The former United Nations secretary general explains the continuing struggle to get the international system to protect civilians from war and oppression.
"I lost my team on the road to Damascus. I turned around and they were fighting each other"
A s Kofi Annan strides into the boardroom of his Geneva-based foundation and launches into a detailed assessment on the prospects for a political deal in Syria or credible elections in Kenya, it is possible to imagine for a moment we have entered a time warp in diplomacy.
Presiding over it is the perpetual UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, flanked by his advisors. In real time, Annan's second and final term as UN secretary general ended on 31 December 2006, but his travel schedule has not freed up much since then.
Now a full-time proselytiser for farmers as head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Annan is also the African Union's mediator in Kenya, where he is expected to be on call ahead of the critical elections in March.
He chairs a Geneva-based think tank, the Africa Progress Panel, which includes fellow luminaries like Mozambique's Graça Machel, Côte d'Ivoire's Tidjane Thiam and Bangladesh's Muhammad Yunus.
Annan was the UN's special representative for Syria until he resigned last August after the UN Security Council failed to give practical backing to his plan for a political transition: "They needed to show leadership and not go about name-calling and pointing fingers at each other," he says.
"I tell people I lost my team on the road to Damascus! I turned around, and they were fighting each other instead of supporting me."
Part of Annan's undoubted celebrity as diplomat-in-chief is his style: old world courtesy and an astute listener's ear. Perhaps it is a demeanour that comes from years of negotiating with dictators and militia leaders. Given the UN's dependence on securing the political will of its fractious member states, table thumping does not usually help.
Along with Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, Annan's diplomatic career has been punctuated by clashes over how and when to intervene. That is why his account of his UN years is called Interventions(*): it is more an examination of the issues at stake than a justification of his record.
Certainly, Annan tries to answer the critics of UN failure in Rwanda and Bosnia by spelling out the overriding role of the big powers on the Security Council as well as the shortcomings of the UN bureaucracy.
It was outrage at the failure in these two countries that prompted calls for sweeping UN reform. Yet it would be disingenuous for the permanent members of the Security Council to claim they were unaware of the deteriorating conditions and growing risks of conflagration in the run up to the genocide in Rwanda in April 1994.
Mistakes were made
By the time the US, Britain and France drafted a resolution calling for the withdrawal of the bulk of UN peacekeepers, the mass slaughter had already started.
What was needed, as UN force commander in Rwanda General Roméo Dallaire makes clear, was massive reinforcements.
Perhaps only public denunciations or even a mass resignation of the highest-ranking UN officials might have stopped the pull-out and shamed some states into backing a serious intervention to stop the killing.
In mid-1993, the Security Council was dancing the same intervention two-step in the former Yugoslavia in the wake of the Serb forces' bombardment of...