On Top of the World

“Oh, damn,” groans Shashi Tharoor, the U.N.’s information chief, into his mobile phone. “That’s very grim stuff.” The sun had just broken through on a dreary Saturday morning when Tharoor, one of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s closest confidants, received news that Osama bin Laden had accused the U.N. of “crimes against Muslims” on an Al Jazeera broadcast. Tharoor, who is also an acclaimed novelist, was walking down 42nd Street toward the East River, past the orange-and-black city trucks filled with sand that protect the U.N.’s modernist headquarters. “I’ll call the S.G.”

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at that moment, was on a Swissair flight from Geneva to New York. In just a few days, over 40 heads of state and twice as many foreign ministers would be arriving for the annual debate of the U.N.’s General Assembly – originally scheduled to begin the week after September 11.

As Tharoor pauses at a checkpoint to show his I.D., he tells the guard of bin Laden’s threat. “Security’s already as high as it can get,” he says, shrugging.

Bin Laden’s jeremiad underscored a new reality: Kofi Annan is at the diplomatic ground zero of the current conflict. On any given day, Annan, born in Ghana and educated at Macalester College and MIT, will log over a dozen calls to a pantheon of world leaders – Pakistan’s Musharraf, Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah, Iran’s Khatami, Sharon, Bush, Arafat.

For a U.N. secretary-general, of course, the most difficult relationship is with the U.S. “Inside this building,” says Fred Eckhard, Annan’s spokesman, “nothing really happens without U.S. support.” The conflict with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban has further complicated the relationship – but it’s also brought unprecedented opportunity. And Annan’s challenge now is to foster the nascent internationalism of the U.S. while keeping the conflict in Afghanistan from becoming an even worse tragedy.

“The U.S. is the only superpower in the world,” says Annan, in his liltingly accented English (it sounds more Caribbean than African). “It has been very successful, and sometimes success has its own hubris. The temptation to do it alone is a very strong one. But as the world becomes more interdependent, there are quite a lot of issues no one country can handle. We need to accept that in certain situations the collective interest is the national interest.”

Even to his peers, Annan is a glamorous figure. “Kofi is the international rock star of diplomacy,” says Richard Holbrooke, who was President Clinton’s table-thumping ambassador to the U.N. “He has a nearly magical ability to move people through his personal charm and gentle strength.”

“Kofi is the international rock star of diplomacy,” says Richard Holbrooke. “He has a nearly magical ability to move people through his personal charm and gentle strength.”

Rock star isn’t an exaggeration. Traveling abroad, especially in Africa, he draws rapt crowds in the thousands. Even on a normal morning, as he walks by visitors waiting to tour the U.N., it is not unusual for them to break into applause.

Whereas previous secretary-generals have become identified with the U.N. bureaucracy, Annan has made his reputation as an honest broker among world leaders. “His role is like that of a constitutional monarch – he has no real power but he encourages, advises, and warns,” says Sir Kieran Prendergast, an avuncular British ambassador who is now Annan’s top political adviser. “He nudges them along. And he gets on remarkably well with some very difficult people.”

Within days of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress released $582 million in U.N. arrears, ending a long policy of neglect (and, at least on one side of the congressional aisle, outright hostility) that came close to losing the U.S. its vote in the General Assembly. “The superpower realized it can’t order governments to do things on their own territory,” says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s U.N. ambassador. Within 24 hours, both the General Assembly, which represents all 189 member states, and the Security Council, the more rarefied executive body, unanimously passed resolutions condemning the attacks. “I’m happy to say,” says Annan, “that this house reacted very effectively and very quickly.”

Then, on September 28, the Security Council passed a resolution that binds member states to adapt their anti-terror laws and pursue terrorists. “That was historic,” Annan says. “Normally the Security Council passes resolutions dealing with individual crisis spots. But this is something that applies to all member states around the world.”

The dramatic gesture was backed by real teeth, which the U.N. rarely shows: Economic or even military sanctions will be imposed on states that provide financing, support, or safe harbor for terrorists. Rather than simply raise their hands to vote on the resolution, all fifteen council members stood in unison.

Washington, which prefers unilateral action to the U.N.’s often-tortuous multilateralism, knew it had no choice this time but to collaborate. “A lot of countries don’t want to be directly in coalition with the U.S. or to be dictated to by the U.S.,” says former senator Timothy E. Wirth, who is president of Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation. “But they will go along with a U.N.-coordinated coalition.”

“There’s a new spirit of cooperation,” Annan says, building steeples with his fingers. “I’m in touch very often with Secretary of State Powell and the president himself.” Powell and Annan speak several times a week.

“Powell’s willingness to consult and listen is vital – Kofi helps him understand what the world is thinking,” says one diplomat close to both men. “He’s candid but subtle: He can say, ‘You guys are screwing up by bombing so much that you’ll lose the entire Islamic world,’ without actually saying it directly.”

The courtship between Washington and the U.N. is still in a fragile place. “Kofi has a very close relationship with Powell, but he doesn’t feel very close to other members of the administration, particularly Rice,” says an eminent figure in the foreign-policy establishment. “She seems to want to keep her distance from the U.N. – it’s almost as if she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s soft-minded.”

At 5 A.M., Kofi Annan was asleep in his townhouse at 3 Sutton Place, which he shares with his wife, Nane, a Swedish lawyer turned painter, when the phone woke him. “In the sort of business we are in,” Annan said with a smile, “usually when you get a call that early in the morning, it is something disastrous.”

In fact, the call was to tell him that he and the U.N. had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the news is good or bad, though, Annan’s reaction is marked by an uncanny equanimity. Tharoor dubs him a yogi. “He has a tremendous inner strength,” says Nane, a niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who died rescuing thousands of Jews in World War II.

Annan is a small man, hardly five foot seven, but a room’s center of gravity moves with him. His style of conveying reactions with the utmost subtlety hushes colleagues, who fear they might miss a signal. “When he’s displeased or angry, there’s just the flicker of the eyes, or he just looks down briefly,” says Sir Jeremy.

Although he is not considered an intellectual heavyweight, his admirers refer to Annan’s preternatural instinct for saying and doing precisely the right thing. This, along with the moral authority he draws from not having any national interest or personal agenda – he’s spent his entire professional life at the U.N. – explains much of his success. “He’s the least ego-driven person I’ve met,” says John Ruggie, who was Annan’s chief strategist until April and is now at Harvard. “It’s almost as if he removes himself from the mess and says, ‘This is not about me.’ It comes from a deep sense of personal security from knowing who he is.”

In large part, Nane says, Annan learned who he was from his father, a hereditary Ghanain noble and elected governor whom his son has described as reserved but forceful. But Annan also benefited from an intense curiosity about the world that first took him to Macalester in Minnesota to study economics at 20, and then to postings in Geneva, Addis Ababa, and Cairo. His only time away from the U.N. was in the early seventies, when he earned a management degree from MIT. And since 1983, he and Nane, who have three children from their first marriages, have lived in Manhattan.

The Nobel committee cited Annan for promoting human rights, combating aids, and reviving an organization long paralyzed by power disagreements and meager resources. “Kofi restored the U.N.,” Holbrooke says unequivocally. In awarding him a second five-year term in June, the General Assembly broke protocol for the first time in its history; the post should have gone to an Asian.

Since September 11, Annan has kicked the U.N. into higher gear, bringing a CEO’s sensibility to managing the crisis. “There are times when I have to be a secretary,” says Annan. “And there are times when I have to be a general and show leadership.” These are such times.

At ten every morning, Annan’s “Afghanistan team” gathers in the drab thirty-eighth-floor conference room beside his office. “Kofi always begins by asking about the humanitarian issues – how much food is getting in, how many refugees are moving across the border,” says John Renninger, who heads the newly created crisis group. “Then we get an update from Brahimi about his negotiations.”

Since October 15, Lakhdar Brahimi has been responsible for forging an agreement among the factional leaders in Afghanistan, as well with its neighbors, for a post-Taliban government. A former Algerian foreign minister, Brahimi is universally respected in the Muslim world and has Annan’s complete trust. But he took on the job with reluctance. He had spent spent two years in the late nineties on the same mission before quitting in frustration. “No one in Washington and London cared about what was going on in Afghanistan,” says Prendergast. Adds Gillian Martin Sorensen, another top Annan aide: “There were a lot of people here who knew trouble was coming.” Concurs Ruggie: “All the debates about why they hate us, about Al Qaeda, are not new to anyone who’s worked at the U.N.”

Last week, the morning meetings were consumed by what Brahimi would propose on November 12, when Powell meets at the U.N. with his counterparts. Should the former king be restored, a tribal assembly convened, the Taliban consulted? Brahimi insists that only a broad-based coalition can govern Afghanistan – he has even posited rotating the country’s leadership among twelve tribal leaders.

Brahimi has made rapid progress, but the feeling at the meetings is that it might be jeopardized. “Suddenly, the political progress is outpacing the military campaign,” says Edward Mortimer, Annan’s influential chief speechwriter. “I don’t know if Brahimi’s proposals can sustain the uncertainty of when the military campaign will end.”

When Bush declared in early October that the U.N. would be crucial to nation-building in Afghanistan, it might have seemed like a compliment. But at the U.N., it sounded more like a buck being passed. “The U.N. does not want to get thrown this dog,” one diplomat close to Annan says. “They do not want to be left with this monster without the resources they need.”

This question has become a source of great tension since September 11. As Prendergast colorfully puts it, “We’re obviously concerned that they’ll pile up tasks on the U.N. like an overpacked donkey in the bazaar – and then walk away.”

The Rwanda genocide in 1994 nearly ruined the U.N.’s reputation, and that of Annan too – he was chief of the U.N. peacekeeping division when its forces failed to stop the massacres. Although Annan resurrected his career by commissioning an unsparing report and issuing an apology, there is still palpable bitterness that member states failed to support the U.N. “For two years, Madeleine Albright’s sole job here was to make sure the Security Council didn’t do anything,” says Harvard’s John Ruggie. “The Clinton administration was absolutely brutal, shifting blame wherever they could – but Annan never lost his cool.”

“All the debates about why they hate us, about Al Qaeda, are not new to anyone who’s worked at the U.N.,” says a former aide.

While the U.N. has rehabilitated its reputation with highly praised missions in East Timor and Kosovo, Afghanistan is of a different magnitude. “Kosovo and Timor each represent about one-twentieth of the scope of the challenge in Afghanistan,” says David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador who heads the International Peace Academy.

The U.N. does not want to send a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan. “If the Taliban falls,” says Eckhard, “30 percent of them will go underground and become guerrillas – and we’ll be the enemy.” The U.N. is already the biggest private employer in Afghanistan, with 5,800 people working in all the major cities.

A multinational force – led, perhaps, by Turkey – is Washington’s latest preference, but it has not found favor at the U.N. “We tend to promote a third option,” Prendergast says, “that of a homegrown Afghan force.”

The crisis, meanwhile, has mobilized nearly all of the U.N.’s hundred or so agencies, from the World Health Organization to unicef to the U.N. Development Programme and the World Bank. All told, the U.N. employs over 64,000 people worldwide – not including 47,000 peacekeepers in fifteen countries.

“Hey, Ted – it’s great seeing you! Every time we meet, I pick up another $31 million check!” John Negroponte, America’s polished and formidable U.N. ambassador, has just spotted Ted Turner at a reception last Monday night.

A career foreign-service officer, Negroponte has kept a low profile since the Senate rushed through his controversial nomination in September, and the reception is his first as ambassador. Turner is the U.N.’s guardian angel, the man who stepped in to pay Washington’s dues to the U.N. when Congress refused. The latest handout came in September – the $31 million went to bridging the gap between what the U.N. says Washington owes and what Congress thinks it should pay. With his girlfriend, Frederique D’Arragon, in a red twill suit by his side, Turner is nonetheless regaling guests with stories about Jane Fonda. “I know, I was married to her! That thing about Vietnam was all a mistake!” Negroponte, who as a political officer in Vietnam during the war staked out a position more hard-line than Henry Kissinger’s, didn’t blink.

Later in the evening, Turner corners Negroponte and exclaims: “You know, we’re fortunate that all these attacks happened, because you never could have done your job without this!” He goes on. “In fact, I didn’t know how we were going to get the U.S. to become more internationally minded. It seemed impossible. But now, I think, we’ve got a chance!”

“Yes,” the ever-discreet Negroponte replies quietly, hoping to turn the conversation, “but there’s the real question of how we can contain fundamentalist Islam.”

Turner booms back: “Well, we’re glad you’re onboard!”

