The U.N.'s Paladin at Harvard

A commencement speech from the captain of a sinking ship

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) commencement address of the past century was delivered in Tercentenary Theater some 26 years ago. On June 8, 1978, Russian dissident-author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood on the dais and soberly warned the West that it was losing the struggle against Communism. He attributed this largely to “spiritual exhaustion,” a “decline in courage” and a profound “loss of will power.”

Speaking against the post–Vietnam backdrop of Soviet–American détente, the Russian author must have sounded hopelessly atavistic. The “lessons” of Vietnam were supposed to have humbled Cold Warriors and made them repentant for championing a policy of vigilant anti–Communism. Yet here was Solzhenitsyn defending not only the essential justness of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, but also rebuking the West for not doing more to meet the Communist challenge and stop “the forces of Evil.” As Harvard Law School professor Harold J. Berman later wrote, “Solzhenitsyn seemed like a man from Mars.”

We can be assured that no one will confuse U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s commencement address this June with Solzhenitsyn’s. Yet the relative timing of their Harvard speeches is somewhat analogous. To wit, just like Solzhenitsyn, Annan is speaking at a moment of his own apparent obsolescence.

While Solzhenitsyn’s message to Class of 1978 graduates fell on alternately hostile or nonplussed ears—and many editorialists dismissed him as an anti-Western religious zealot—he is today understood as one of the moral and intellectual giants of the Cold War. Last May, Harvard organized a symposium to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his speech.

Kofi Annan’s message to the Class of 2004 will likely be greeted with enthusiasm and self-aggrandizing applause. In our tiny corner of the universe, the United Nations embodies the highest morality—and Annan is the paladin of that morality.


The realities of the War on Terror, however, make Annan seem oddly anachronistic—as anachronistic as Solzhenitsyn seemed at Harvard 26 years ago. Annan is stuck in the mindset of the proverbial day before yesterday—or, more precisely, the mindset of Sept. 10. Naturally, he has sanctimonious reverence for the United Nations, considering it the definitive arbiter of U.S. foreign policy. As we have seen, such an exaggerated view of the United Nations can directly conflict with the ability of the United States to effectively combat the intersection of terrorists, outlaw regimes and weapons proliferation. In many ways, Annan would have been a more appropriate commencement speaker for the pre–Sept. 11 age, a simpler time.

The secretary-general personifies two key philosophical traits of U.N.-style multilateralism: an underestimation of the importance of power and an overestimation of the basic harmony of interests among states. He piously declared in 1996, “I have 185 masters.” (He has more today.) Those “masters” in the General Assembly include the Castros, Mugabes, Assads and Kim Jong-Il’s of the world. Such amoral legitimizing of totalitarian thugs alongside democratic statesmen once prompted former U.S. ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan to call the United Nations “a theater of the absurd, a decomposing corpse, and an insane asylum.”

Annan has also shown a tendency to assume that peace is secured by paper or verbal promises from dictators. An eye-opening example of this came in Feb. 1998, when he traveled to Baghdad following Saddam Hussein’s obstruction of U.N. weapons inspectors. Annan smoked Cuban cigars with the Iraqi tyrant, praised him as a man of “courage” and a “builder,” and cut a deal to keep the inspections going. Before leaving, the secretary-general told a reporter that Iraq had been unfairly “demonized” by the international community. Back at U.N. headquarters, Annan said of Saddam, “He’s a man I can do business with.” Of course, Saddam kicked out the inspectors for good a few months later, thereby torpedoing Annan’s ephemeral reputation as a peacemaker.

Then there is the burgeoning scandal over the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food program, which supervised relief to Iraq from 1996–2003. Through smuggling and graft, Saddam’s regime stole more than $10 billion from the program, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. One veteran U.N. reporter has predicted that “it could be the biggest financial crime in the history of humankind.” The scandal implicates, among others, U.N. Oil-for-Food executive director Benon Sevan, French and Russian oil contractors, and possibly even Kojo Annan, Kofi’s son. When all is said and done, the Oil-for-Food disgrace might be where the U.N.’s credibility meets its Waterloo.

Should we hold Annan responsible? Well, at the start of the Iraq war last spring, he called for swift resumption of the Oil-for-Food program. As the Wall Street Journal’s Claudia Rosett, who broke the story, has put it, “We are left to contemplate a U.N. system that has engendered a secretary-general either so dishonest that he should be dismissed or so incompetent that he is truly dangerous—and should be dismissed.”

Against this backdrop of growing irrelevance, Kofi Annan will speak at commencement. But a quarter century from now, contra Solzhenitsyn, it’s unlikely that anyone will be talking about what he said at Harvard in June 2004. We may instead be talking about how Annan’s organization was ultimately beached by the tides of its own corruption and institutional failure.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.