In the summer of 2004, I traveled to Sudan with Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations. Mr. Annan, who died Saturday at age 80, was hoping to put an end to the genocidal violence that the Sudanese president, Omar Bashir, had launched against the people of Darfur. I watched Mr. Annan sit quietly in a blazing hot shed while a local government official blamed the violence on the Darfuris themselves, handing the secretary general a list of alleged rebel atrocities and complaining bitterly about the role of the United Nations in taking their side. Only when he had finished did Mr. Annan gently ask, “What about the Janjaweed?” — the camel-borne thugs whom he pointed out the government had unleashed on peaceful villagers. That, another official explained, was rebel propaganda. Then the verbal assault resumed.
At the end of the trip, flying back to New York, Mr. Annan told me he felt he had moved the needle by telling President Bashir that he could regain the world’s good graces by ending the violence. I asked him if he really thought that Mr. Bashir gave a damn about the world’s good graces. “What else can I do?” he asked. “I don’t have any troops.” He didn’t only mean that the United Nations has no army to enforce its mandate, but that, because the Security Council was divided on this as on almost every other morally urgent issue in the world, he had no mandate.
That was Kofi Annan, in all that he could and could not be. He was a moral witness with a unique capacity to force the world’s attention on the unspeakable, in part by going to places like Darfur in the company of reporters like me. The pull of Mr. Annan’s moral charisma ensured a large and global journalistic entourage. At the same time, Mr. Annan was a consummate diplomat and unfailing gentleman who perpetually disappointed the wish for melodramatic confrontation with evil; he smoked cigars with Saddam Hussein after reaching a deal with him to restore nuclear inspectors in 1998 — not because he felt comfortable in the man’s presence, but because Mr. Hussein wanted to smoke cigars. And, finally, Mr. Annan was a shuttlecock batted back and forth by the great powers, too widely admired to be disposed of and too dangerous to be allowed to operate with impunity.
The American diplomat Richard Holbrooke used to say that, for all the myriad things the United Nations does, it will be judged in the world’s capitals by the great issues of war and peace debated in the Security Council. It is right, therefore, that its failure to act effectively in the face of genocidal violence in Rwanda and Bosnia will be laid in part at Mr. Annan’s doorstep, for at the time he served as head of peacekeeping, the job he held before becoming secretary general. Mr. Annan had so fully internalized the United Nations’ precepts, both its respect for the sovereignty of each member and the obligation to remain neutral between contending parties, that he could not break free of them when a supreme crisis demanded he do so.
Mr. Annan recognized this failure, but he had a way of operating at a remove from himself. In the course of many discussions with him while I was writing a book about the United Nations during Mr. Annan’s tenure titled “The Best Intentions,” I never came to feel that his sense of guilt was personal. Yet he had a compensating sense of institutional responsibility: Mr. Annan’s profound belief in the United Nations — and his certainty that the world would be a better place the stronger it was — led him to respond to these calamities with searing reports on the body’s failures, and with serious reforms during his time as secretary general. In the aftermath of yet more genocidal violence, in Kosovo, Mr. Annan called on the United Nations to embrace the norm known as “the responsibility to protect,” which dictates that states have an obligation to prevent atrocities both at home and abroad — and that the Security Council would adjudicate those decisions. The General Assembly adopted R2P, as it is known, in 2005. The world’s failure to act in Syria reminds us that norms mean nothing without the political will to enforce them.
The secretary general, indeed, has no troops; the United Nations can matter only if the great powers wish it to matter. And right now, they don’t. The United States treats the United Nations — and virtually all multilateral bodies — with contempt, while Russia uses its place on the Security Council to block action against allies like Syria. China’s global aspirations have led it to partly fill that vacuum, but China regards the United Nations as a club of states, not a force to protect individuals, including from their own government. Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of a world governed by international law backed by a concert of powerful states has all but dissolved; the world seems to be reverting to the kind of unstable great-power order that obtained in the period before World War I.
Surely the greatest tribute to Kofi Annan’s legacy would be to act in such a way as to make the United Nations the kind of force that he, and so many of us, wish that it were. Maybe that day will come — but not any time soon.
James Traub, a columnist for foreignpolicy.com, is writing a book on the history and prospects of liberalism.