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A remarkable man in an impossible job,
This review is from: Interventions: A Life in War and Peace (Hardcover)
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There's no disputing Kofi Annan's political stature or integrity of purpose. Nor can the challenges of his 10 years in one of the hardest jobs in politics be underestimated. I imagine that being UN Secretary-General is akin to being Archbishop of Canterbury - you are neither president nor pope, and so any effect you might have depends on the canny use of influence, impartiality and persuasion, rather than actual constitutional power. I can't even begin to imagine how frustrating and difficult the job must be, let alone doing it for so long.
That said, if Annan is to be believed from this account, there were some encouraging achievements from his time (East Timor independence from Indonesia, Kenya negotiations) despite the many debacles (eg Iraq War, Rwanda genocide while he was director of peace keeping). At times this book feels more like a case for the defence than anything else (but then perhaps all political memoirs are like that?). We certainly don't really get to know him as a man - there are precious hints of his upbringing (his father sounds a fascinating and remarkable person in his own right), little chinks of light into his own family. For instance, it would be fascinating to hear more about his Swedish second wife, Nane, who it transpires is the niece of the renowned Raoul Wallenberg (who rescued scores of Jews from the Holocaust), p258. So the book's subtitle seems a little misleading. "A life in war and peace" suggests something more autobiographical - instead what we get is more an account of "a career in war and peace". For all that, this book offers a fascinating window into closed rooms and private discussions.
Uncommonly for diplomats, he is pretty candid about where he sees blame lying for things - he is not beyond criticising his predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and is robust (rightly) about the twists and turns leading up to the Iraq war. Most significantly, he felt he had a right to speak frankly to Africa's leaders about their failings - and was perhaps the only African in recent history, apart from Mandela, to have the stature to do this. The contrast he makes between Mandela and Mugabe is instructive - the former always understood that institutions are more important than the individuals that run them, unlike his Zimbabwean neighbour. However, is it too much to expect him to account for his own mistakes? I didn't really discover any of note in this book. Well I suppose you wouldn't expect that in a case for the defence, and that is perhaps where the flaw in this book lies.
Nevertheless, my respect for Annan only deepened on reading this book, as did my understanding of what the UN can be at its best. For much of the time, despite its controversies, profligacy and waste, and impotency, I feel sure the world is a safer place because of its existence. Not least because he makes an important case for the primacy of intervention over and above national sovereignty if humanitarian disaster is at risk.