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Issue No. 68 (May 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Kofi Annan’s U.N. reform proposal:
First great radical middle political document?

On March 21, the second day of spring, Kofi Annan announced his reform plans for the United Nations. He released a 62-page report, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All -- the only U.N. report I’ve ever seen that was written in the first person singular. Then he gave an unusually passionate speech about the report to the General Assembly, followed by an unusually loquacious press conference.

Was anyone listening? Even The New York Times and The Washington Post treated the report -- two years in the making -- as basically just another stone in the pool. Other newspapers focused narrowly on Annan’s ideas for structural (as distinct from programmatic) reform, and television commentators with slick smiles suggested the report was intended to divert attention from the oil-for-food scandal.

In Pieter Bruegel’s great painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Icarus -- a young boy who’d dared to fly close to the sun, using wax-fastened wings -- plummets into the sea. And nobody notices.

I can’t think of that painting without thinking of Annan’s report. It deserved extensive and enthusiastic coverage. It represents the first great coherent attempt to move the U..N. close to the sun -- to turn it into a body finally capable of exhibiting the democratic and compassionate ideals of its founders.

Annan said as much -- “a fresh start,” he called it in a column in the Financial Times of March 21.

He might also have called it the first great radical middle document ever released by a head of state or head of a major international body. Just consider:

-- It says “YES!” to many good ideas that others find contradictory -- democracy and development, human rights and security.

-- It doesn’t try to rebut left-wing or right-wing perspectives. Instead, it incorporates the best ideas from both in a new synthesis.

-- It seeks to overcome dicey situations via creativity and smarts (rather than guilt-inducing rhetoric or threats of force). For example, it would have developing countries forego development of uranium enrichment capacity -- gateway to nuclear weapons -- by offering them access to fissile material for civilian uses at below-market rates.

-- It is explicitly holistic. “Not only are development, security and human rights all imperative,” it declares, “they also reinforce each other.” Later on it declares, “Whatever threatens one, threatens all.” In his General Assembly speech Annan went so far as to plead with delegates to treat the report as a comprehensive package not open to ad hoc implementation.

Making of a radical middle thinker

To understand how Annan could create such a path-breaking document, it’s important to know some things about him and the pressures he’s under.

From the beginning of his tenure as Secretary-General in 1997, he’s been pulled -- hard -- by three competing political forces.

On the right, the John Boltons of the world won’t be happy until the U.N. acts with the coherence and efficiency of General Electric. (To their right, the Jed Babbins of the world -- Babbin being a prolific writer for National Review Online and author of Inside the Asylum: Why the United Nations and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (2004) -- won’t be satisfied until the U.S. has actually left the U.N.)

From the left, the pressures are equally one-eyed. The American and European left has produced a steady stream of collective manifestos calling on the West to relate to the U.N. as if it could easily be -- if not for our own pusillanimity -- the all-knowing, all-just, heart-warmingly idealistic body we all dreamed it could be when we were in high school (the Millennium Forum’s Strengthening the U.N. for the 21st Century (hereafter “M.F. Document”), created by over 1,300 NGO representatives in the year 2000, may be the most fundamentalist document of the lot; the Earth Charter, created by hundreds of self-selected groups and individuals from 1997-2000, is surely the sweetest).

Finally, the developing countries bring a steady rat-tat-tat of It Ain’t Us, Babe pressures to bear. Philip Gourevitch, author of the definitive popular book on the Rwanda killings, reports that when Annan spoke in Rwanda in 1998 and tried to suggest the country bore some responsibility for its plight, a presidential spokesperson denounced him as “arrogant,” and top members of the government boycotted a state dinner in his honor (see Philip Gourevitch, “The Optimist,” in the New Yorker, 27 March 2003).

It is extraordinary how Annan has reacted to these three very different sources of pressure, aka factions.  On the one hand, he’s turned the other cheek to each of them. That’s easier said than done! On the other hand -- and you can see this in his report (which I’ll describe in a moment) -- he’s taken the best ideas and deepest hopes from each of them.

How can he react so calmly and constructively?, you might ask. The answer is simple. He’s almost choicelessly a radical middle person; he’s a member in good standing of each of the three “worlds” the factions represent:

1.) It is well known that he was born in Ghana, in 1938, to a hereditary chief of the Fante people. You can’t be more native-African than that.

