I MET STANLEY MEISLER, an early Peace Corps evaluator in Addis Ababa in the fall of 1968; he was reporting for the Los Angeles Times. I never thought, of course, that I would be reading about another person working in Ethiopia during that period in the African Economic Commission, Kofi Annan. The conjunction of persons and time is interesting and so is this biography by Meisler. I wish I’d met Annan. He is a unique person as shown by Meisler. It is unfortunate there aren’t more in the world like him. He is described as a person with less intellectual power than his predecessor Boutrous-Ghali, “But he was much more polite, much kinder.” (p.148) Meisler comments “He believed that the U.N. worked best when its activities were transparent and the rationale for its actions communicated clearly.” (p. 148). It seems that these personal characteristics were often in conflict with two U.S. presidencies over how to run the U.N. Madeline Albright, who pushed for his ascension to the job of Secretary General, later became upset that his views on world issues were in conflict with her views.
This is a biography of a man who believes in using proper diplomacy in dealing with those who seek to obtain national self interests through the manipulation of the U.N. or through outright armed aggression. The main problem for Annan at the U.N. was the war brought on by the U.S. in Iraq. Meisler writes, “The war in Iraq would define his ten years as Secretary General,” and it pushed him out of office. Annan went up against the Vulcans surrounding Bush using his “. . . understated mannerisms, to stop the American Juggernaut.” (p. 235). During a press interview following after a string of disappointing events in regard to the U.S. and Iraq, he concluded “[the war in Iraq] . . . was not in conformity with the Security Council with the U.N. Charter.” A reporter asked “It was illegal?” and Annan’s response “yes, if you like.” (pp. 274-275). This is a good illustration of the conflicts and transparency of his thinking on international problems. Meisler brings this forward very well.
With Kofi Annan Meisler has written an excellent, informative book serving not only as a biography, but also as a well written review of contemporary international relations surrounding the U.N. He is also the author of the United Nations: The First Fifty Years. Being a readable journalist with significant background information, Meisler has made reading these books a treat for those who study international relations. In that regard it is superior to the academic treatment of international relations.
The book is made up of sixteen chapters with an emphasis on Annan’s work in various bureaucratic roles, such as Under Secretary for Peace Keeping and especially his role as Secretary General of the U.N. What the reader will find is a clear understanding and clarification of the role of head of that organization in a period of violent conflict. Some of the chapter titles include “The Stain of Rwanda,” “Intervention: Kosovo and East Timor” and of course there is a detailed chapter on the problems created by the Bushies in regard to the U.N.’s role for supporting the intervention in Iraq. Annan’s peace keeping role began with the Somali conflict in the early 1990s and it continued from that time to his decision to leave the U.N. after two terms in 2007.
Meisler presents a complete listing of his sources for each chapter and a chronology of Annan’s life, along with his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. From that speech we find a cogent statement for today “Today’s real borders are not between nations, but between powerful and powerless, free and fettered, privileged and humiliated. Today no walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in another.” (p.322)
Jon Ebeling served with the first PCVs to Ethiopia and returned to Ethiopia as APCD in 1967. He earned his Ph.D. in Economic and Social Development from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974. He began teaching at California State University, Chico in 1971. He taught statistics and public finance there until his retirement three years ago. Today, Jon and his wife, Frederica Shockley, a professor of Economics at Chico State, run a small consulting business focusing on survey research and economic analysis for local governments.