Everyone knows him as “Kofi.” In the stuffy, suspicious world of global politics, that simple fact says a lot about the man moving into the CEO suite at the United Nations.
Through crises both international and internal at the world body, Kofi Annan has made friends and found supporters in important places. In his next five years as secretary-general, the man from Ghana may need to call on every one of them.
One place where he’ll find them is at the Pentagon.
“Everybody here is very impressed with him,” said a Defense Department official who has worked closely with the U.N. peacekeeping department, led by Annan since 1993. “He’s committed to doing things better at the U.N.”
He’ll find them, too, within the U.N. rank-and-file, where his soft-spoken, open manner - and reputation for competence - made him a favorite among the top deputies.
“I’ve never heard Kofi once raise his voice,” said a U.N. staff member who has long worked with him. “I don’t think he has a single enemy.”
But will “Kofi” find friends in Congress?
His success in winning over “the big boys” - as Annan often refers to the Washington leadership - will make or break his tenure as U.N. chief.
Their hostility brought down his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Their support, if they see Annan as a committed U.N. reformer, could untie the purse strings on more than $1 billion the United States owes in U.N. back dues.
Annan, 58, to be confirmed as secretary-general by the General Assembly on Tuesday, moves into the job with something of a head start. Better than any of his six predecessors, he knows America and its ways.
A scion of a chiefly west African family, Annan was educated in the U.S. heartland - at Minnesota’s Macalester College - and indoctrinated in American business practice, earning a master’s degree in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Through a 34-year U.N. career, he has worked in Egypt, Ethiopia and Geneva, but his mark was made in New York, where he has held top positions in personnel and budget at U.N. headquarters.
He first came to wide U.S. attention in 1990 when he helped negotiate the release of Western hostages held by Iraq during the gulf war.
Annan took charge of U.N. peacekeeping, as undersecretary-general, just as the department’s responsibilities were exploding in the aftermath of the Cold War.1994, the U.N. flag was flying over 19 peacekeeping missions worldwide, with 75,000 troops, police and other personnel.
The numbers have declined since, but Annan’s department meanwhile grew more professional and capable.
Though “perpetually broke,” as he once said in an interview, Annan cajoled and borrowed from member governments to build a headquarters staff.
By all accounts, his reputation for quiet competence was cemented earlier this year with four months’ temporary duty overseeing the transition from U.N. to NATO-led peacekeeping in Bosnia. The complicated, delicate turnover proved problem-free.
Some may question whether a career U.N. bureaucrat is too tied to old structures to press on with a top-to-bottom overhaul of the institution, as demanded by the Republican Congress and seconded by the Clinton administration.
But others point out it’s often the insiders who know best where there’s fat to cut.
The Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited an example of Annan’s “doing things better”:
In the past, U.N. officials often relied on, and paid top dollar for, U.S. Air Force units to airlift peacekeepers and supplies. Annan has shifted that increasingly to commercial carriers, for significant cost savings.
But one seasoned observer, former top U.N. official Brian Urquhart, questions whether anyone can overcome Washington’s new hostility, which he blames on Republican isolationism deadset against the U.N. idea.
“He’s very able, extremely decent, with a lot of experience,” Urquhart said of Annan. “But I think he has a very, very difficult task ahead.”
It’s clear that Annan himself won’t abandon the U.N. idea.
“The world has become so interdependent,” he observed in an Associated Press interview in 1992. “Unless we pull together to tackle its problems, they either will get out of hand or some individual countries will be required to take them on themselves.”
It’s a message the big boys will hear a lot in the years to come.
MEMO: Charles J. Hanley first reported on the United Nations in 1978.