2.) It is also well known that Annan’s basic political sympathies are telegraphed by his Patrice Lumumba beard. You can’t be more constructively leftist than Lumumba, a radical who almost took the Congo away from its corrupt foreign and domestic rulers in the 1960s. The whole late-20th-century history of Africa might have been different if Lumumba or some other just, incorruptible, and economically savvy leader had succeeded in taking power somewhere, and Annan, for one, has never gotten over that lost opportunity. (“When you take [Ghana] at the time of independence, we had in economic terms about the same situation as Malaysia,” he lamented to Gourevitch. “We could have given our people a much better life and we failed them.”)

3.) It is less well known that Annan is equally at home with the third faction, the center-right.

His dad was not only tribal chief, he was executive of a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch multinational corporation Unilever. Young Kofi was sent off to study at a small Methodist college in Minnesota, Macalester. He spent some time traveling across the U.S. with his American friends, then worked at the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, then returned to the U.S. to earn an M.B.A. from the prestigious Sloan School of Management at M.I.T.

He climbed the U.N. bureaucracy as a diplomatic and economic sophisticate, eventually rising to be chief financial officer of the U.N. system and head of peacekeeping operations. His second wife, a Swedish lawyer and artist, is the niece of Raoul Wallenberg, who helped save hundreds of Jews during World War Two. (His son Kojo, around whom the oil-for-food scandal swirls, was a product of his first marriage, to a fellow African. No desire to speculate here about Kojo’s deepest feelings about his father’s very public personal-romantic journey.)

What is truly exceptional about Annan, though, is not his at-homeness in all three “worlds.” It’s his ability to function in all of them at once.

It is a skill like any other -- partly natural, partly learned. Some friends from Macalester could see it blooming in him even then, c. 1960. One of them told Gourevitch that Annan was equally adept in mind and body, a serious student but also a champion runner (setting a school record in the 60-yard dash), “the ultimate smooth dancer,” and above all “a facilitator,” someone who sought common ground among people and tried to bring them together.

Annan himself traces it back even further, to his school days in Africa, where teachers urged him to “remember that there is more than one side to a story, and more than one answer to a question."

It's not easy being Green. But it’s an extraordinary balancing act being a Radical Middle politician-statesman.

And the Annan Report takes that balancing act to a whole new level. In it, the right’s U.N. structural reform and security priorities, the left’s human rights priorities, and the developing world’s development priorities not only find common ground. They become mutually dependent on one another.

It is a remarkable tour-de-force, full of positive implications for all humanity. No wonder the scandal-obsessed media missed the story.  Like the tillers of the soil in Bruegel's Icarus painting, the media has a hard time seeing what it hasn't been been trained to focus on.

“Millennium Development Goals”

The Annan Report consists of four major sections -- “Freedom from Want” (on development), “Freedom from Fear” (on security), “Freedom to Live in Dignity” (on human rights), and “Strengthening the U.N.” (on structural reform). The “Freedom from Want” section begins with a statement of the so-called “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs).

We are no longer going to throw money at ever greater numbers of problems, the MDG sub-section announces in so many words. Instead, we've articulated eight achievable “goals” and 18 concrete “targets” by means of which we can reach them; and we should henceforth focus on those.

The eight goals include “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger,” “Achieve universal primary education,” and “Promote gender equality and empower women.”

The 18 targets include “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger,” and “Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

Note how this approach productively merges conservatives’ desire for efficiency and boundaries with liberals’ desire for compassion and equity. Less visible -- but no less central to Annan’s strategy -- is a bit of sleight of hand about the MDGs.

And behind that sleight of hand you can glimpse what I like to call Kofi Annan’s U.N. coup d’etat.

Kofi Annan’s U.N. coup d’etat

Supposedly, the Annan Report is meant to inform the General Assembly about the U.N.’s progress toward meeting the agenda set forth in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, an ambitious, vague, contradictory, and at times unbearably pompous document adopted by the General Assembly in September 2000, after having been ostensibly created by a Millennium Summit of the world’s leaders earlier that month (but actually by a melange of U.N. bureaucrats).

In plain fact, the Annan Report is to the Millennium Declaration as the U.S. Constitutional Convention was to the Articles of Confederation. The Millennium Declaration provides the necessary fig leaf behind which Annan and his brilliant advisors (principally Mark Malloch Brown, formerly head of the U.N. Development Programme and now Annan’s Chief of Staff) sought and continue to seek to turn the U.N. into an organization capable of dealing with 21st century realities.

