In chapters that alternate between hopefully progressive and realistically challenging, Kofi Annan discusses, with the benefit of hindsight, his time at the helm of the United Nations. He writes specifically about people and countries as well as broadly about coalitions and regions. His writing is direct, honest, and insightful. In places of disagreement or outright disappointment with other world leaders he maintains respect for the individual and their positions even while directly opposing their argument. One can sense the balancing act in his writing for affirming the dignity of people while not always agreeing with their positions. He does not balance by trying to appease all the sides with ambiguous platitudes and fluffy sound-bites, as one might expect in political wrangling. Rather, he balances through clear vision and a strong backbone, as one might expect from an actual high-wire artist balancing act. Both his attention to process and his ability to identify interests under positions as a way to bargain more effectively are intriguing to read.
Interventions is both memoir and world history. Annan was present through the shifting geopolitical landscape of the post Cold-War era, involved in the aftermath of 9/11, and has experience navigating Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This book is a fascinating look at the layers of diplomacy and engagement at the international level. Annan shares process and procedure to clearly illuminate strengths and weaknesses of peacekeeping and peace building initiatives. The chapters are grouped by themes rather than chronologically and this establishes a strong understanding of the players and pressures in a region. Annan doesn’t deal lightly with world leaders, but nor does he write himself a glowing report. His transparency and reflections woven throughout chapters on the world’s toughest violent conflicts maintain a personal connection with the reader. Humanity is never far from his focus – whether it’s his own or someone else’s.
Annan discusses interventions and strategies in specific conflicts, but he also recounts his agenda as Secretary General of shifting the United Nations’ concern from sovereignty to the “right to protect.” Annan felt strongly that the UN charter’s words “We the Peoples” should be used to authorize UN engagement to offer protection and assistance to individuals helplessly mired in their country’s quagmire of violence. Sovereignty should no longer be a hiding place for blatant disregard of basic human rights. Could one also ask if waiting for consensus is something to hide behind either? Is there an answer that deals with the problem while acknowledging the limits of these positions?
Approaching this book expecting easy answers, clear reasons, and simple solutions will lead to disappointment. Reading it for historical perspective, deeper understanding of the dynamics at play around the world, and to develop an openness to the strategies, limits, and benefits of diplomatic intervention will be rewarded. “Hindsight is 20/20” may be a true expression, but if leaders, countries, and people are not actively trying to learn from the past then it doesn’t matter how clear it is. Reading Interventions gives a front-row perspective from the experience, mind, and pen of one of the world’s most renowned negotiators and leaders for peace as he looks into his past and shares lessons and observations for the future.