Kofi Annan could never really be satisfied with the world as it was. He was one of the world’s last great idealists

My first meaningful interaction with Kofi Annan was a press conference at the United Nations in September 2005. It was the 60th anniversary of the United Nations and world leaders had just signed onto the most ambitious set of reforms since the organization’s founding in 1945. Annan was very much the driver of this reform agenda, which included enshrining the “responsibility to protect” populations at risk of genocide as a guiding UN principal; disbanding the old Commission on Human Rights and establishing a more nimble Human Rights Council in its place; and recommitting the UN to a robust set of global development targets known as the Millennium Development Goals.

These reforms, and others, were agreed at a special UN summit that year which was the largest gathering of world leaders in recorded history. But though UN member states owned the reforms, it was very much Annan’s agenda. A year prior he laid out a vision for making the UN a more responsive institution guided by the higher moral principals upon which the UN was founded six decades prior. He penned a manifesto in Foreign Affairs titled “In Larger Freedom,” that laid out his vision for reform. And now, at the annual UN General Assembly nearly every government on the planet signed onto his vision.

I expected the press conference to be a victory lap. Or at least include a degree of well-deserved self congratulations. But what I remember most from Annan’s remarks that day was how dissatisfied he sounded. That is because for all the important and necessary reforms to which governments gave their stamp of approval there was one they did not touch — nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

Annan’s vision included a re-invigoration of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. But member states would not agree. In his opening remarks at the press conference, Annan spent as much time decrying the missing items on nuclear issues as he did praising the key reforms that were included, calling the lack of any mention of nuclear non-proliferation or disarmament “a real disgrace.”

I recall being stunned by the fact that he decided to emphasize this failure even though there was much to celebrate. After all, world leaders largely bought into his manifesto. This was his penultimate UNGA and the last before he would be a lame duck, and this summit was his crowing achievement.

I expected a victory lap. What he delivered was a lecture.

Kofi Annan could never really be satisfied with the world as it was. He had extremely high ideals and the rest of the international community rarely lived up to his expectations of them. And when they failed to live up to their legal or moral obligations, he let them know —  despite the political fallout.

Exactly two months after the terrorist attacks against the United States, Kofi Annan accompanied President George W. Bush to the ground zero site at the World Trade Center in New York. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (centre), U.S. President George W. Bush (left), and Secretary of State Colin Powell at the ground zero site.UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In no instance was this more apparent than his criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s disasterous decision to invade and occupy Iraq. The Bush administration lead a small coalition to topple the government of Iraq, despite the fact that the Security Council did not authorize this intervention. Annan correctly called this act illegal and was sharply critical of the war, even as he sought to mitigate its fallout by deploying a robust UN political mission to Iraq to assist in rebuilding and reconstruction efforts. (And to that end, he was earnest — he would send one of his most accomplished and competent officials to this mission, Sergio Viera De Mello, who had successfully oversaw post-conflict reconstruction in East Timor. On August 19, 2003 Al Qaeda would target the UN headquarters in Iraq with a truck bomb, killing De Mello and 21 others.)

“I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it,” Annan said in 2013.

Many in the Bush administration, their allies in the Congress and the right wing media would pillory Annan for his criticisms of the war. Prominent Republicans, lead by former Senator Norm Coleman, called for his resignation amid a convoluted “scandal” called Oil-for-Food in which Annan was allegedly responsible for the misuse of funds around a program intended to allow Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, to sell some oil on global markets and use those proceeds for humanitarian purposes. The Oil-for-Food program was many years old by the time of the Iraq war, but it was only after he spoke out against the war that rightwing media latched onto various and spurious allegations against Annan. Still, neoconservative media outlets that strongly supported the war would keep this scandal alive. FoxNews, by then a partisan news outlet strongly supportive of George W. Bush and the war, added fuel to the fire.

A 2005 report by former Chair of the Federal Reserve and Nixon administration official Paul Volcker cleared Annan of any wrongdoing, saying there was no evidence to support the allegations against him.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan arriving in Pristina, Albania in 2002. UN Photo/Sergey Bermeniev

Despite this campaign against him in the US, Annan remained proudly — almost defiantly —  pro-American. To be sure, he vigorously opposed the Iraq war. But he still believed that US global leadership was essential to maintaining order around the world — and was a requirement for an effective UN.  In a not-s0-subtle display, he picked the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri as the site of his farewell address as Secretary General on December 11, 2006. “More than ever today, Americans, like the rest of humanity, need a functioning global system through which the world’s peoples can face global challenges together,” he said. “And in order to function, the system still cries out for far-sighted American leadership, in the Truman tradition.”

“I hope and pray that the American leaders of today, and tomorrow, will provide it.”

Annan, of course, lived to see a re-engagement with the UN that occurred during the Obama administration and he lived to see the retrenchment of the Trump administration.

And here, I think, is Annan’s relevance to the world today.

Twelve years after he gave that speech, the United States government has again taken certain actions that are a disservice to the principles upon which the United States helped establish the United Nations 73 years ago. But the UN still pines for US leadership. In his first press conference as Secretary General Antonio Guterres echoed Annan’s call for principled American global leadership. “If the United States disengage in relation to many aspects of foreign policy and many aspects of international relations, it will be unavoidable that other actors will occupy that space,” Guterres said. “And I don’t think this is good for the United States, and I don’t think this is good for the world. ”

Kofi Annan will be remembered for his achievements at the United Nations and for his post-UN work, including negotiating a peace deal to end election related violence in Kenya in 2008. The idealism that he brought to his position is one that the best secretaries generals will emulate, demanding more from governments than they may be willing to give — and never being quite satisfied.