The Millennium Declaration does not set forth a list of Millennium Development Goals. It sets forth a list of vacuous “Values and Principles” which Annan wisely ignores. It also sets forth -- in sections devoted to development, poverty eradication, and the environment -- a potpourri of aspirations, resolutions, indignations, hopes, and fears that Annan and his advisors later used to carve out the 18 “targets,” which begot the eight MDGs.

Plenty of aspirations articulated in those sections of the Millennium Declaration failed to make it into the MDGs or targets. For example, “Ensure free access to information on the human genome sequence.” But close examination of the two documents would convince you that the goals and targets Annan et al. chose to focus on were the most essential -- and, just as important, the most capable of creating empathetic connections between the developed and developing worlds.

So call the Annan Report a coup if you like. It is by no means a report on the United Nations Millennium Declaration -- in the area of development as in all other areas, it is a subtle and brilliant transformation of that document. And that may be one reason Annan appears to have fewer defenders at the U.N. than he did before.

Development in a new key

The “Freedom from Want” section of the Annan Report doesn’t just focus on the MDGs. It includes important sub-sections on aid, trade, and the environment. Put them all together and they spell development in a new key.

The obligations of the rich nations are spelled out loud and clear. Most importantly, rich nations are urged to establish a timetable to earmark 0.7% of GNP for development assistance by 2015 (most rich nations, including the U.S., contribute less than half that).

At the same time, though -- and this is unusual in U.N. documents -- obligations of the recipient nations are spelled out. For example, they’re told to establish “transparent, accountable systems of governance,” and encouraged to support “a healthy private sector capable of generating jobs, income and tax revenues.”

The Millennium Declaration was ambivalent about trade, and the international left’s M.F. Document, referenced above, was more eager to constrain corporations than welcome them. The Annan Report strives to turn business into a partner in Third World development.

Developing nations should stop bashing business and start making or encouraging “investments in agricultural productivity, trade-related infrastructure and competitive export industries.” For their part, the rich nations “should provide duty-free and quota-free market access for all exports from the least developed countries.”

The sub-section on the environment doesn’t just lament the environmental crises we all know about. It speaks highly of science and technology -- not the usual sentiment in past U.N. documents.

When it states, “Scientific advances and technological innovation have an important role to play in mitigating climate change,” it is, in effect, throwing down the gauntlet to the Bush Administration and conservatives everywhere: OK, you don’t want to abide by the Kyoto Protocol -- go out and create the technologies we need to reverse global warming.

Security in a new key

For years, useless debates raged in the U.N. about whether it was wiser to focus on nuclear threats, terrorist threats, or genocidal threats. The Annan Report’s section “Freedom from Fear” short-circuits those debates beautifully when it says, “Depending on wealth, geography, and power, we perceive different threats as the most pressing. But the truth is we cannot afford to choose. . . .  In our globalized world, the threats we face are interconnected. The rich are vulnerable to the threats that attack the poor and the strong are vulnerable to the weak, as well as vice versa.”

The practical conclusion: We need to tackle “the whole range” of threats. And that means, among other things, that the developing nations in the Middle East should stop trumpeting the right to violently resist occupation. Nobody -- nobody -- has “the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians.”

The Annan Report calls for a “comprehensive treaty on terrorism” by September of next year based on a clear and uninhibited definition of terrorism. And it urges states to supplement the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with an agreement to prevent non-state actors from gaining access to nuclear, chemical, or biological materials. (In complete contrast, the M.F. Document natters on about “global disarmament” as if we were still living in 1969.)

At the same time, though, the Annan Report focuses on the security issue of most immediate concern to the smaller nations -- reducing the risk of local wars. It urges the General Assembly to provide the Secretary-General’s office with beefed-up mediation powers and resources. It also urges stronger and more effective use of economic sanctions (in contrast to the Millennium Declaration, which is skeptical of sanctions as a tool for peace).

Above all, the Annan Report calls for creation of a realistic “peacekeeping” capacity, namely, the creation of “strategic reserves,” standby battle groups in dozens of countries and regional organizations (such as the African Union) that the U.N. could call upon on an emergency basis. The idea is that, when the next Rwanda happens -- and, of course, Rwandas are happening all the time -- the U.N. could smoothly intervene with these troops to restore the peace.

And after the so-called humanitarian military intervention? Admirably, the Annan Report addresses the aftermath too. It proposes a “Peacebuilding Commission” that, in the aftermath, could engage in “early efforts to establish the necessary institutions; help to ensure predictable financing for early recovery activities . . . ; [and] provide a forum in which the U.N., major bilateral donors, troop contributors, [etc.] can share information about their respective post-conflict strategies.”

There probably isn’t one party to the war in Iraq that doesn’t wish that something like Annan’s Peacebuilding Commission had been in place in April of 2003.

Human rights in a new key

Just as the section “Freedom from Want” in the Annan Report is not just a sop to the developing world, so the section “Freedom to Live in Dignity” is not just a sop to Westerners concerned about human rights.

Human rights are, the Report contends, “as fundamental to the poor as to the rich.” And the Report means that in a special way.

Most U.N. documents imply that human rights somehow emerge inexorably out of economic development, or education, or a sense of personal security. The Millennium Declaration is less than convincing on the subject of human rights -- “We will spare no effort to promote democracy,” it declares, much too grandly to convince a discerning reader -- then goes on to suggest that by human rights it means to include “the right to development.” Gotta get Sudan and Cuba on board. The M.F. Document is even more dismal, stating at one point that “civil and political rights [should not be] given a higher priority than economic, social and cultural rights.”

If you read the Annan Report carefully, you’ll discern a sea-change in thinking on this subject. For Annan and his reformist aides, human rights is not just one of a long laundry list of goodies that people might want. It is the wellspring out of which political democracy, economic development, and physical security all come

“No security agenda and no drive for development will be successful unless they are based on the sure foundation of respect for human dignity,” the Annan Report boldly declares. Some U.N. observers have coined a pithy term for this: “rights-based development.”

As you might expect, then, the Annan Report wants the U.N. to work overtime for human rights. It declares that there is a “collective responsibility to protect,” which it explains as follows: “[I]f national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, then the responsibility shifts to the international community.” (You won’t find anything like that sentiment in the Millennium Declaration.) The Report goes on to suggest numerous ways the U.N. could and should ensure human rights in its member-states.

For example, it proposes creating a “Rule of Law Assistance Unit” in the Secretary-General’s office to -- as Annan delicately puts it -- “assist national efforts to re-establish the rule of law in conflict and post-conflict societies.”

It proposes that nations “cooperate fully with” the International Criminal Court (thereby chastising but not condemning the U.S. for failing to join the ICC, and so not alienating President Bush’s next ambassador to the U.N.).

Most importantly of all, perhaps, it proposes creating a “Democracy Fund” at the U.N. for countries “seeking to establish or strengthen their democracy.” Legal, technical, and financial assistance would all be provided, as would concrete support for elections. (Outside the Report one learns that the Fund might include private money that could top out at $1 billion or more.)

For anyone who remembers the U.N. trying to act as a so-called honest broker between democracy and communism, or who still sees it as trying to steer some middle course between democracy and Third World kleptocracy, this may be the most extraordinary part of the Annan Report, and the one that truly marks it as a reformist document in the radical middle tradition. Radical middle means approaching problems holistically; it does not not mean compromising democratic principles.

Structural reform in a new key

For 30 years, “structural reform” at the U.N. has meant twiddling the dials. So it’s no surprise that the “Strengthening the U.N.” section of the Annan Report has generated whatever headlines there have been.

You can’t page through it without realizing that this time they are serious. “Clearly, our Organization . . . was built for a different era,” the Report declares.

The Millennium Declaration set itself up as the General Assembly’s defender. Not the Annan Report. It not only spotlights the Assembly’s “declining prestige,” it says the decline can’t be reversed until the Assembly reforms itself. It needs to stop “retreat[ing] into generalities,” engaging in feel-good debates about every symbolic issue under the sun, passing empty resolutions. It needs to speed up its processes, concentrate on addressing the major substantive issues of the day, and engage much more fully with civil society.

The Security Council -- where all the key decisions about war and peace get made -- is no longer credible because it no longer represents “the international community as a whole [or] the geopolitical realities of today.” That’s a fancy way of saying that it doesn’t offer permanent or “renewable” representation to Germany, Brazil, China, Japan, or any Middle Eastern or African countries.

