August 1992. A group of private citizens concerned with ethnic cleansing and refugees are sitting in a rooftop restaurant in Banja Luka, in war-torn northwestern Bosnia, after a difficult day. With almost no running water in the hotel, we look, and feel, like hell. Suddenly a circle of light appears cameras surrounding a dazzling, impeccably dressed man who goes from table to table, dispensing energy, concern and Gallic charm.
This was my first sighting of mon cher ami, Bernard Kouchner, Europe's most important humanitarian-activist politician. Since then we have become collaborators on issues from Kosovo to AIDS, and I have seen firsthand how Bernard consistently challenges the international system to do better.
Because Bernard has always questioned existing systems and programs, he is also always controversial. But unlike most of those who criticize and, of course, fear him, Bernard makes a difference. In the early 1970s, working for the Red Cross in Biafra, he realized that humanitarian relief could not always be "neutral" if it was to be effective, and co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which would later win the Nobel Peace Prize.
As France's top health official through much of the 1990s, he brought his country into a far more engaged role in the world as the AIDS epidemic spread across Africa. As the senior international official on the ground in Kosovo after the 1999 war, Kouchner was effectively the sovereign authority after the Serbs had been forced out by NATO bombing; "Le Roi Bernard," as I called him, often fought with U.N. headquarters in New York City, but he was the best senior representative the international community had in the Balkans in the last decade. Having begun as a left-wing '68er, he had learned that to be consistent, antitotalitarianism must confront the left as well as the right, and that it cannot be intellectually honest if it is viscerally anti-American.
Sometimes I worry that his restlessness will dilute his energy. But Bernard always finds a new crisis or tragedy where he can make a difference. In his latest project, called ESTHER, European hospitals "adopt" hospitals in Africa, sharing doctors, expertise and equipment.
Although Kouchner remains one of the two or three most popular political figures in France, he hasn't always been appreciated by his own party, the Socialists. This is surely because Bernard is so independent. It would be a great loss if he is not asked to serve again in some major international or French official position. There are millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America who have never heard his name, but who need him desperately. He can make a difference. He has done so already.