“A Rule-Based System”

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, LL.D. '04, spoke as the guest of the Harvard Alumni Association at its annual Commencement day meeting. Excerpts from his address, "Three Crises, and the Need for American Leadership," follow.


Kofi Annan
Photograph by Jim Harrison

You have invited me, I know, not as an individual, but as secretary-general of the United Nations. You are saying that the United Nations matters, and that you want to hear what we have to say.

Are you right in believing that the UN matters? I think you are, because the UN offers the best hope of a stable world and a broadly equitable world order, based on generally accepted rules. That statement has been much questioned in the past year. But recent events have reaffirmed, and even strengthened, its validity.

A rule-based system is in the interest of all countries — especially today. Globalization has shrunk the world. The very openness, which is such an important feature of today's successful societies, makes deadly weapons relatively easy to obtain and terrorists relatively difficult to restrain. Today, the strong feel almost as vulnerable to the weak as the weak feel vulnerable to the strong.

So it is in the interest of every country to have international rules and abide by them. And such a system can only work if, in devising and applying the rules, the legitimate interests of all countries are accommodated, and decisions are reached collectively. That is the essence of multilateralism, and the founding principle of the United Nations.

All great American leaders have understood this. That is one of the things that make this country such a unique world power. America feels the need to frame its policies, and exercise its leadership, not just in light of its own particular interests, but also with an eye to international interests, and universal principles.

Among the finest examples of this was the plan for reconstructing Europe after World War II, which General Marshall announced here at Harvard in 1947. That was one part of a larger-scale and truly statesmanlike effort in which Americans joined with others to build a new international system — a system which worked, by and large, and which survives, in its essentials, nearly 60 years later....

In all these achievements the United States has played a vital role. This country is, inextricably and indispensably, a part of this successful international system based on the primacy of the rule of law.

American power is an essential ingredient in the mix. But what makes that power effective, as an instrument of progressive change, is the legitimacy it gains from being deployed within a framework of international law and multilateral institutions and in pursuit of the common interest....

American leaders have generally recognized that other states, big and small, prefer to cooperate on the great issues of peace and security through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, which give legitimacy to such cooperation. They have accepted that others with different views on a specific issue may, on occasion, be right. They have understood that true leadership is ultimately based on common values and a shared view of the future.

Over 60 years, whenever this approach has been applied consistently, it has proved a winning formula. But today it is threatened by a triple crisis, which challenges both the United Nations as a system, and the United States as a global leader. It challenges us both to live up to the best in ideals and our best traditions.


What does this crisis consist of?

First, a crisis of collective security.

Second, a crisis of global solidarity.

And third, a crisis of cultural division and distrust.

From here in North America, the security crisis looks the most obvious. We have seen international terrorism emerge as a major threat. We worry about the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And we fear that existing rules governing the use of force might not give us adequate protection, especially if terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were to be combined.

This crisis came to a head last year, in the argument over Iraq. On one side, it was said that force should only be used in the most compelling circumstances of self-defense — when you are already being attacked or when you clearly are just about to be attacked — or otherwise by a decision of the Security Council.

On the other side it was argued, in essence, that in the post-9/11 world preventive use of force has become necessary in some cases, because you can't afford to wait till you are sure that someone has weapons of mass destruction and is going to attack you. By then it may be too late.

Indeed, the combination of global terrorism and possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the existence of rogue and dysfunctional states does face us with a new challenge. The United Nations was never meant to be a suicide pact. But what kind of world would it be, and who would want to live in it, if every country was allowed to use force, without collective agreement, simply because it thought there might be a threat?

I believe the way forward is clear, though far from easy. We cannot abandon our system of rules, but we do need to adapt it to new realities, and to find answers to some difficult questions: When is use of force by the international community, acting collectively to deal with these new threats, justified? Who decides? And how should the decision be taken, in time for it to be effective?

Last year I appointed a panel of eminent persons to look into those questions, and suggest ways of making our United Nations work better, in an age when humanity needs the organization more than ever.

I expect their recommendations by the end of this year, and I hope that they will lead to wise decisions by governments. But panels and governments...need not only good ideas but also sustained pressure from internationalists in all countries....

