When you have been UN secretary-general for 10 years, it is never going to be easy to slip into humdrum anonymity. Kofi Annan gave it a good try. On leaving office he and his wife borrowed a friend’s Italian hideaway, deep in the forests near Lake Como, and retreated into eight weeks of blissful solitude. With no television, no radio, no papers; Annan was free, finally, from the clamor of the world’s troubles. Two weeks in, he began to get bored.
“Let’s go to the tobacconist in the village,” he said, “and buy a paper.”
They had been in the shop for less than five minutes before his heart sank. A group of men were gathered in the corner, staring.
“Oh no!” he whispered to his wife. “We’ve got six weeks to go and we’ve blown our cover. How are we going to manage?”
One of the men approached and thrust out a pen and paper and said: “Morgan Freeman, may I have an autograph?”
Annan flashed his best Hollywood smile, scribbled “Morgan Freeman,” and fled.
“So when people say: ‘Here’s a man who needs no introduction,’” he said. “I say to them, careful!”
As he is telling the story it occurs to me that a tourist’s failure to recognize his successor would not constitute an amusing anecdote. Annan does have a curiously movie-star presence, flawlessly crisp and unusually still, but five years after leaving office he remains a more commanding presence in world affairs than UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“I thought retirement was going to be easier,” he said, “but I discover it’s hard work. I should do what Mandela says and retire from retirement one day.”
We meet just a few weeks after he stood down as the UN’s special envoy to Syria, and his dismay at the ongoing carnage clearly has not faded. However, it is equally clear that he saw no choice but to quit.
“The first thing I said to the [UN] Security Council was: ‘This is a near-impossible task. I’m going to try, but I can only do it if I have your united and sustained support.’ Because you need that support in order to put pressure on all the parties. ‘United’ is key. Be united,” he said.
Yet the Security Council remained divided and as a consequence, Annan says gravely: “The Syrians are going to pay the price.”
The plight of Syria is, in a sense, an extension of Annan’s new book, or an illustration of its fundamental message. Interventions: A Life In War and Peace tells the story of his 50-year UN career, and of the emerging role of UN peacekeeping. It is a role with which Annan has been intimately linked, but humanitarian intervention — like Syria’s future today — lies ultimately at the whim of the Security Council.
Until the early 1990s, UN peacekeeping efforts had been minimal, most conflicts being adjudicated by the world’s two superpowers, whose hostility ensured a Security Council too divided to authorize more than a handful of peacekeeping missions. Between 1987 and 1992 barely a single UN mission consisted of more than 100 observers, facing little personal risk. However, by 1994, 80,000 UN troops were deployed in highly dangerous warzones. Annan took charge of peacekeeping in 1993, and his book provides a fascinating account of the new challenges facing a Security Council that, no longer paralyzed by division, finds itself the repository of global demands for something to be done about pretty much every problem in the world.