Like any good radical middle document, the Annan Report suggests alternate ways this could be done. Both would expand the Security Council from the present 15 members to a total of 24, and both would ensure that six seats were held by each of the world’s four “regional areas”: Africa, Asia / Pacific, Europe, and the Americas. None of the new members would get veto power over Security Council decisions (that would continue to be held by the U.S., England, France, Russia, and China); on the other hand, no nation could serve on the reconstituted Security Council unless it agreed to devote 0.7% of its GNP to the Millennium Development Goals.

The current Commission on Human Rights is a joke -- some of the worst violators of human rights are some of its most outspoken members. The Annan Report does not mince words about this: “States have sought membership on the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.” It would abolish the Commission and replace it with a smaller Human Rights Council elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. (The Millennium Declaration, by contrast -- exemplifying the courage of most other U.N. documents -- failed to even mention the Commission on Human Rights or its absurdities.)

The Annan Report doesn’t leave Annan’s own bailiwick, the Secretariat, out of the equation. “If the U.N. is to be truly effective,” the Report declares, “the Secretariat will have to be completely transformed.”

A simpler system of planning and budgeting is called for ASAP. Outmoded Secretariat bureaus and tasks should be abolished forthwith. Most remarkably, Annan requests that the General Assembly provide him with the “authority and resources to pursue a one-time staff buyout so as to refresh and realign the staff to meet current needs.” The Secretariat's notorious accumulation of human deadwood (butt of wry and cynical jokes the world over) could finally be cut down and allowed to float off into the sunset, and many bright New Turks could be brought in.

One of Annan’s final suggestions harks back to a idea once promoted by Donald Keys, head of the idealistic Planetary Citizens group from the 1970s. Let’s create a “Council of Development Advisers” -- in effect, a council of wise men and women from all over the world. Let’s turn the U.N. into the council house of the emerging global village.

That is more than a nod to the political left. It’s a nod to all those idealists whose energies have maintained the U.N. in the popular imagination through thick and thin. And it’s a wonderful idea, too: the Council could speak to the world’s peoples on a level deeper than that of mere politics.

First great radical middle political document?

As you can tell from the above, the Annan Report is an almost unparalleled combination of the pragmatic and the visionary. That is no accident. “[W]ithout implementation, our declarations ring hollow,” Annan cries in the middle of the Report. “Without action, our promises are meaningless. Villagers huddling in fear at the sound of bombing raids or the appearance of murderous militias on the horizon find no solace in . . . unimplemented words.”

When I was in international law class in law school (essentially, Int. Law 101), I had that same terrible insight. I was repelled by the stories my professor always told of being flown into this war-torn area or that. I imagined him with his fine moustache and tailored suit staying in fancy hotels and dispensing learned, unimplementable words to people who might very well be killed the next day. The vision paralyzed me. I wasn’t going to be a bringer of meaningless promises, I wasn’t going to turn myself into a hard-boiled world-traveling pragmatist. I never took another international law course.

Kofi Annan persisted. Like a stubborn Icarus, he kept putting his wax-fastened wings back on again. And he eventually discovered the right relationship of pragmatism to vision. He demonstrates that relationship throughout the Report, and makes it explicit at the very end. “What I have called for here is possible,” he says. “[All my proposals] are within reach. From pragmatic beginnings could emerge a visionary change of direction in our world.”

Romantic visions -- abstract theories -- political “ism’s” -- do not generate positive change. But real, practical, helpful first steps can generate grounded, life-giving vision. That is the central lesson the Annan Report has to teach us, and that is why it is the first great radical middle political document.


For the United Nations as an institution: Linda Fasulo, An Insider's Guide to the U.N. (Yale Univ. Press, 2004).  For a history of the U.N. up to Kofi Annan's tenure: Stanley Meisler, United Nations: The First Fifty Years (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997).  For the larger global context seen through radical middle eyes: Walter Truett Anderson, All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization (Westview / Perseus, 2001).

The Annan Report is in part a synthesis of several path-breaking reports Annan commissioned after the Millennium Declaration revealed what he was up against.  The best of them -- all available online -- are Commission on the Private Sector & Development, Unleashing Development: Making Business Work for the Poor (2004);  High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (2004); and U.N. Millennium Project (Jeffrey Sachs et al.), Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals (2005).


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