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Annan's predecessors as U.N. Secretary-General--Kurt Waldheim, Javier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali--were a gray parade of deliberately inoffensive floats. But Annan, in his three years on the job, has shown himself to be a brass band of hope, ideas and energy. His critics fault the slow pace of reform he has brought to the U.N. They argue that even armed with a management degree from M.I.T., he is badly overmatched by the U.N.'s thick bureaucracy. But mostly they chew away at his idealistic, moral world view. The U.N. continues to have its problems--the embarrassment of having peacekeepers taken hostage in Sierra Leone, the contempt of the U.S. Congress. But these haven't diminished the high polish he has brought to the job. Annan, 62, is a miracle of our internationalized world: born in Ghana, educated in the U.S. and Europe, a career U.N. diplomat who became Secretary-General in 1997. As Secretary-General he has begun to thrust the U.N. into new realms of global life. In internationalist circles, his vision of a moral world order is debated with ferocity.
What Annan proposes is nothing less than a world filled with dignified people. A world where Sierra Leonean rebels would have enough innate dignity to not chop off the arms of infant girls. A planet where India and Pakistan would be dignified enough not to blow up each other, where the indignities of chemical weapons would be a thing of the past, where the world's rich would be, yes, dignified enough to worry about the millions of Africans who will die of AIDS in the next two decades. This is the kind of world Annan imagines. It is the sort of world his very presence--serene, quiet, intent--suggests.
Next week, when 159 heads of state convene in New York City for the U.N. Millennium Summit--the largest such gathering ever (and doubtless a traffic nightmare that the city will not forget soon)--Annan will press this idea further. In the past few years, he has been refining a policy that calls on the states of the world to step in wherever and whenever human lives are being consumed in conflagrations of hate, disease or poverty. He has not always succeeded. On his watch, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, he has seen thousands die as they awaited help. He is haunted by their faces--and determined to perfect his organization so those mistakes never occur again.
He is also determined to plug the rest of the world into these horrors, to make leaders aware of their responsibility not just for their own citizens but also for the health of the global soul. Annan believes that nothing--particularly not state borders--should stand in the way of intervention. He believes that the old orthodoxy that states can do as they please behind their borders is nonsense in a world of borderless information and travel and communication. He has boiled down his thinking to a simple idea--call it the Kofi Doctrine--which has a chance of becoming as elemental to this century as the Truman Doctrine was to the last: Sovereignty is not a shield.