Tue, Oct 09, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Kofi Annan gives lessons on diplomacy

The former UN secretary-general talks about his fears for Syria, Tony Blair’s brilliance and being mistaken for Morgan Freeman

By Decca Aitkenhead  /  The Guardian

“They clash, they clash,” he said with a smile. “I think we’ve made progress, but you are right — the national interest still often trumps the broader interest. But what governments and people don’t realize is that sometimes the collective interest — the international interest — is also the national interest.”

Born in 1938 into a powerful Ghanaian tribe, Annan had a privileged childhood in what was the Gold Coast, coming of age as his country won independence from Britain. Awarded a scholarship to study in the US, he assumed he would return to serve his nation, but a job with the WHO in Geneva introduced him to a “worldly and engaging environment,” which made him reassess his loyalties.

“I began,” he writes, “to realize that community for me would mean something different from what it had meant to my father’s generation.”

How does someone with so little personal sense of national loyalty get through to men for whom it is everything? I have always wondered what Annan says to world leaders — often monstrous tyrants, even crypto-terrorists — to win their trust and persuade them to make peace. The book is full of references to marathon late-night phone calls to warring parties and the art, he says, is quite simple. You have to understand what drives them, appeal to their pride and vanity, and offer them a way out that saves face.

“Dignity is very important. It’s about dignity. Without beating up on them, I say: ‘If you’re really a leader and are interested in the interests of your people, you have to lead; you have to show courage. If you are really a strong man as you say you are, you have to look out for the weak in your society. Look at what you’re doing to them.’ They have to feel that you have their interests at heart. These are people with egos and a sense of legacy, so you ask: ‘What legacy are you going to leave?’ Saddam probably saw himself as a modern-day Saladin — the glorious Arab warrior. He saw himself as someone who was building his nation. So you tell him: ‘You want all this destroyed? How do you think you will be judged?’” Annan said.

“That matters, because these people often have a certain image of themselves and they will go to an incredible extent to protect themselves. So I tell them what their actions mean, how they are seen by the outside world,” he added.

I suspect Annan must struggle to imagine how he will be judged himself, for his identity is so subsumed within that of the UN as to be almost indivisible. When I ask him to name the single greatest misconception about him, his first response is telling. “About me, or about the UN?”

About him, I said. He falls into lengthy silent thought.

“That he’s too soft,” he said eventually. “Because they feel he doesn’t pound the table — not assertive enough. But it doesn’t bother me because sometimes you don’t have to fight to get your way. You don’t have to pick a fight to get them to change their mind, or get them to see things your way. You really don’t.”

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