Negroponte, whose brother Nicholas is the founder of the MIT Media Lab, is a Colin Powell confidant. He started his job on a Monday, and by Friday, Negroponte says with palpable pleasure, “I got the anti-terrorism legislation passed unanimously – to my surprise!”

The London-born son of a Greek shipowner, Negroponte has led a luminous foreign-service career, though it was marred by controversy over his stint as ambassador in Honduras in the early eighties; Negroponte’s accusers say he turned a blind eye to rampant human-rights abuses. But September 11 quelled congressional critics, who did not want the U.S. to be left voiceless at the U.N.

Images of a vast and bumbling bureaucracy, with its associations of world government and black helicopters (a U.N. brochure states explicitly that no such helicopters exist), did much to ignite anti-U.N. sentiment, fueled persistently by Senator Jesse Helms. As a result, shrugs an adviser, “no ambitious politician in the U.S. can say anything good about the U.N.”

Shortly after 9 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, October 30, Annan makes his way past the Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the U.N. plaza. There he is met by Richard Roth of CNN, who’d been alerted by Annan’s aides that he would make some “off the cuff” comments. The statement he delivers, however, has been labored over for days by his staff. He essentially calls for an end to the bombing campaign. “What I am saying is that we would want to see this whole military operation ended as soon as possible, particularly the air action, so that we can begin to move in our supplies.”

Annan’s staff did not want it to play heavily in the U.S. for fear of embarrassing Washington – so there was no press conference or even an announcement to the correspondents on the third floor. But the pressure had increased from Europe and elsewhere for Annan to take a stronger stand. “He needed to reassert that he was the secretary-general of the United Nations, not of the United States,” confides one aide. “We knew that while this country doesn’t take him that seriously, Europe and the developing countries look at every word he says. They need him to legitimize their own actions to their people.”

The statement found its target while producing minimal collateral damage in America (none of the first-tier American dailies reported it), even as it reverberated abroad. “I was in Japan when he made that statement,” says Annan deputy Mark Malloch Brown, “and journalists buttonholed me for an elaboration. Around the rest of the world, it echoes.” Annan can say one thing to Charlie Rose – how, for instance, “the poor are poor not because of globalization, but because they’re not getting enough of it,” a message crafted for an American audience – and send quite a different message to Le Monde or Al Hayat. Earlier this month, his aides say Annan was livid after Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called in mid-October to suspend the bombing. Annan has been focusing increasingly on making the U.N. speak with one voice, and Robinson broke rank with her remarks. “There’s a huge attention paid to words,” say Malloch Brown, himself a former writer for The Economist.

This precision stands in stark contrast to Bush’s use of language – his invocation of a “crusade,” for instance, sent the world reeling. “It’s surprising Washington doesn’t know the effect of such statements,” says Prendergast. “Ever since Rumsfeld said he didn’t know if the U.S. could capture bin Laden, my impression is that the Taliban’s morale has risen! They lap up these unsolicited comments.”

There are moments that echo in the corridors of the U.N. and deeply shape perceptions there that most Americans have never heard of. One example: On May 12, 1996, 60 Minutes aired a Lesley Stahl segment filmed in Iraq in which she was surrounded by dying, fly-ridden children. Back in the studio, Stahl said to Madeleine Albright, then the ambassador to the U.N., “We’ve heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?” Albright looks her in the eye and says, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” That clip is still shown frequently around the world.

The lack of coverage in the U.S. is also a sore point. “It seemed in all those pages after the attacks, maybe a column could have been found to say what we were up to,” says Mortimer, a former foreign-affairs editor of the Financial Times. “We have a branding problem,” says an aide.

Sitting at his desk, with its view out over the East River toward Queens, Annan is talking about the new world. “I would hope we’ve all learned something since the 11th of September,” he says. “There are issues in this world today that no one country, however powerful, can solve alone.”

Annan’s term is up in 2006. Nane says they have discussed settling in Ghana when he retires to open a tomato-processing plant. Tribal leaders asked him a few years ago if he would consider becoming Paramount Chief of Akwamu; he declined. For now his work is here, in what he likes to call the house – his house. “It’s a long-term proposition,” he says, his hand pulling at his graying goatee. “And some of the traditional problems are still with us – poverty, ignorance, education. These are issues we should focus on much more aggressively than we’ve done so far.”

On Top of the World