The issues go beyond terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. We also need better criteria for identifying, and clearer rules for dealing with, genocide and crimes against humanity, where the problem often is that the international community reacts too weakly, and too late.

As undersecretary-general for peacekeeping 10 years ago I lived through the traumatic experiences of Bosnia and Rwanda, where UN peacekeeping forces had to witness appalling massacres but could do almost nothing to stop them, because there was no collective will to act.

As secretary-general I have warned the Security Council that it cannot expect to be taken seriously unless it fulfills its responsibility to protect the innocent. National sovereignty was never meant to be a shield behind which massacres are carried out with impunity.

As things stand, today we still face too many cases where governments tolerate, incite, or even themselves perpetrate massacres and other crimes against international humanitarian law. In the Darfur region in western Sudan, for example, thousands of villages have been burnt and more than a million people forced from their homes....

The international community must insist that the Sudanese authorities immediately put their own house in order. They must neutralize and disarm the brutal "Janjaweed" militia, allow humanitarian supplies and equipment to reach the population without further delays, ensure that the displaced people can return home in safety, and pursue the political negotiations on Darfur with a renewed sense of urgency. Further delay could cost hundreds of thousands of lives.


Now I come to the second crisis — the crisis of solidarity.

Whatever our views about the war in Iraq, we should never have let it divert our attention and resources away from the goals of reducing extreme poverty and its worst effects that all nations set themselves four years ago, at the UN Millennium Summit. These, you remember, are goals to be reached by 2015: goals such as halving the proportion of people in the world who don't have drinking water; making sure all girls, as well as boys, receive at least primary education; slashing infant and maternal mortality; and stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Of course, much of that can only be done by governments and peoples in the poor countries themselves. But richer countries, too, have a vital part to play. They must meet agreed targets on aid, trade, and debt relief. American leadership is essential here, too.

Now those are issues and questions I'd like to hear Americans ask candidates about, in this election year! Unless we make those issues a priority now, we shall soon run out of time to achieve the Millennium Goals by 2015....

And we know, from bitter experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that our world will not be secure while citizens of whole countries are trapped in oppression and misery.


Finally, the third crisis — the crisis of prejudice and intolerance: We must not allow ourselves, out of fear or anger, to treat people whose faith or culture differs from ours as enemies.

We must not allow ourselves to blame "Islam," or to suspect all Muslims, because a small number of Muslims commit acts of violence and terror.

We must not allow anti-Semitism to disguise itself as a reaction to Israeli government policies — any more than we should allow all questioning of those policies to be silenced with accusations of anti-Semitism.

And we must not allow Christians in the Muslim world to be treated as if their religion somehow made them a fifth column of western imperialism.

It is in times of fear and anger, even more than in times of peace and tranquility, that you need universal human rights and a spirit of mutual respect.

This is a time when we must adhere to our global rule-book: a time when we must respect each other — as individuals, yes, but individuals who each have the right to define their own identity and belong to the faith or culture of their choice.


So those are the three great tests that our system faces, in these first years of the new century: the test of collective security; the test of solidarity between rich and poor; and the test of mutual respect between faiths and cultures.

I know that we can pass those tests.

I know we can preserve and adapt, for the twenty-first century, a system that served us well in the second half of the twentieth.

But we shall need, once again, enlightened American leadership.

And so I say to the American graduates: Live up to your country's best traditions of global commitment and global leadership. Listen to the arguments of those from other nations, assess them on their merits, and remember that they also want what you want: the chance to live decent lives in dignity and safety. As Americans knew when they strongly supported the founding of the United Nations 60 years ago, we all depend on each other.

To the graduates from other countries, I say: Tell your fellow-citizens back home to look beyond facile stereotypes about this country. Whatever you may think of particular American policies, you have been here long enough to know the dynamism of American society and the generosity of the American spirit.

To all I say: these are difficult times, but we can rise above them. We have much to be grateful for, much to be proud of, and much that we must keep safe, for future generations' sake.

Now is not the time to abandon our rule-based international system.

Let us preserve it. Let us improve it. And let us pass it on — intact, and even stronger than ever!

To my fellow graduates of 2004, wherever you may be this afternoon, go out to the great big world and make a difference.


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