Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, by Kofi Annan

Review published on March 7, 2013.Reviewed by Stephen Joyce

[product sku=”9781846142970″]There’s a moment in the first chapter of Interventions, an autobiographical reflection on his UN career, when Kofi Annan unwittingly reveals a great deal about himself and the predicaments he would later face. Having described his enthusiasm at being part of the independence generation in Ghana, Annan becomes disillusioned when Ghana descends into corrupt military dictatorship:

Between the forces of bureaucratic inertia, bad governance, and military rule, I saw little possibility of advancing the kind of change that was so necessary to Ghana’s – and Africa’s – progress… I reluctantly concluded that I would have to pursue my career outside my home country.

This is a reasonable statement. It’s just not a heroic one. And the problem with leadership is that it often requires heroic sacrifice for the greater good. Nelson Mandela did not look at apartheid and say, “Screw this, I’m off to Europe,” although he probably could have.

Annan’s career autobiography is the story of a reasonable man trying to do good in an unreasonable world and is a fascinating reflection on the limits and potential of the UN that should be essential reading for anyone interested in global politics.

The book is organised according to particular themes rather than chronology. Using specific cases, Annan shows how the UN developed under his leadership. One major issue is health, especially the fight against AIDS. UN conferences also bring together NGOs, charities, and social movements and allow them to work together, something Annan encouraged during his tenure. Another chapter is devoted to the Millennium Development Goals; Annan is realist enough to know that they inspire a lot of beautiful empty promises, but the MDGs have put the issue of development front and centre and given the world’s peoples a standard by which to hold their governments to account.

In many ways, changing the conversation like this is the UN’s greatest power. Annan demonstrates this when he talks about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the International Criminal Court. Previous discussions of the UN’s role had declared that what happened inside a nation’s borders was its own business. The R2P doctrine asserts that governments can be held to account if they fail to protect their own populations; this reasoning was used to support intervention in Libya and the former Yugoslavia. The ICC, meanwhile, means war criminals can be arrested and tried internationally. While both are subject to conditions of power, Annan persuasively states his own view that “the threat of an indictment is an important deterrent against abhorrent conduct, or can encourage a leader to change his behaviour.”

Having said that, Rwanda is always going to hang over Annan’s head. As head of peacekeeping in 1994, he was the one who received General Romeo Dallaire’s memo about the impending genocide with a request to authorise immediate preventive action. Annan’s account of his response is a masterly display of bureaucratic arse-covering. He wrings his hands over the rules, norms, precedents, and regulations that prevented decisive action being taken, but he does not apologise. At least former US-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her autobiography had the decency to state plainly that it was the greatest failure of her career. True, she attempts to justify it, but when 800,000 people are murdered and you were in a position to do something to stop it and you did nothing then you have to hold your hands up. Anyone who has read Dallaire’s searing account of the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, or Philip Gourevitch’s unforgettable We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families will find Annan’s excuses on this issue shameful.

But Annan is a reasonable man, not a man of action. He does what any good bureaucrat would do – blame his boss and the system.

As analysis, this book sometimes leaves a lot to be desired as Annan often exaggerates his influence. Speaking of his role in tackling AIDS, Annan says:

I arranged a series of meetings with the top pharmaceutical manufacturers, the first in March 2001 in Amsterdam. As a result of these meetings and the collective process of pressure and engagement worldwide, the pharmaceutical companies began to compromise. This led to a dramatic reduction in the cost of treatment for victims in the developing world. The cost of drugs fell from $15,000 a year to, eventually, just $150 a year, or fifty cents per day.

I wonder how these meetings went. “Could you please drop the price of your anti-retroviral drugs to just 1% of their current value?” “Why of course, Kofi, we’d be delighted!” Actually, events elsewhere in 2001 were much more significant. Brazil began to manufacture generic copies of the drug, basically challenging Big Pharma to sue. A case was duly brought before the WTO by the US but was then dropped. Brazil’s challenge paved the way for other countries to mass produce the drugs for themselves, all of which had a much bigger impact on the price than Annan’s meetings.

But such biases help make the book more interesting because they tell us a lot about Kofi Annan and how he sees himself. In a biography, they would simply be distortions of the truth, but an autobiography cannot lie. Even its lies tell us about the nature of the author. If Annan often overstates his influence, then that in itself is interesting and challenges us to consider his arguments about the UN in a critical light.

On many issues Annan is refreshingly frank. He criticises the failure of African governance and refuses to allow bad leaders to deflect blame onto the evils of colonisation. As Annan notes, countries like Malaysia faced similar challenges yet their postcolonial development has been much better than most African countries. Discussing the Middle East he is willing to point the finger at Israel and the USA for not making any meaningful effort to create a viable Palestinian state. On peacekeeping he chastises the gap between what the world wants and what member states are willing to provide in the way of troops. After the Rwandan account, I had not expected so much straight talking but Annan clearly intends to speak the truth in this book, even if it is the bureaucrat’s truth that someone else was at fault.

Ultimately, although I began the book in a sceptical mood, Annan’s thoughtful and detailed analyses of real-world conflicts and the UN’s role in their resolutions provide an excellent practical and at times philosophical insight into the possibilities of the United Nations. It may be the best account that exists explaining what the UN can and can’t do. That alone makes it essential reading.


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