a sometimes pointed question-and-answer period. A first-year student from Rwanda poignantly asked whether the tragedies in the ’90s suggest that there is a threshold for intervention. Annan candidly admitted that he had difficulty setting an official threshold: Interventions, he said, are subject to the decisions of the international community, while the definition of conflict is often a matter of interpretation. As such, the UN must approach each situation case by case. Understanding this demands a proactive approach, a lesson learned painfully in Rwanda.

Annan also spoke about his recent appointment to Syria as UN envoy. Professor Michael Doyle, a former colleague, referred to this task as  a “mission impossible” and asked what the next steps might be. Annan admitted that the situation in Syria was bleak, but he pointed out that a cease-fire had been reached for a short time. “Sending more weapons in to Syria,” he asserted, “will only make the conflict last longer. At some point the two sides will need to talk.” He concluded that a constructive dialogue between the rebels and the government, but also including the minorities in Syria that make up almost 50 percent of the country, must be the goal.

All told, Annan’s discussion of Interventions: A Life in War and Peace offered a frank assessment of his work. He refused to deny his and others’ mistakes and flaws, but instead shared the human struggle towards peace despite inherently human flaws. For the many students at SIPA that are contemplating a similar career, Annan’s assessment is invaluable. “The world we live in is changing,” he remarked. As such SIPA students can learn much from Kofi Annan’s introspective take on international peacekeeping.

— Benjamin Martinez Newman, posted October 25

View Kofi Annan's remarks in their entirety on SIPA's YouTube channel.