November 13 - The Baddest Ass, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General

When everything is (literally) on fire, riots are spiraling into civil war, and “world leaders” are (literally) rearranging the chairs, who do you call? Kofi Annan.

This week we’ll talk about the man, the myth, the legend that was running the UN when Somalia broke, Rwanda genocided (under his watch, big oops), East Timor independenced (no thanks to Portugal), Bosnia genocided (yeah, we all thought Europe was over that phase), Kosovo, Darfur et al warred, Israel Palestined, Iraq (was) bombed, and a bunch of other bad things happened.

But! It could have been worse! There could have been more instability, deaths, undevelopment, violence, and all the bad things! It could also have been better, if America stopped taking two steps forward and one step backwards. But I guess even that is something to long for, in today’s two steps backwards and one step forwards paradigm that guides American foreign policy.

Anyhow, I finally finished reading Kofi’s lovely book “Interventions: A life in war and peace”, which could be aptly called “fail after fail after genocide after fail after genocide after fail…”. It is an insightful glimpse into the complete shitshow that is international politics in the parts of the world that need it the most. In fact, some parts of it resemble Sovereignty Club. I am attaching an excerpt of the book from just before America unilaterally invaded Iraq, and Kofi got a bunch of diplomats together for lunch after a UN session. You can feel them talking over each other.

But not everything is a complete shitshow. If you fail long enough, you learn a thing or two, and you can avoid some failure modes. In fact, one of Kofi’s most remarkable achievements came about a year after he retired from the UN. Kenya had disputed elections where both sides were calling foul on the other, and things were quickly spiraling into civil war. Kofi flew in, met with some of the world’s most stubborn and childish leaders, and over the course of two excruciating months, while on heavy antibiotics, brokered a power sharing agreement that kickstarted a constitutional and political reform that has continued to this day with peaceful democratic transitions of power . I’m still waiting for them to make a movie about it. But in the meantime, you can read Kofi’s own account of the events, which I’m also attaching. It is a really instructive lesson on negotiating, and we’ll talk more about it tomorrow.

By the way, here’s a 1997 commencement speech from Kofi at MIT (where we got a masters degree at Sloan) where he basically says “all this management stuff you learn to use on companies? Actually very useful for managing the UN and the world order. And by the way, science and the construction of social order are more similar than you think - both experimental, constantly throwing spaghetti, and both hopelessly engaged in a crusade against the chaos of human ignorance”. Something along those lines.

And, for those of you who made it all the way here, a special treat - a preview of the cover slide (the others aren’t much good)

See you tomorrow,


By the way, here are the two highly reccomended passages I mentions.

  1. Kofi saves Kenya:

  2. Diplomatic meetings are just like sovclub: